All morning the designers filed into the boutique, dragging long cases filled with handmade clothes. There was a hot pink-and-green chiffon cocktail dress. And a white miniskirt. A denim jacket with a lady's face painted on it. And a Picasso-inspired quilted robe.
As the treasures were unfolded, a tall man with gray hair, glasses and serious demeanor studied each garment. "Have you considered doing this with shoulder pads?" he asks a woman. "You could use some pockets on these," he tells another.
The man in the glasses is Harry Helft, president of the Helft specialty clothing store in South Coast Plaza's Crystal Court. Among the designers are students and recent graduates of the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Costa Mesa. They have been invited to show their creations to the Helft family--Joan and Harry and son Bruce--in what the Helfts call "designer auditions."
It was the first opportunity most of these fledgling designers have had to show their work. And if they couldn't make a sale, practical advice from the retailer was the next best thing.
"They communicate well about what they want," says Stacy Posner, who brought hand-woven jackets and quilted robes to the audition. "I like the fact that they take the time to say what they'd like to see in my things, instead of just saying, 'Goodby, we're not interested.' "
The Helfts, who also own three shops in the Los Angeles area, have held monthly designer auditions for several years, but this is only the second audition in Orange County. The first, held in December, resulted in several sales, and the second, held last week, resulted in two or three purchases. The family now plans to hold monthly auditions at the Crystal Court store, although dates have not been set.
For new designers, it's an opportunity to get their foot in the door, says Lois Abbott, placement coordinator of the fashion institute.
For the Helfts, it's a chance to buy innovative work by local designers.
"When we look at merchandise in the market, we tend to see safer things," Helft says. "Here we see young and fresh ideas. If anything they (the students and graduates) get a little too gimmicky, but you can harness that. It's like art; sometimes less is more."
About 10% of the Helfts' merchandise is made by Southern California designers. The rest includes such labels as Bill Blass, Koos, David Paynes, Jeanette and Molto Fino. Prices range from $35 for jewelry to $5,000 for a jacket by Tony Alamo, who used to design for Elvis Presley. Dresses with pleated skirts by Virginie of Paris run between $400 and $475, depending on the style. And cotton T-shirts by Jeanette, with luxury car logos emblazoned with rhinestones and sequins, cost $150 to $180.
Store manager Wanda Cox describes the Helft clothes as "unique, fun and very specialized."
"You don't see yourself coming and going," she adds. "Our customers are looking for highly unusual pieces, like wearing a piece of art."
At last week's auditions, the Helfts watched for new ideas that could sell this spring and summer. They wanted fashionable merchandise for women of all ages, which meant skimpy garments would not be suitable. The clothes have to fit women with a few pounds on them, Helft says.
"We're looking for . . . unusual designs, talented work, something new, something different. We found some things today we can definitely use," he says.
The winning sales pitches came from three among the dozen or so men and women who showed up for the audition: a Laguna Beach portrait artist, an Anaheim weaver and an Irvine designer.
Carolyn Van Hosen, a Laguna Beach artist who spends most of her time painting portraits on canvas, offered the Helfts denim jackets with portraits hand-painted from photographs. The jackets would be custom-painted with acrylics (rhinestones optional).
Helft liked the jackets but wanted them done in silk. The two exchanged cards and decided to "talk next week" about price.
The weaver, Stacy Posner, impressed the Helfts with her Picasso-inspired, quilted robe, a garment that Joan Helft wanted to see with sleeves and pockets before a deal was made.
The Irvine designer, Dawn Seubert, brought her entire line on her back: a three-piece, cream-colored ensemble with wide-legged pants, sleeveless top and matching jacket. Helft suggested that the outfit be made in petite, small and medium sizes and said they would talk soon about price.
To those whose works he couldn't buy, Helft offered a booby prize: advice on making and selling their clothes.
"This is a little young," Helft told Grailing King, a 1987 graduate of the fashion institute.
"He really liked my designs, and he said the ideas were very creative," King said later. "But he said his clients were more mature and that my things were for a younger market. But it helped me think I should take my clothes (elsewhere). I plan to take them to Melrose."
Many of the designers brought winter and holiday clothes.