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DESIGNER SPOTLIGHT

Sandra Harvey and Family Keep Ahead of the Game With Costa Mesa Boutique

January 07, 1994|ROSE APODACA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Bell-bottom jokes may have finally fizzled along with the fad itself after two years of appearing in every designer's collection, but for Newport Beach designer Sandra Harvey, the punch line is bittersweet. Her flared-leg silhouette debuted five years ago--long before any store buyer had seen bells by big name labels.

By being among the first, she received laughs instead of orders from buyers who thought she was kidding.

Harvey got a similar response when she showed her long, silk satin slip dresses in 1991 to a buyer at Barneys New York, a store known for taking risks in the face of mainstream fashion. "The buyer said that length would never, never sell," recalls Alexandra Stanton, Harvey's associate.

With such dramatic silhouettes as ankle-skimming stretch velvet tubes trimmed in curled ostrich feathers (about $125) or long jersey skirts shirred in the back a la Jean Harlowe, Harvey's signature style seems revolutionary only for its elegance combined with comfort.

"Sandra is always ahead of everyone else. Dealing with buyers whose jobs are on the line and who don't want to take a risk with a new designer just became frustrating," adds Stanton, who is also Harvey's mother.

Harvey grew unsatisfied with buyer's attempts to edit her designs. On her own, she was developing a private clientele of women she met at nightclubs who begged to buy the clothes off her back.

Tired of the hassles of being a retail supplier, Harvey, Stanton and their husbands decided last year to go into retail themselves. Their showrooms in New York and Los Angeles were closed, and the boutiques and department stores nationwide were shipped their last order. The four settled on a location along Newport Boulevard in Costa Mesa, next to hipster magnets Rock N Java and Tower Records, for the first Sandra Harvey Boutique.

Her mother pressed her to look for a space larger than the 400 square feet the former barber shop offered, but Harvey recalls that her draw to the location was "spiritual." She had driven by the store often on her way home, every time repeating that the shop space would someday be hers. After a five-month interior make-over, the boutique opened in October.

"I've had (the store) designed for 10 years," Harvey says. "This is my dream. It's what I wanted my whole life."

The plumbing was yanked out, the ceiling stained and a wall built separating a back storage room from the rest of the store. A Gothic-like cathedral doorway was cut into the wall. Chandeliers and refurbished antiques contrast beautifully with the yardage of plush dressing room curtains sustained by a crude chain.

She fought with the landlord and several painters about the floor, which she wanted painted with a leopard pattern. Finally Harvey resigned to get on her hands and knees and do it herself, with the help of her family. She clocked their joint effort at 300 hours. Harvey describes the narrow space as "Cleopatra-esque"--sensuous, intimate and very feminine. "This is a woman's boutique," she declares.

"I get so many boys and men in here who later return with their girlfriends and wives to get them out of their jeans and into glamour. Tough men come in here, but when they see their women walk out of the dressing room they turn to putty."

That effect is no doubt a response to Harvey's sartorial philosophy: "I consider a Sandra Harvey woman sexy, sleek, sophisticated, understated. But she leaves a lingering impression that's haunting, never loud and never forgotten. She would never wear sequins."

Adds Stanton: "What do women want? They want to be elegant but sexy. And a man wants to feel proud without feeling he needs to cover her up."

Harvey works in two primary fabrics: matte jersey and stretch velvet. Organza, georgette, cotton linen and a heavy silk satin also make the seasonless collection. Fabrics are cut on the bias, a practice that is expensive, but Harvey says it pays off because shapes are softer, fitting a woman's figure better.

"My grandfather was Russian, gorgeous and a fine dresser. He used to tell me that fabric is the most important part of a garment, the way it looks, feels, smells," Harvey says.

Her velour-like velvet is washable and travels well because it doesn't crush and it stores compactly. And Harvey adds that it's perfect for day and night.

The former wardrobe consultant is well aware of the need for a practical wardrobe. The Basics group, in black or olive stretch velvet, features separates such as leggings, pullovers, cat suits and bodysuits; pieces average $100.

Designed with a no-fuss sense, these comfortable separates consider such problems as the double-derriere syndrome caused by most bodysuits. Harvey's has no snaps or elastic. Items such as the wrap-around top can also serve more than one use: Knotted in the front or the back, it serves as a top or a light jacket.

"I design for me," Harvey says. "I have so many events to go to. I never think, 'Is this going to sell?' "

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