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Clothes That Look Divan

Inspired by Upholstery, a Designer Dresses His Patrons in Chintzes and Chinoiseries

September 25, 1998|BETTY GOODWIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Steven Stolman isn't sure if people west of the Hudson River will understand his clothes, which are made of printed upholstery fabrics--florals, chintzes, toile de Jouys, chinoiseries or those with neoclassical motifs.

His shops in Southampton, Mass.; Nantucket, Mass.; Palm Beach, Fla.; and Manhattan cater to what used to be called "the carriage trade." (He still calls it that.) Meaning, women of a certain income bracket and taste level (though not of a certain age, he contends) who carry Hermes handbags and wear cashmere sweaters and pearls. His men's clothes--shirts, Bermuda shorts, ties--presumably are worn by men who never stopped wearing Gucci moccasins, even when they were geeky.

"I don't have a preconception of how Californians dress at the Beverly Center," the designer said before the first West Coast trunk showing of his collection at Hollyhock, the Hancock Park antiques and gift store, today and Saturday.

He admits he's coming out to test the retail waters. If Katie Couric and C.Z. Guest ("the great American socialite") are customers, who knows, maybe Courteney Cox might become one too.

Stolman was perhaps destined to lead a life in prints. After working for designers such as Pauline Trigere ("my mentor") and Albert and Pearl Nipon in New York, he helped relaunch the Lilly Pulitzer collection of printed cotton resort clothing in 1993. "I love the whole ethos of Lilly," he said. "I grew up in New England and went to the beach every summer. Lilly was part of the fabric of our lives."

But after he helped to put her company back on track, he wasn't sure what to do with himself. "What should I do with the rest of my life?" he asked her. "Do what I did," Pulitzer replied. "Open your own stores."

In 1995, Stolman opened for business in Southampton. Like his string of shops, his line has expanded from the basics. In addition to classic floral skirts, sleeveless dresses and slim pants, there are sweater sets with coordinating fabric borders, ball gowns and children's clothes. Prices start at $145 for a woman's skirt.

"I came up with this concept of 'resort social' clothing. It's not active sportswear, it's not golf clothes. It's stuff you can wear to a nice dinner or cocktail party or to a benefit."

Stolman's affection for home furnishings fabrics is partly a backlash against the raging popularity of what he calls dark, lifeless, microfiber clothing. Shopping at leading decorator fabric houses, including Scalamandre and Schumacher, he discovered textiles with "creamy lushness and integrity," he said. "These fabrics are built to last decades, not a season."

Indeed, many of his customers' homes are also awash with similar yardage. It all makes sense. "The late '90s are all about nesting and creating a beautiful home," he said.

* For more information about the trunk show at Hollyhock, 214 N. Larchmont Blvd., Hancock Park, call (213) 931-3400.

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