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Menagerie of Color : If It's Exotic and Part of Nature's Wild Kingdom, Ellen Heed Will Incorporate It Into Her Knitwear

July 30, 1993|JOANNA RAEBEL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"When we say boa, we mean it at Zoology," sweater designer Ellen Heed jokes as she lifts Snakey, a red rat snake, from his enclosure in her living room and wraps him around her neck.

Actually, Zoology, Heed's small but thriving luxury-knits business, doesn't sell boas of any kind, although its vibrant designs are derived from fauna and flora alike. But don't look for Kamali-style leopard prints or Krizia-like animal faces: The 7-year-old company specializes in sophisticated abstracts and solids for the woman or man with an eye for the unusual--and the wherewithal to pay $250 to $650 per piece to satisfy it. Jackets, T-shirts, tunics and vests make up the core of Zoology sales.

With her artist's eye, Heed finds inspiration even within her 1920s Spanish-style Westside house, which she shares with her "living and working partner" Daniel Siebert as well as Snakey, three Colorado River toads and two cats. The yard teems with about 1,000 plants, most of them exotic or medicinal.

"Cats really inspire me a lot, and photographs of bird plumage," she says, "the way colors are found in nature: intense, exotic."

She swoops down on a set of clippings in her workroom and, pointing to a peacock rhapsodizes about the mix of blues, grays and greens in its feathers.

"Wouldn't you," she exclaims, "like to be a bird that looked like that?"

Colors alive with "visual excitement and activity" also are found in the traditional cultures that play an equally large part in Heed's design thinking. Examples of traditional arts and crafts from around the world are displayed in her home, including an Afghan kilim, a Zairian weaving, Huichol yarn "paintings" from Mexico and a paisley shawl from 19th-Century Scotland.

Heed says she is most interested in peoples who have "an uninterrupted relationship with nature--even to the extent of enhancing their relationship through the use of visionary plants. . . ."

Indeed, the motifs in the kilim are evident in the design of the jackets of Heed's successful fall, 1992, collection. The influence of the weaving can be seen further in the mix of geometrics in the shawl-collar jackets and vests of this fall's collection. And her op-arty black-and-white jackets and vests, also for fall, do seem to move.

Moreover, these are very wearable clothes: A Zoology chenille, for instance, can go to Campanile with velvet palazzo pants as easily as to the Hollywood Bowl with jeans.

For Heed, her interest in all living things was developed early: She describes her mother as "a wanna-be painter," who is "intensely aware of the colors in nature." Her father, a geneticist at the University of Arizona in Tucson, where Heed grew up, would take the family on his expeditions to trap fruit flies in Mexico and to the deserts and mountains of the Southwest.

On these trips, Heed says, "my mother was constantly pointing out to me, 'Look at the color of that rock. Look at the color of the sky.' And it really got me to pay attention to the changes and the subtle relationships between colors in the natural world. I would find myself arranging rocks according to their colors--or grasses and flowers."

Although she was always interested in clothing--"I made really exquisite fitted gowns for my Barbie doll"--and supported herself off and on with sewing projects, clothing design came much later.

Heed studied dance at CalArts in the 1970s before joining a dance company. After the troupe succumbed to government budget cuts in the early 1980s, she built synthesizers and oversaw production of electronic drum machines. But in 1982, Heed says, "I decided that . . . I wasn't interested in buying electronic parts for the rest of my life."

She signed up for a college pattern-drafting class and began working with a classmate who was starting a sweater business. When that company dissolved, she decided to go out on her own.

By this time she had formed a partnership with Siebert, who for a time cast animal jewelry "such as alligators that would bite onto your ear," and panther and brontosaurus pins. Heed came up with the name Zoology for the jewelry line, and later, as that enterprise was overtaken by the sweater business, it stuck.

"Someone approached me to be a sales rep and to do my own line," Heed recalls.

From those few samples the business grew steadily, leveling out at about $250,000 annually in wholesale dollar volume. (That means 2,000 to 4,000 sweaters sold a year.) The sweaters are carried in a few dozen specialty stores nationwide. In Southern California, they are available at two shops on Montana Avenue in Santa Monica--for women at Savannah and for men at Studio.

In citing reasons for Zoology's success, store buyers mention the line's easy fit and clean styling. But always, the first remark is of Heed's color sense.

Susan Stone, owner of Savannah and a longtime supporter of Heed's work, says that from the beginning, Zoology "really stood out in terms of the way (Heed) combined colors, texture and yarns."

Jason Somerfeld, an executive with Searle, the New York specialty stores that have become Zoology's biggest account, agrees: "She has an excellent sense of color. She is able to mix colors into patterns that work very, very well together."

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