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Tuft Love

In the Afterbath of Chenille's 20th Century Rise and Fall, a Newport Beach Couple Have Found a Different Robe to Success--Via TV

June 27, 1996|KATHRYN BOLD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

People everywhere are laughing at Don and Jody Chapman's bathrobes.

Tracy Ullman wore one of their robes on her TV show. So did Ellen DeGeneres on "Ellen," Fran Drescher on "The Nanny" and Jane Leeves, the fetching English maid Daphne on "Frazier."

What makes these bathrobes the stars of sitcoms?

Canyon Group robes, produced by the Chapmans' Tustin-based Damze Co., have put a new twist on the old-fashioned chenille robes that Mother or Grandmother wore in the 1940s and '50s.

The once boring bathrobe has been given a sense of humor. While vintage chenille robes were covered in tufted floral patterns that looked like the bedspreads that inspired them, the Chapmans' robes are embroidered with kitschy motifs such as stars and moons, coffee mugs, teacups, Scottie dogs, Dalmations, cats with fish bones, watermelon slices and spotted cows.

"It's funny to see our neighbors picking up their newspapers in the morning in these bathrobes," Don says.

The robes are designed for laughs, and, like all jokes, "People either get them or they don't," he says.

These days, more people are getting the joke. At last count, the robes have been worn by actresses on more than 20 TV shows and several movies. Each time the robes appear on screen, demand for them jumps.

The Chapmans' biggest challenge is producing enough robes to satisfy their growing orders. The robes are made the old-fashioned way, not by an automated process but by people hand-guiding fabric on single-needle tufting machines designed for chenille work.

"We've taken an old process and tweaked it," Don says.

On weekdays one can wander through the Damze factory and see rows of antique-looking machines fitted with spools of colorful thread. The machines hum and fibers fly as the workers embroider hearts, moons and other designs onto the chenille, tracing a pattern that has been hand-stamped onto the fabric.

"Very few companies can do this overlay," Don says.

*

The process has changed little since chenille was invented in the early 1900s, he says. During the Depression, families in Georgia would stitch chenille bedspreads by hand using yarn and needles and sell the spreads to stores across the country.

Around the time of World War II, sewing machines evolved so that bedspreads and even wall-to-wall carpeting could be manufactured of chenille. Some of the overlay machines and other equipment at Damze date to chenille's early days.

The Chapmans started making zippered jackets out of old chenille bedspreads in 1989. They now employ 80 people in their factory. During the company's peak season, before the December holidays and Mother's Day, they can turn out 500 robes a day.

To boost production, the Chapmans bought a factory in Georgia that was making old-fashioned chenille bedspreads and robes.

"It was an industry that died. In the '40s, everyone had chenille bedspreads and robes. This company was a lone survivor doing chenille products, but they didn't see the potential," Don says.

The old chenille robes were covered in busy florals.

"It's as traditional a pattern as you can find. It's very ornate and indicative of what was being done around World War II," Jody says.

*

In 1991, the Chapmans had a think session to come up with a new design concept.

"Robes are a necessity item, but we were thinking, 'Wouldn't it be nice to do something funny?' " Jody says.

Their first whimsical robe was covered in moons and stars; it's still a popular seller.

"I looked at it and thought, 'Oh, what a great idea. This is it,' " Don says. "It was something no one had seen before."

They showed it to buyers at major department stores.

"One buyer for Macy's said, 'I don't get it.' But more stores kept picking it up," Don says.

Then the robes became the darling of TV costume designers looking for something unusual and fun to put on their characters, and soon everyone "got it." DeGeneres wore their sunflower robe, and Drescher's character wears them constantly.

The robes have also been on soap operas and in movies. Demi Moore will wear one in the upcoming film "If These Walls Could Talk."

One reason the Chapmans believe their chenille robes have caught on: Baby boomers have warm and fuzzy memories of their parents' chenille bedspreads.

Jody, 33, remembers sitting on her parents' chenille bedspread and pulling out the little tufts of cotton, leaving a large bare spot. She never dreamed that one day she'd be making chenille, but when Don, 34, needed someone to design the robes, she agreed to come on board.

Anything that's trendy and can be reproduced in chenille is fodder for her designs--sunflowers, howling coyotes, cows jumping over moons and polar bears.

"We try to key into trends," says Jody, who learned to pay attention to consumers' wants as a clothing buyer for Nordstrom.

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