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FASHION : Job Setback Brings Out a Designing Nature : When a prospective career as a fire inspector fizzles, Laura Splawn begins creating unique dresses.


There is art, and there's fashion. And, sometimes, although seldom, there is fashionable art.

This is a story of one of those times, and of Laura Splawn, who always meant to do the sensible thing in life, until destiny took a hand.

Splawn's goal was to become a county fire inspector, and she was nearly there. It's not the aim you expect from an artist, but she didn't know she was an artist at the time.

"I grew up left-handed and red-headed, and I've been different all my life," the designer said.

Laura Carr was to have been named Autumn when she was born in Oxnard 40 years ago, but the attending doctor talked her mother out of the notion. She grew up on a small ranch in Oak View, where she plowed fields, built fences and generally shunned dresses.

After high school she went to work as a ranch hand, then entered the Air Force and studied accounting. She married Phil, a facilities manager at Point Mugu, and worked her way up to office manager for the county Fire Department. When her son neared the age of independence, she took on night school to gain her career goal.

The heavy schedule wasn't a problem. She was a "Type A" person who thrived on stimulation. ("Actually, I was a Type Double A," Splawn will say.)

One day, three credits short of certification, the would-be inspector hefted some boxes in her office and suffered three herniated discs in her back. Her career ended and life slowed to a crawl.

Becoming a "Type B" is not something that A's do well. They brood over immobility and look upon life in the slow lane as futile. Still unemployed two years after her injury, Splawn, who had gradually gone to a Size 14, took her Size 8 wardrobe and cut it into pieces.

That was how it all began.

The frustrated woman took up the ragged pieces of fabric and sewed some into a collage. She shaped the result into a dress. Then, having no one to pin up a straight hem, she made an irregular handkerchief border instead.

"I don't like to be exact," Splawn said.

The finished dress was a flowing mosaic, like nothing she had seen. Of course, friends wanted a work of art like it. Of course, they urged her to market the clothes, and finally she put some in a friend's garden store.

"They sold like crazy," said Splawn.

Six months ago came the opportunity to open a shop.

"The rent's more than our mortgage," said the owner of Autumn's Ease on Ventura's California Street. "We kept looking at the place. Then we realized I was turning 40, and the address was 40. That finished it for us."

The shop, which began paying the rent in its first month, has a special vitality to it. The uncommon montages of silk, rayon, wool and lace in a breathless mix of colors gives a strange impression: maybe after hours the clothes come to life, like so many Velveteen Rabbits.

"I start out gathering materials I think go together," Splawn said of the creative process. "When I think I have enough for a dress, I picture what style it would work best in, and what size. Sometimes I think, 'No, a skirt and blouse.' "

Many of the colorful garments are in large sizes. "(Larger) women can find something they feel pretty in; it hides parts that they don't want showing," the designer said.

Roses are a repeating motif. One dress has eight fabrics, seven of which are various rose prints. It has three pockets at random locations, and is like all of the pieces--unique.

No matter how much she likes a dress, the designer doesn't copy it exactly, and none is made to order. She tried custom work; the creative process was thwarted. Her instinct serves her better--except for a fixation on pink.

Sometime after she opened, a shopper looked carefully through all of the clothes, then protested, "Don't you have anything that doesn't have pink in it?"

"Well, I looked, and I didn't," said Splawn. "I'm having to stretch myself."

Now there are more color blends, monochromatic and kaleidoscopic.

Customers vary as much as the clothes.

"I've had 18-year-olds to a woman who was probably 75," the shop owner said. "She bought a long-sleeve in navy blue. She was tickled to have it, but she said she wouldn't wear it to church. She was lovely."

The work still fascinates Splawn, and can be made to fit her new, slower pace. When she needs to rest, there is a cot ready in the back room.

"This is totally the opposite of what I was," she said, "I don't know what happened."

The woman has a way with words as well as with fabrics:

"This is," she said, "like my soul's work."

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