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STYLE : Wife, Husband Circle the Globe in the Pursuit of High Fashion

January 27, 1989|KAREN NEWELL YOUNG | Karen Newell Young is a regular contributor to Orange County Life

It had been an exhilarating week. Laguna Beach fashion designer and boutique owner D.N. Evans had just finished creating wardrobes for five county women attending last week's presidential inauguration when she got a call from an official in the Soviet Union requesting her help in developing that nation's fashion industry.

That was 2 weeks ago. Since then Evans, born Donna Shaw in Chicago in "the early 1940s," has put the finishing touches on her new spring line and prepared for a globe-circling trip in search of hand-woven fabrics for use in the designs she shows and sells exclusively in her Laguna Beach salon, D.N. Evans Couture.

Evans and her husband/partner Michael have built their business on the philosophy that clothes must be comfortable and elegant. They have peddled that philosophy to prominent names, including Barbra Streisand, Ali McGraw and Margaux Hemingway. In Orange County, Evans has dressed Judie Argyros, Harriet Nelson and Ginny Ueberroth (she designed the gowns for Ueberroth's daughter's wedding). And for the inaugural celebrations, she created 10 outfits for Orange County businesswoman Kathryn Thompson alone.

"I can only say, God bless the ladies of Orange County," said the designer, who was wearing fuchsia-knit separates and tiny round sunglasses with her dark hair pulled back. "The women of Orange County are so much more enlightened and educated (than they used to be). They travel all the time, and because there is such a heightened social scene, they know they have to look terrific. And they have a great appreciation for art."

One characteristic of the Evanses' clothes is workmanship. The couple employ about 30 seamstresses who work in their own homes or in a factory in Costa Mesa. Each seamstress is responsible for an entire garment and much of the work is done by hand. "The cost is greater, but the quality is more controllable," Michael Evans says. It is this workmanship and cottage-industry concept that the couple will discuss with Soviets when they attend a business and trade development conference in Moscow in October.

Quality workmanship and art have always been important to the Evanses. Both have art backgrounds. Michael, who designed the boutique, is a former sculptor. D.N., who attended the Art Institute of Chicago and in 1987 received the Orange County Arts Alliance award for outstanding contributions in design, started out designing jewelry.

As a self-described "high-fashion flower child," she spent the late '60s traveling through Europe, learning about art and fashion by visiting museums and exploring cities. By the 1970s she had begun marketing jewelry she designed, which appeared in Vogue and Harper's Bazaar magazines and high-fashion boutiques.

One day, on a business trip to Los Angeles promoting her jewelry, the Evanses got lost and ended up in Laguna Beach.

"It was a day like today," D.N. recalled on a recent clear and sunny morning in her salon. "Picture it: I'd never been to Southern California before, traveling here from the East in the middle of winter. I thought, what a great place. . . . I don't know how I got here, but I'm not going back."

She had gained a reputation in the '70s with her contemporary silver and stone jewelry and accessories, such as the soft-leather hobo bag, but had yet to venture into clothes design.

She and Michael settled in Laguna Beach in 1974 and began raising a large family (the couple have six children). It wasn't long before she decided the place needed a fashion designer.

"I started playing around and designed a little tube top and short wide pants, which became my trademarks," D.N. said. "People kept asking me for them. It was that simple. And the business grew and grew."

Michael said his military background and his wife's love of comfortable traveling clothes helped steer them into marketing what they call "no-excuse" fashions--high-styled, yet soft and unstructured.

"I was used to (there being) no excuses for a sloppy uniform," he says. "You had to be no-nonsense about the way you looked. We combined that with comfort. Our criteria was: Can you get on a horse and ride out of town in it?"

In the past few years D.N. has focused more on evening wear, applying the same concepts of comfort to more glamorous designs.

She grabbed a white wrinkled-silk bustier to show how the piece can go with a long ballerina-length skirt or wide-legged pants. Versatility and comfort are the key elements, she said.

"I'm thrilled to say I dressed quite a few women for the inaugural with this concept," she said. "The idea is you can take these comfortable formal parts and wear them different ways. They're evening separates. Of course, the pieces are expensive, but think of the mileage."

During the past year, hand-woven fabrics from Southeast Asia have dominated her collection. She buys the material overseas, brings it home and designs clothes for the fabrics. Each piece is hand cut and hand sewn.

"A lot of my inspiration comes from the peasants I see on my travels," she explained.

"We're making investment clothing from fabrics that are works of art," said Michael, fondling a piece of material from Laos. "You have to go farther and farther to find people still doing this kind of work. You don't find 2,000 yards of this fabric. You're lucky if you find six pieces."

The shop is half couture and half ready-to-wear, with everything designed by D.N. Prices range from $350 for a ready-to-wear ensemble to $4,800 for a couture evening outfit. Last week she displayed a layered-cotton skirt made of hand-woven cloth from Southeast Asia, $1,250; a white Thai silk bustier, $750; a black-silk evening skirt, $1,250; a kimono jacket made of fabrics from Southeast Asia, $750, and a fuchsia double-breasted blazer, $650.

Her spring clothes include wheat-colored hemp jackets, organza silk wide-legged pants, silk and beaded vests and lots of black-and-white and navy-and-white dressy separates.

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