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True to His Skill : Leather is the material of choice for fashion designer Abel Villarreal. In his studio in Silver Lake, He transforms cowhide into works of art.

August 18, 1994|DAVID WHARTON

The leather can be stubborn. A heavy-tooling cowhide, it lies stiff and dull.

"It is not a pretty leather," fashion designer Abel Villarreal says. "It is not delicate."

But it suits Villarreal's purpose. He kneads with strong fingers and stitches with wide, flat lacing. Sometimes he reaches for a mallet and pliers, sometimes the point of an awl, to create an envisioned line or curve.

The leather can feel as hard as granite. This is fashion as sculpture.

And the faceted costumes that emerge from Villarreal's elemental studio in Silver Lake are the stuff of medieval legend and dark humor. A Tahitian leather bridal gown. A perverse ringmaster's suit. A spiked corset bursting with leather fronds.

Such creations have earned the 34-year-old designer cult notoriety. His devout clientele--he refers to them as "performers and crazy people"--include French designer Thierry Mugler, underwear jockey Marky Mark and actress Debi Mazar.

"His clothes," Mazar says, "are extremely sexy."

The leather takes shape. The stiff, black sculpture comes to life.

"It begins to mold to you as it develops a patina, a shine from the oils in the leather," Villarreal says. "There's something about it being a hide or a skin, something that was once living. I know that sounds weird, but there's something innately real about it."

It was thousands of years ago that primitive man first draped animal pelts over his body. Perhaps an artisan can feel the connection, a tactile sense of history. Working in the living room of a mid-1920s house, a studio he has dubbed "the Bullpen," Villarreal toils over a broad table. He wears a leather apron and camouflage pants, his arms bare, revealing the classic tattoo of an eagle on his muscled left shoulder.

"I like the hands-on part," he says, "the craftsmanship."

There is more at stake, though. More than pattern-making, cutting and stitching. There is sex. Long after the so-called civilization of humans--in the 19th Century, in fact--leather acquired an explicit association with the warm and dangerous aura of eroticism.

"Leather seems infused with a karma, a charisma," says Valerie Steele, who teaches at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. Her latest book, "Fetish: Fashion, Sex and Power," will be published next year. "Part of it is sensory. There is the smell and the sound as well as the feel."

Fetish fashion--black with studs, big straps and buckles--eventually stepped into the light of day on divergent scenes: the worlds of motorcycle gangs, punk rock and the gay culture. The style had became prominent on Paris runways by the 1970s. People would never look at leather the same way.

"You can diffuse that by making it pastel or suede instead of hard leather," Steele says. "But all leathers have this array of erotic associations."

Villarreal has played on these associations to varying degrees.

For Marky Mark, he created a relatively tame "Mack truck" vest. Drag artist Lypsinka appeared on the cover of the Advocate in a more outre jacket and bell-bottoms. Mazar commissioned a bondage romper to wear to Madonna's "Sex" book party. The actress, Villarreal says, "didn't have any trouble saying, 'Push the (breasts) up.' "

Yet even the fleshiest of his designs are imbued with a sense of whimsy and the fantastic.

"The pieces I do are fun," he insists.

Closer inspection of his studio reveals a wood-and-glass case filled with a collection of vintage G.I. Joes. Bright paintings of cows hang near the kitchen.

"Very summer camp," Villarreal says, continuing with an unexpected description of his work. "Very hobby-like."

His assistant, a thin young woman named Michi, breezes into the room and says, "Remember those lanyards you made for key rings? It's that craft thing. When you were a kid and they made you do crafts, it was fun. We're using all that stuff we learned a long time ago."

Villarreal's own line--which he started designing in 1984, soon after leaving the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising--folded in 1987. Two years ago, while working for the Italian knitwear designer Marina Spadafora, he began fashioning leather pieces for himself and his boyfriend, Tim Palen, an art director at Columbia TriStar Home Video. It was Palen who urged Villarreal to devote himself entirely to cowhide.

"He was always working for other people, executing their ideas," Palen says. "This gives him the opportunity to exercise his wild imagination."

Friends began ordering pieces. One of them was Susanne Bartsch, the Manhattan club persona.

"I don't like plain-Jane dressing. I like statement dressing," Bartsch says. "He gives you a presence."

A "horsewoman" costume Villarreal made for her quickly drew attention. Mugler--the designer who gave the world breast-mounted rear-view mirrors--was predictably smitten. He ordered several pieces, including a vest for his private collection.

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