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She Creates 'L.A. Look' in New York

September 22, 1989|KAREN NEWELL YOUNG | Karen Newell Young is a regular contributor to Orange County Life

Menswear designer Jhane Barnes may live and work in New York, but most of the time she is California dreamin'.

That's because California is the biggest market for the 35-year-old Coty Award-winner's designs.

"I have no idea why they're so popular here," says the strawberry blonde with the Elvis Costello glasses. "People are always saying the clothes have such an L.A. look, which is funny because I've never lived here and never spent much time here."

It's the vibrant colors and light weights that give the clothes their Los Angeles personality. But Barnes' designs--known for their modernistic patterns and multitextural fabrics in cool colors--will have a slightly different look in seasons to come.

"I've been using purples and teals for 10 years and find that now people expect purple in clothes; it's a standard color," said the designer during a recent interview at the Four Seasons Hotel in Newport Beach. "But society is moving toward warmer colors. I think at least for the next 10 years we will see warmer-colored clothes in looser silhouettes for men."

She also believes shoulders will be less severe and has included rounder shoulder pads in her latest jackets. Another trend she feels men will be seeking is fuller pants that drape rather than fitted pants that hug.

Barnes--who was in Orange County for a South Coast Plaza men's fashion show sponsored by GQ magazine and the Alex Sebastian men's store--says one of the best things about visiting Southern California is seeing men wear her clothes to work.

"The biggest difference in the two markets, and I love California for this, is that Californians wear my clothes to work and the New York customer wears them during off-hours," she says. "I love the casual attitude Californians have about clothes."

"This state is ahead of the country in that respect," she adds. "You keep hearing that we're entering an age of elegance for menswear, but I don't believe it. I think people would rather wear more comfortable clothes."

For her fall line, Barnes weaves juniper green, berry red and purple with black and mahogany for three-button jackets and full-legged pants. Her cardigans combine lambs wool, cotton and wool, and many feature a high neck with contrasting pattern.

(The clothes--sold in Orange County at Alex Sebastian, Alex Sport, Neiman Marcus, Bullocks Wilshire, Indian Summer and the Look--cost about $125 for shirts, $185 for pants, $425 for jackets and $55 for ties.)

During the last few years Barnes has been experimenting by using a computerized hand loom to weave different designs and lately has arrived at what she considers the perfect combination of natural materials and Lycra to produce highly textured, eye-popping patterns for sweaters and pants. The synthetic material gives the finished fabric bounce and accentuates the textures of the woven patterns, and also keeps the sweaters lighter than if they were knit or woven in wool.

"Most people are horrified when I say I'm using Lycra because they think I'm doing stretch pants," she says. "But I'm aiming for the texture and the draping quality that you get when you use it."

Influenced a great deal by architectural elements, Barnes creates geometric and Op Art-style patterns with her Macintosh computer. The pattern designs are then fed into her computerized looms, where assistants help produce swatches. These hand-woven swatches then go to the mills, where the clothes are manufactured. The finished product is what Barnes calls "architextural."

"I've always felt that architecture was ahead of fashion," she says. "I look around and see that buildings are more inspired than the clothes we wear. We're always lagging behind."

Barnes, who grew up in rural Maryland, is a two-time Coty Award winner (1980 and 1984). She was named by Cutty Sark as the Outstanding Menswear Designer in 1982 and won the Council of Fashion Designers of America Menswear Design Award in 1981. Along with her men's line, Barnes creates fabric designs for commercial interiors.

Clothes have gripped the designer's attention since she was a teen-ager. The outfits she made for herself and her friends so impressed her high school principal that he asked her to design uniforms for the school's dance band. When word got out, she was swamped. In fact, she nearly missed her senior prom because she was so busy finishing up all of her friend's formals.

Although Barnes once had a women's couture line, she found menswear more captivating.

"I started to like menswear in high school," she says. "It seemed like the guys never had any attention before and I noticed they actually really loved clothes, but they didn't think they should. It was time they got some attention."

Besides, she adds, designing clothes for women is not as much fun.

"The women's fashion industry is not a nice business," she says. "There is much more freedom in menswear."

She says when she was creating women's clothes the stores tried to dictate too much. Buyers said she should design longer skirts or shorter jackets. She wanted to design what she believed looked good, not what the buyers needed to balance out their inventory.

She realizes, however, that most famous designers make clothes for women.

"I'm not in it for the publicity," she says. "I don't care if I'm ever famous. I think menswear is very important and that's why I'm doing it."

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