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Fashion | Local Color / MADE IN CALIFORNIA

Quiet, Please

Modernist Rozae Nichols keeps her colors and details down to hush. Even the folkloric embroidery speaks softly.

May 08, 1997|JOANNA DENDEL and MARY KAY STOLZ

The Designer: Rozae Nichols

The Story: Raised in Los Angeles, Nichols studied fine art, illustration and graphic design locally before landing her first job as a packaging and textile designer at Freego, an Army-Navy surplus-inspired sportswear company in Los Angeles that has since gone out of business. She learned how to design clothes, she says, "by just doing it."

Autour du Monde, a French sportswear label, lured her to Paris in 1985, the year Chanel was gung-ho on fatigues. Returning to L.A. and Freego after a few years, she began shopping for a more challenging opportunity. In 1989, she joined Harriet Selwyn, a designer of sophisticated clothing for women of all ages. "Our sensibilities just meshed so well," Nichols says. "I was drawn to the aesthetic that Harriet had founded. . . . I learned a lot about restraint and pulling back and editing."

She started her own label in 1993, eventually hooked up with business partner Tony Graham, and in her spare time nurtures student designers at Otis / Parsons as a guest critic.

The Goods: The catch phrase "casual elegance" captures the look. "It's born out of the way I like to live," Nichols says. "I'm very sensitive to art and visual things, but I'm also kind of messy and active so I like to know that I can wear my tennis shoes with a really beautiful thing. I don't like to treat anything as precious."

She prefers a neutral palette (brindle being her favorite color) and treats authentic fabrics, as well as leathers and suede, in "a very unprecious way."

"I love old-fashioned, folkloric ways of doing stitching like crewel and crochet. I try to reinterpret them in a modern way. Since I don't have a relationship with the tradition, I can put them in a more formal order."

For summer, minimalist linen dresses in black and white incorporate delicate leather straps or belts. Chiffon blouses, skirts and dresses might be embroidered or tucked and layered over a Chinese tea-leaf print.

The fall collection hinges on embroidered matte jersey and chiffon, or perhaps stretch worsted wool, in shades of black and brown. There's also leather and suede and a lizard-print laminated velvet. "That's the kitsch element," Nichols says.

Prices range from $160 for a linen dress to $600 for a leather jacket.

The Customer: "There is no age limit. . . . From what I've seen, she tends to work in a creative profession," Nichols says.

The Inspiration: "It's all about detail and stitching, graphic layer and form." A year ago, Nichols moved into a modern house in the Hollywood Hills that, she realizes now, symbolized a turning point in her work. "It brought together all the elements I had been yearning for . . . the openness, austerity, the graphicness. My best collections started then."

The Stores: Barneys New York, Beverly Hills; Neiman Marcus, Newport Beach and Beverly Hills; Wright's, Manhattan Beach; Fred Segal, Los Angeles; American Rag, Los Angeles; ICE, Los Angeles.

The Last Word: "There's no way I'd go to New York. The landscape here is the ultimate inspiration to me. The space is so vital."

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