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Designers Want Their Wearable Art to Wind Up on Your Back

June 23, 1989|EVAN CUMMINGS | Evan Cummings is a free-lance writer.

What does a rare Tunisian ceremonial robe have in common with a hand-woven mohair cape? Or a fleece blazer adorned with a hand-painted tropical landscape? Or a wrist "corsage" made of hammered copper and silver?

They are all works of art--wearable art. One-of-a-kind designs that speak to the heart of the owner in a way that manufactured fashion cannot.

Although art wear has been around for a long time, it is hotter than ever, according to artists who showed their work at a recent luncheon at the Laguna Beach Art Museum.

Each generation has had its own style of wearable art. In fact, items can be traced back to ancient tribes and the dawn of civilization.

The trends in recent years have been dramatically different. Painted neckties were the rage during the 1940s; in the '50s, it was hand-painted Hawaiian shirts and matching "His and Her" bathing suits. The turbulent '60s gave rise to tie-dyed T-shirts emblazoned with symbols of peace and love, while the calmer '70s led to the rediscovery of the gentle art of batik, a Polynesian art form. During the 1980s, the trend in art wear has been glitz and glamour, rock 'n' roll rhinestones, sparkle and shimmer.

Many art-wear designers predict that the 1990s will favor a classic, refined style, combining a variety of media such as suede, brocade, silk and lace.

Edith Otto has been designing clothes since her childhood, when she was given her first Barbie doll. Working from her Laguna Beach studio, she labors until design and execution come together in a work of wearable art.

"Art wear is, for me, something that an artist only does once. I don't repeat designs and I don't rush them. . . . I do this work because I want to--not because I need to. It wouldn't feel like art to me if I did it any other way."

Admittedly partial to the detail work found on garments from the 1930s and '40s, Otto says her brocade "summer coat" is reminiscent of these, but with a 1960s flair. The collarless, three-fourths-length coat is embossed with a collage of triangles in various textures, fabrics and colors.

Many people steer away from art wear because they fear it will cost more than manufactured clothing, but art wear is available in all price ranges, Otto says. Her collection starts at less than $100 (the brocade coat is $150).

Linda Harris is a Los Angeles-based artist and clothing designer whose fashions are sold in stores and boutiques throughout Southern California, including Laura, in Laguna Beach. "The look and feel of her clothing has an aura of history about it that is just wonderful," says Laura Downing, owner of the beach boutique.

Harris claims inspiration from primitive art forms--Mexican, South American, Aztec and Mayan. She particularly enjoys working with metals that have patina, a green or greenish-blue crust or film developed through oxidation. Her fall line includes a rich rust lamb suede skirt, matching tunic and scarf, etched with metallic gold and trimmed in faux Indian head coins with a patina finish.

Laguna Beach artist Debra Florio's resort wear reflects her love of the tropics and a carefree Southern California life style.

Hand-painted jackets, skirts, T-shirts, hats and shoes burst with color. No two outfits are alike. Florio first sews the clothing, then paints it with acrylics, finishing with gold dust to add sparkle.

Her clothing line features tuxedo jackets, a maternity collection and a full line of children's wear. She is excited about her latest experiment--an upcoming collection of what she calls "Energy Wear." Inspired by the New Age movement, the collection will be designed in colors and fabrics that soothe and calm the wearer, Florio says. Her clothes range from $25 to $500.

A perennial favorite among art-wear devotees is handcrafted jewelry. At Frills, a gift gallery in Yorba Linda, handmade earrings start at $5. Handblown glass and crystal jewelry range from $40 to $150.

Owner Janice Stricker attributes the success of her shop to unique designs that she says cannot be found in department stores. She carries no mass-produced art wear and says that she makes a point of acquainting her customers with the artists who make the handcrafted items they buy. She says she thinks that this brings the customer closer to the work of the artist.

Her current best seller is a handcrafted bracelet with double strands of handblown crystal beads that fastens with an antique sterling silver clasp. The beads are imported from West Germany and may be custom-ordered in a variety of colors. The bracelet sells for about $50.

Jeanie Farrell operates her business--called Hey, Louie!--out of her Laguna Beach home. Five years ago, Farrell gave up what she saw as a dead-end job to devote herself full time to her passion: making jewelry. Her assortment of handcrafted belts, necklaces, earrings and bracelets--generally priced between $25 and $250--displays a flair for three-dimensional sculptured design.

Starting with a cardboard prototype, Farrell finalizes the concept, then transfers it to a flat sheet of copper, brass or nickel silver. She cuts, hammers, welds, sands and buffs until she has turned out the finished product--an exquisite silver necklace that is tied into a perfect bow.

A hand-forged belt that she calls "String of Hearts" was inspired by the plant of the same name and is fashioned from brass wire. She adds bits of brass molded into tiny leaves and accented with a patina finish. The result is a delicate, wearable piece of art that costs $150.

And why are her things cherished so? Art wear holds a special place in the hearts of collectors because it seems to have been created especially for them, Farrell says.

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