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DESIGNER SPOTLIGHT

King of the Road : Jeff Palombo Pulls Out the Truck Stops on His Nostalgia-Inspired Street Wear

March 02, 1995|ROSE APODACA JONES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

COSTA MESA — Movie photos of a leather-jacketed Al Pacino mark the stairway leading up to designer Jeff Palombo's studio. But the streetwise guy on the wall is forgotten when lanky, demure Palombo, the driver behind the junior and young men's street wear label Truck, arrives on the scene.

Another famous photo, of a wide-smiling Farrah Fawcett in a red bathing suit, is also on display. It evokes memories of one of pop history's cheesiest moments. But that suits Palombo, 24, just fine.

After all, in the three years since starting his company out of his parents' Huntington Beach home, he has nabbed attention and ink for his striped, "Brady Bunch"-inspired tees and his polyester novelty print shirts.

Slacker pop darling Juliana Hatfield wore a green poly Truck zipper shirt on the cover of Spin magazine last year. Young scenesters and skateboarders have snatched up Truck togs, favoring their inherently unpolished, quirky design elements, which make them look more like home economics class projects than mass merchandise.

In the beginning, such an assessment was not far off. Before Hang Ten brought back its signature striped shirts, Palombo and his pals searched for used ones that they wore until they fell apart. Finally, Palombo decided to make a version of the shirt.

"I started at home on my little sewing machine making striped T-shirts," he said. "Actually, it was my mom's sewing machine. It was a gift from my dad from a couple years (before), and it was still in the box."

Picture this skateboarder running a sewing machine.

His parents initially razzed him. But Palombo says he saw nothing strange about it. His inspiration was local designer Baldry, a few years older, who has carved a tiny name for himself across the country with his erratically stitched, odd items made from scrap fabrics.

Until then, Palombo said, he just wanted to be an artist, "paint pictures and have people buy them. But my passion then became clothing."

He started with striped tees and, "after botching the first 30," he managed to sell six good ones to a local store on consignment. At $30 a pop, despite the poor sewing, they sold out. Part of their charm was their off quality and off fabrics.

The polo-style polyester zipper shirt was created from yardage he found in fabric stores or his parents picked up on their travels as antique dealers.

Timing proved everything. Fadish youths were rediscovering old-style polyester. The shirts disappeared from local and Melrose Avenue stores and earned Truck respect as an up-and-coming label.

The name helped too, he said.

"It's easy to remember. Everyone in my family drives trucks. I grew up with trucks. I still drive a truck. Trucks are just really American," he said.

Demand drove him to hire a small contractor ("They can sew faster.") and an assistant, and he added the Truck tag to work wear pants, beanies and T-shirts. His grandmother couldn't wait to help. She loaned one of her Long Beach apartments for use as an office.

With the addition of a junior line last year, Truck moved again into a larger office in Costa Mesa, which includes a warehouse.

His office looks like a wasteland of the dregs of pop culture, most notably the stuff that shaped his youth: two glittery motorcycle helmets with stars and stripes in ode to Evel Knievel, a plastic mask of Rat Fink, a Schlitz beer sign with a smiling stud, a crochet hat made from Olympia beer cans and a blue velvet painting of a Michael Jackson impersonator.

His latest collection, which hits stores through March and April, continues to feature clothes inspired by his growing years. There are ringer tees with iron-on decals of the Fonz and his mantra, "Sit on It," the Playboy bunny logo, Starsky and Hutch and Marvin Gaye.

Guys can slip on nerdy, short-sleeved dress shirts with Western styling or black-and-white striped referee shirts.

Hearts, flowers and patchwork-printed polyester last seen on Auntie's muumuus appear as tiny shirts for young women, who can pair them with tinier hot pants or wrap-around skirts. A two-tone polyester A-line dress that hits just above the knee is vintage "Star Trek."

"It's about what we grew up on," Palombo said.

What mostly nurtured life growing up in suburbia in the '70s was TV. Palombo designs while watching reruns of "Happy Days" ("so cheesy because they never got it to really look '50s"), "Starsky & Hutch" and other shows.

His steady girlfriend of two years, Robin Smith, 20, contributes her sartorial desires and insights too, whether they're requested. Palombo said. "Robin really gives me her strong opinion. If she doesn't like something, she tells me."

With less time for TV nowadays, Palombo's entertainment time is still work-related as he shops vintage stores and hangs out with friends who also happen to make up the market he's targeting.

"What's nice is going to concerts and seeing people who are total strangers wearing my stuff," he said.

Palombo said he intends to continue to use different fabrics. "People are striving for individuality and (are) only finding the monotonous. You can go into three or four stores and see the same thing, so by using fabrics in limited quantities, it gives the impression of being unique.

"Some people might think I'm going too slow, especially considering the demand. But I know going too fast can really hurt a business. And I'm in this for life."

The collection, which retails for $20 to $58, is available at Electric Chair in Huntington Beach, the Ladies Lounge in Newport Beach and NaNa's in Costa Mesa as well as the X-Girl Store and Finals in Los Angeles and Patricia Fields in New York City.

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