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BY DESIGN : DESIGNER SPOTLIGHT : Cutting Edge of Couture


The vividly colored sketches posted in Nasrin Ansari's studio belie her words: "I'm not an artist," she says.

But in this studio, near the Lido Marina Village in Newport Beach, attention goes not to the generic figures, but to the elaborately detailed outfits in which they are clothed.

Tear sheets from fashion magazines hang on wires she's stretched along a marked-up wall. The markings were placed to look like an abstract clothing pattern, complete with notation and dart lines. A drafting table serves as her work station; nearby a cabinet on wheels stores her pens, ink bottles and other art tools.

On shelves in the minimalist foyer sit bolts of fabrics: beaded laces, silk brocades and crinkled crepes. Beyond the narrow area is an open-air patio where Ansari meets with her clients and, to the right, a workroom filled with seamstress tools.

Ansari, 42, says her dedication to fashion is more as an art form than just making clothes. Even when she talks about her favorite designer, Valentino, she refers to his art. "Few designers now value their work, the quality. Not even the house of Chanel is concerned with the art of fashion anymore," she laments.

Ansari's talent is revealed in what cannot be seen. Darts on a lace bodice are snipped and hand-sewn for a seamless effect. A blouse is lined in such a way that the rough edges are out of sight; it can almost be worn inside out. Beaded details and buttonholes are usually hand-stitched. A sleeve can take three days to complete.

"Couture demands exacting stitches. I'm trying to give people quality," says Ansari, her accent laced with traces of Farsi, Turkish and French, all of which she speaks fluently, in addition to English.

"I can make much more money by rushing, but for me quality is everything. I'd rather lose an order and the money, than sacrifice the quality of other orders," she says.

To Ansari, quality control means spending as much time with her clients as necessary. First appointments are spent finding out exactly what they want; at the next meeting Ansari offers up anywhere from 10 to 20 sketches for an outfit, along with fabric suggestions.

Fabric, more than design, can make or break the overall effect, she says. "When I feel fabric," says Ansari, "I can tell if (an outfit is) going to come out perfectly. I think good work has to go with good fabric."

She says almost two decades spent working in Paris allowed her to build relationships with the same fabric manufacturers that supply signature materials for Versace, Yves Saint Laurent, Givenchy and Valentino.

Specialty fabrics can cost as much as $200 to $500 per yard; the lining alone can cost $35 per yard. A beaded fastener can cost $65.

Ansari's signature special-order pieces can run anywhere from $300 to $1,800, depending on the fabric and details. An evening gown can cost $1,600 to $8,000.

Clients have brought back bolts from their travels to Paris or Milan. Or they have gone with Ansari to her sources to shop for the right yardage. She welcomes any involvement that makes her clients more comfortable with their orders--even if it takes three hours for a fitting.

"It's more important for me to be the favorite (designer) in their closet," she says.

Ansari attributes her appreciation for the finer aspects of fashion to the years she spent living in Paris. Her parents, impressed by her talent, moved the family from Iran to France when she was 14 and immediately enrolled her in design school. Three years later, she entered the Jeoffrin Byrs International Fashion School, where she studied for five years.

"The French are not obsessed with designer labels. Quality is more important to them than the name," says Ansari.

Upon graduation from Byrs, she went to work as a pattern maker for Cote D'Azur, a women's day-wear label based in Southern France. Then in 1982 she and her children immigrated to California and she was hired to start a women's wear division for Dansha, a menswear label in Los Angeles. When the company moved to Taiwan three years later, she turned to free-lance work, designing fabric prints and ready-to-wear collections for St. Tropez in Los Angeles.

"I thought, 'Business is very (good), so why not start doing this for myself.' "

She moved the family to Laguna Niguel in 1989 and cultivated a clientele from her in-house studio--which included the living room frequently doubling as a showroom. She also began contributing fashion articles to a county-based Iranian language newspaper, Payam-e Ashena.

During this time, Ansari learned about the county's concept of fashion and haute couture. She found society mavens craving clothes that were as well made as their price tag implied.

Says Ansari: "Everyone complains about what's out there: the fit, the quality, the conformity. They don't want to all look the same. If you're spending $10,000 on a dress, you want to look unique."

Ansari opened her Newport Beach studio in June, 1993, and hired two assistants.

She hopes that by fall, 1995, she will have transformed the foyer into a mini-boutique filled with her first ready-to-wear collection. Eventually she wants to open a string of signature boutiques, but says she will not get into mass production. "I prefer to test my designs personally to maintain the quality."

Customers often ask why she doesn't leave Orange County for New York.

There's the weather and her teen-age children. But Ansari also believes she can make a name from California. "Richard Tyler did it" in Los Angeles, she says. "New York doesn't need one more designer. People need me here."

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