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Designer Spotlight

'Stella Marie Has a Girl's Heart, but She Knows How to Be a Lady,' Its Founder Says


HUNTINGTON BEACH — The cult of celebrity has long embraced fashion designers. Some successful ones have made as much of a mark with their wares as they have on the social scene. And many students of fashion admit they have hopes of someday being a closet legend like Chanel, Dior and Armani.

Not so for Marie.

As founding designer of the Stella Marie line, she cares less for the glamour of the industry than for protecting her privacy.

"I'm not into the limelight," muses Marie, who doesn't use a last name because she says it discloses too much about a world she wants to keep to herself. "I used to be a social butterfly. I now prefer the quiet of my home."

The choice to cocoon could be a response to turning 30: Time to turn one's energy toward domestic pleasures, choosing the VCR over the disco. More likely it's a reaction to the workload accompanying the immediate success she has encountered since launching Stella Marie last September.

Overnight, hip boutiques prominently displayed racks of Marie's sassy silhouettes. Among the coolest of cool are the Urban Outfitters stores in Santa Monica and New York, which feature much of her latest collection. Stella Marie also sells at Finals on Melrose in Hollywood; Ivory Moon in Laguna Beach; Soho, Irvine; U.K. Tred Air, San Diego; Dinostore, San Francisco; Nana's and Patricia Fields in New York.

In addition to industry publications that have snapped up her styles for editorial display, the October issues of Glamour and Vogue will feature Stella Marie clothes.

Her hip-hugging "Joplin" shorts and bell jeans get the greatest notice from retailers and young female customers who fancy the label's trademark awkward styling. In brushed corduroy or printed velvet upholstery fabric, the bottoms feature two big flap pockets on the front with shiny metal buttons.

Another bestseller has been the bell dress, a plaid baby doll silhouette with cabana sleeves ($48). The dress and a brushed cord tunic vest lined with a funky red, black and brown daisy print ($48) look more like one-of-a-kind treasures discovered in a thrift shop than new togs. But that's the idea.

"The whole concept of Stella Marie is making stuff girls can never find," Marie says.

"I like retro design so much I'll always incorporate it into my own designs," she adds, noting her love for old furniture, hats, jewelry, even newspapers. "But I'll update them with modern fabrics, which make them more workable, like using stretch fabrics that don't look like stretch material."

There's the daisy short, a tap pant ($36) in stretch twill covered in daisies. The piece was inspired by Cyd Charisse, says Marie, because "she wore them so well." Top the tap short with the matching daisy covered bra enhanced by "push-up the daisy" padding ($44). The tap shorts also come in gingham stretch poplin ($24).

Marie also draws inspiration from pants popularized by another leggy actress, Lucille Ball. "Lucy's" are her high-waisted Capri pants with a backside zipper and ankle slits. They're available in black or white stretch twill or bright green, fuchsia or black gingham woven stretch poplin ($42).

The stretch gingham "Marilyn" ($38) is a tight, tank silhouette that hits a few inches above the knee, making it less '50s in styling than it is in attitude.

Not every style hugs the bod. There's a perfect summer shift ($38), which the designer calls "the paper dress," so short it can be paired with shorts or leggings.

The "Mrs. Roper," named after the landlady on the '70s TV show "Three's Company," is a sleeveless, flared-leg pantsuit of distressed rayon in gold, teal, orange and black ($60). From another wacky sitcom, "The Addams Family," comes the "Morticia," a Gothic-inspired cabana top in multicolored chiffon plaid and tie-dye prints or in lace in deep purple, gold, natural and black ($44).

The line retails from $24 to $60.

Marie started her fashion career at age 17 when she moved to Palm Springs and landed a job with the Dance Centre, an international label that produced leotards, jazz shoes and leather goods. She worked her way up from office manager to design assistant in less than a year.

Before her 21st birthday, she returned to Orange County, leaving fashion to study something more practical--accounting--at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa. But she knew she was in the wrong field.

She worked with clothing distributors until she landed a job in 1991 at Costa Mesa-based Quiksilver . . . as an accountant. "I had it in my mind that I would stay six months in that position and then bolt into another department. I had a mission, and that was to design clothes."

As the six-month deadline neared, Quiksilver acquired Pirate Surf, and Marie finagled her way into the fledgling division. "I did everything from writing memos to getting fabric," she recalls. But when Quiksilver temporarily closed the division, she was laid off. She moved to urban-wear maker Soul in Huntington Beach in early 1992, then went out on her own September 1992.

Marie named the company after Bette Midler's 1990 film "Stella" and added her first name. "I just dig (Midler). She can look raunchy, she can look sexy and she's always herself. No plastic, nothing fake about her," Marie says of Midler. "She's such a Stella. I dig Stella. I guess I'm sort of like her."

That leads to defining the label's image. "Stella Marie has a girl's heart, but she knows how to be a lady," Marie says. "The best part is Stella Marie can be anybody."

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