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BY DESIGN : She's Tough, She's Cool, She's Stylish : Movies: Tank Girl saves the world but doesn't let her stilettos, corseted bodices or sheer costumes get in the way. Now, you, too, can dress like your favorite anti-heroine.

March 30, 1995|ROSE APODACA JONES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Stilettos and corsets? She'd defile this season's constricting glam trappings with a barreling wad of spit!

The gutter-mouthed, beer-swilling anti-heroine Tank Girl, whose first feature film based on the comic strip opens nationwide Friday with Lori Petty in the title role, fancies a more functional approach to fashion. Something suited to a gal who drives a custom tank, dates a half-man/half-kangaroo mutant and saves the world in post-cataclysmic 2033.

Try a pair of tall, industrial-strength boots, boxer-exposing cutoffs, a black bra, a couple of dog tags and a crucifix. Simple hair, mostly shaved off. Oh, and a thick swath of red lipstick.

It's like Courtney Love, who served as the film's executive soundtrack coordinator, only much more abrasive, bawdy and armed with the comedic irreverence of a Briton. The blame for creating this anarchic 19-year-old eight years ago goes to Jamie Hewlett and Alan Martin, a couple of English slacker guys. Now, their little Tank Girl has boomed into a cult icon and a mass-merchandise machine, courtesy of Metro Goldwyn Mayer and 27 licensees.

Hitting stores this weekend along with posters, T-shirts, trading cards and a CD-ROM will be head-to-toe dressing, including sportswear, jewelry and shoes.

Los Angeles designer Melissa McElrath's official Tank Girl interpretations include sexed-up army fatigues with hook-and-eye corseted bodices and hip-hugging pants, halter shifts, and cropped vests cut from sand-washed nylon and distressed rubber, all loaded with brass hardware and wide zippers.

"Tank Girl is a designer's dream," says McElrath, who had to rely on film stills and trailers to design a line based on Arianne Phillips' costumes. "She doesn't have a job, so she can wear whatever she wants, with no restrictions."

McElrath also stretched T-shirts into A-line dresses and splashed them with movie-still graphics and such messages as "white trash meltdown" and an e-mail address. Prices run from $60 for the T-dress to $120 for a pair of distressed rubber pants. Urban Outfitters,Na Na, Bullock's, Hot Topics and other stores will carry the line.

A graduate of the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles and a veteran of Rampage, Chorus Line and other large commercial lines, McElrath also designs mainstream versions of alternative clothing for her 3-year-old label Madhouse, which she co-owns with EBGB's Lars Viklund and Kevin Talbot. Her sales representative, Ken Abott, proposed the Tank Girl idea. Then it was a matter of persuading MGM, Abott says, to go beyond T-shirts and hats.

Once Abott struck a licensing agreement with the retail chain Urban Outfitters, one of several companies making official T-shirts, McElrath had only a couple of months to design, throw together some samples and sell them. The challenge was making Phillips' costumes salable while maintaining the integrity of the character.

Studio heads had already nixed Urban Outfitters' images of cigarettes and alcohol. And a graphic with Tank Girl pointing a cocked pistol was replaced by a less incendiary shooting thumb and forefinger.

McElrath believes Tank Girl's teen and 20ish audience will find much to admire in her in-your-face approach. "She has a totally progressive and feminist attitude," the designer says. "She goes beyond feminism. She's more outspoken than any female icon out there, even Madonna. I like her total freedom and complete lack of limits."

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