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Designer Spotlight

Holly Goes Lightly: Sharp Ideas Fashion a Decade of Classic Looks in Fluid Fabrics

September 24, 1993|ROSE APODACA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

While fashion pundits this fall continue their fancy for romantic clothes inspired by yesteryear, this season marks a decade of creating such collections for women's wear designer Holly Sharp.

Since late 1983, Sharp and husband Michael have built a label from their Costa Mesa studio that has been recognized nationally for its femininity.

Although her name is usually associated with dresses, Sharp's delicate blouses and full pants have also become signature silhouettes. The use of rayon, crepe and other soft, fluid fabrics has become her trademark, as have her updated interpretations of classic "lady" looks.

An overview of Holly Sharp's collections over the years reveals how much Audrey Hepburn and Zelda Fitzgerald serve as her inspiration; many items seem literally plucked from their closets.

Maintaining a consistent vision from season to season is what Sharp considers her greatest achievement as a designer.

"Customers that we've had for a long time still have pieces that are seven or eight years old, and they don't look dated," says Sharp, 35. "I'm so pleased it's turned out to be a classic look--even though at the time when we started it was considered wild."

Michael, 44, recalls the reaction to the first lines. "The buyers flipped. It was inspired by a look that was about 30 years old, (but) it was classic styling from an era that defined a lady. Real American. Real classic."

Capturing vintage Americana styling is what got Holly stitching up clothes in the first place. In the early '80s, Michael played in a local funk band called the Cylinders and Holly designed and sewed the sleek retro duds for the members--either by remaking second-hand suits or starting from scratch. She had no prior formal training except for the experience she picked up from watching and helping her mother sew.

"My mom would always restyle her old clothes," remembers Holly. "She still does in her free time--changing the hemline, or sewing on new buttons. So I was always making and remaking clothes--mostly remaking them. Since I was a kid, I always knew I wanted to make clothes."

When a fashion sales representative in Los Angeles spotted two of Holly's friends decked out in her designs, he inquired where they got the dresses. Soon after, he contacted the Sharps about manufacturing the clothes en masse.

The big break, however, came when Bullock's asked them to be part of a campaign showcasing street and club wear by young, new designers from Los Angeles and New York. The department store chain placed a $50,000 order,

and the Sharps--both of whom had grown up in Corona del Mar--found themselves at the bank applying for a business loan. Holly's mother was there to co-sign. They also benefited from advice from her brother, Shawn Stussy, who at the time had been in the rag trade for two years as a surf-wear maker.

The first collection anticipated the hip-hop fashions so mainstream now. Influenced by the buffalo girl trend of the day and zoot-suited gangsters, Holly Sharp offered oversize overalls, baggy pants cinched at the waist and dress jumpers. "Now, I'm selling those silhouettes in better fabrics to housewives," Holly says.

Within a year, Sharp Designs had sold its first million dollars and had forged an identity as a source for clothes with a retro flair. That included a brief stint at offeringmen's suits and dress shirts cut of the same fabric as the women's line.

But it was Holly's knack for feminine fashion that emerged as the label's strength.

Although it's a more expensive process, Sharp has learned that to get the right look that considers a woman's figure, dresses should be cut on the bias. "They flow more. One of my visions of femininity is beautiful, simple dresses blowing on a clothes line," she says.

Through the '80s, Sharp Designs expanded from the Holly Sharp label to a division of better party dresses known as the Holly Sharp Signature Collection and a blouse division called Optics. The entire collection stayed moderately priced with dresses at $100 to $170; blouses, $60 to $90, and jackets from $120 to $190.

Although the two divisions made their way to Henri Bendels, Barneys New York and other boutiques, the Sharps were beginning to rethink the wholesale business.

"I didn't feel I was getting the creative integrity I thought I would," Holly recalls. "It seemed like it was time to get closer to the customer."

Adds Michael: "For us to survive, we realized we needed to retail the clothes ourselves."

Pregnant with their third child, Holly decided to venture into the unpredictable waters of retail close to home.

The first Holly Sharp boutique opened in April, 1992, in an old 800-square-foot bungalow on Pacific Coast Highway in Laguna Beach. Initially intended to serve as a studio, the tiny space was turned into a French designer's salon circa 1920s. With Michael's direction, the clean white walls were striped gold and the white fixtures bear gilded fleurs-de-lis.

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