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It's Curtains, Baby!

April 09, 1998|KATHY BRYANT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

t may be hard to believe, but the fabric for your new couch or drapes may have first appeared on the backs of high-fashion runway models in Paris and Milan.

"Fashion designers have

been so clever in using upholstery and drapery fabric in their designs," says

Cecile Bradbury, owner of the Bradbury Collection, a store in the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood.

Looking through the rows of furniture fabric hanging in Bradbury's store, it's easy to see why clothing designers have been seduced by their beauty.

"The whole design field is more integrated today, not separated," says Bradbury in her soft Belgian accent. "There is more fashion in home design and more home design in fashion. It's become a very small world."

Bonnie Sonnenschein, director of public relations for Stroheim & Romann Inc. Decorative Fabrics, agrees.

"It used to take five to seven years for designer fashion ideas and colors to make it to the home design market," she says. "Now everything is immediate."

One person who has witnessed the changes firsthand is Sally Sirkin Lewis, owner of J. Robert Scott.

"I've been designing clothes using my upholstery material for years," she says. "And I don't think I was the only one. I just had more exposure."

Lewis designs clothes for herself and her family, as well as by commission.

"I love to do ball gowns the most," she says. Certainly her new collection of fabrics, Tribes, with its African / ethnic look makes beautiful robes and coats, and her leather fabrics make terrific-looking handbags.

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But for the very latest in high-fashion-meets-home-design, look no further than the Paris spring and summer 1998 collections. The upholstery and drapery fabrics from creation baumann in Switzerland are used in designs by many houses, including Nina Ricci, Christian Lacroix, Yves Saint Laurent, Ungaro and Valentino.

"This use of upholstery and drapery fabric in fashion has been going on for years in Europe, but it's newer here in the States," says Shkendie Kaziu, vice president of Jakob Schlaepfer Inc. in New York City, manufacturer of creation baumann fabrics.

"These are fabrics for designers who are forward-looking and creative. They see the fabric first, are inspired by it and then they come up with the designs," Kaziu says.

One reason for this cross-over is the way microfibers are combined with natural fibers like silk and linen to make a material more durable.

"Polyester is our best friend, even if it's a dirty word to some," says Kaziu with a laugh. "You can't have silk tulle curtains; you need polyester to strengthen the silk."

Other mixtures include polyester silk and steel, foils bonded to silk, raffia sandwiched between layers of polyester tulle, embroidered raffia on tulle, and polyester tulle with silk flowers.

"Our latest technique is really an old one--the use of light or lasers to cut a motif under the fabric. It gives the illusion of being hand-cut," Kaziu says.

"Twice a year the designer collections come to our showroom, and I almost faint because they're so beautiful," she says. "Sometimes, like Lacroix in his latest collection, the print is cut up and reconfigured in unusual ways."

Another favorite of couture designers is the Japanese firm Nuno, also available at the Bradbury Collection.

"Nuno's techniques are the same ones used in creating kimonos. They just use old techniques with new materials. Donna Karan has been very interested in using these fabrics," Bradbury says.

Nuno's new line, Suke, Suke: The Emperor's New Fabrics, takes fabrics down to nothingness. By combining silk with microfibers, "little nothings" seem to float. Some fabrics are buoyed with air pockets or folded with feathers. Others employ the ancient Japanese technique of finishing crepe silk by soaking the material in a salt solution to reduce the fibers to the desired density. Dye is then added to shrink some areas.

Fabrics are embroidered, crunched up as if they've been singed, and flocked with polyester organdy.

Says Bradbury: "I've been in the business 20 years, but within the last few years, the use of microfibers has changed fabrics a lot. By adding them to silk or even by themselves, they feel like pure silk, but they're more durable and can even be hand-washed.

"Every year there is something new: a woven cotton with raffia, silk roses scattered on silk taffeta, polyester silk with velvet dots, white felt with metallic threads, iridescent fabrics that change color with the light. The range is incredible."

Of course, these fabrics can cost $100 a yard and up, but to many people they're worth it. Certainly the high-fashion designers who use them know the look is important at any cost, Bradbury says.

But couture designers aren't the only ones in on the act. The sportswear and outer-wear markets have also discovered upholstery and drapery fabrics.

Eddie Bauer spokeswoman Betsey Demtrak says the outdoor-wear and home-design company will use upholstery fabric from Malden Mills' Boundary Collection for outer-wear in the fall.

"We've used upholstery fabric before, and we will continue to do so, especially the fleece fabrics," she says.

Demtrak thinks this cross-over is a result of the shrinking number of domestic mills. Development has become simultaneous for fashion and home design.

"Fabric mills saw that with a broader focus they could sell more fabric," Demtrak says. "Interestingly, fabric for the home is often cheaper than the same fabric used in fashion. It's because the mills aren't sure how to price it."

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