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Bolts of Inspiration

It's a pattern in the material world. Some artisans at the Sawdust Festival in Laguna have the wear-withal to create one-of-a-kind clothing from special fabrics.

July 25, 1996|KATHRYN BOLD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Some artists' work begins not with canvas or clay but with fabric from which they create one-of-a-kind clothing.

Visitors to the 30th annual Sawdust Festival in Laguna Beach (through Aug. 25) can find all kinds of art to wear, from hand-painted silk Hawaiian shirts to coats of antique damask linens.

Here's a sampling of fashion made by four Laguna Beach artists who have booths at the festival. (Maps are at the gate, and dressing rooms are available.)

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Booth No. 111: Martin Venzal

Tablecloths are something people usually eat off, not something they wear. Yet the coats and jackets found here are made of vintage damask tablecloths and napkins.

"That's an Art Deco piece from the 1920s," says owner Martin Venzal as a woman tries on a coat made of a berry-stained cloth that looks one size too small.

"I'm wider than the tablecloth," she jokes.

Coat size and length is determined by the width of the cloth. Venzal is determined not to lose any of the lovely floral patterns woven into the fabric.

"I won't cut them," he says.

High-quality damask linens have become increasingly scarce. Venzal imports most of his cloth from his native Spain.

"It's hard to find the tablecloths in good condition. Some of them have drippings of candle wax," he says.

Venzal uses vegetable dyes to give the fabric their rich natural hues, including eggplant, berry, celery, purple dusty rose and fuchsia. His wife, Julie, designs and sews each garment. One jacket features a patchwork of 10 silk damask napkins from the 1800s, each dyed purple and teal. The garments sell for $85 to $295.

"They're so delicate; it's like sewing paper," Venzal says. "You can't do mass production."

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Booth No. 235: Edith Otto and Olivia Batchelder

Edith Otto likes old things--a snippet of antique lace, a beautiful 1930s-era button, a piece of Chinese embroidery or a beaded trim.

Such findings make their way into her hats, jackets and dresses. Visitors to her booth might find an old fabric flower on a cloche or wonderful buttons on a chenille jacket.

"I like the little details that come from the nicer garments. I like the way things used to be made," Otto says.

Art Deco and Art Nouveau inspire her to create her flowing bias-cut gowns and dresses made of cut velvet, which she dyes in shadowy hues of forest green, copper and rust (about $150 to $300).

She makes hats ($30 to $125) out of felt, tapestry, straw or velvet, embellishing with ribbon work, an embroidered antique button, a fabric rose or other soft sculpture. Her jackets ($125 to $250) often feature asymmetrical pockets, lapels or insets.

The futuristic-looking Mrs. Jetson jacket features a diagonal color-blocked front of purple chenille and nubby rust-colored cotton, with a small pocket tucked into the silk lining.

"I like surprises," says Otto, who has had a design studio in Laguna for 25 years.

Garments inspired by the past often appeal to the new generation. Says a girl of about 12, admiring one of Otto's black velvet gowns: "I wish I was old enough to wear that dress."

Otto shares her booth with Olivia Batchelder, who prefers to paint watercolors on Chinese silk instead of paper.

"There's nothing like silk to give color," Batchelder says. "It gives such vibrancy. There's no other fiber like it."

She uses dyes in "ocean colors," the blues and greens of the sea, which she brushes onto wide stretches of silk. Sometimes she sprinkles the painted fabric with grains of salt, which collect moisture and leave a spotty, watery pattern. Or she'll paint the fabric with fish and other marine motifs.

"I learned to paint the Japanese way. My art is very minimal," she says.

Batchelder turns her dyed silks into sarongs, scarves, Hawaiian shirts, vests and other garments.

Her booth looks like a small water world, filled with ocean-inspired pieces such as a silk jacket in a "deep sea" blend of blue, green and purple with a scarf collar ($375), a watery blue dress with a silk crepe de Chine top and crinkled skirt ($175), assorted sarongs ($125) and scarves ($20 to $125).

Men favor her Hawaiian shirts festooned with fish ($150).

"I've seen them wear my shirts to parties. That's how I know they really like them," Batchelder says.

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Booth No. 212: Regumbah

Regumbah, who goes by one chosen name, collects unusual fabrics, then turns them into one-of-a-kind garments such as a tunic top and palazzos made of a patchwork of six vintage kimonos ($260).

"My clothes are like paintings. They require balance," she says.

She waits for ideas to strike.

"The fabrics tell me what they want to do," she says.

"I don't force my fabric into a design. I've had some fabrics for 30 years. I don't use them until the right time comes."

Regumbah prefers natural fibers and ethnic fabrics, especially Japanese and Chinese silks. She used antique black and white kimonos to make a simple dress with a gathered waist and a matching Manchurian vest. She also designs a small line of organic cotton tunics, pants and A-line skirts (about $45 to $60).

She sits in her corner booth and waits patiently for the next visitor. She does not worry about how many clothes she will sell. She doesn't hurry production. Her inventory is down to a few dozen pieces, which she calls her "creations."

She might work a string of 12-hour days, then go two weeks without working at all, she says. How many pieces does she produce a month? A year?

"It depends how I feel," she says. "It's more of an art form."

The Sawdust Festival continues through Aug. 25 at 935 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach. Hours: 10 a.m.-10 p.m. $1-$5. (714) 494-3030.

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