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Tote With a Capital Tee

May 26, 2000

Tees and totes are a hot duo on L.A. streets these days.

Whether they are fringed, beaded, printed, or rhinestoned, the season's colorful T-shirts and diminutive bags reflect the carefree abandon of L.A.'s dress-to-dazzle style and transcend fashion's time zones.

The totes, with their petite proportions and glittery details, are both a daytime and a nighttime accessory. Same with embellished T-shirts that can complete an office-worthy suit or stand alone over a pair of sleek pants for dinner.

Independent designers, many in L.A., are reinterpreting the embellished tees and totes first seen on European runways. They have reworked the airbrushed and embroidered shirts that have been key in Stella McCartney's collection and have recast the shrunken, highly decorated Fendi baguette bags into the new shapes.

The biggest difference? The home-grown varieties of some T-shirts and totes can be pricey, but they typically cost hundreds less than their foreign inspirations.

Aided by casual dress codes, the T-shirt craze is sweeping the nation. T-shirt styles have "stepped up a notch," said James Perse, whose deep V-neck, fitted $50 to $80 T-shirts have earned the L.A. designer a cult following. Designers have added better materials and construction than their underwear predecessors ever dreamed.

"What was once considered a casual T-shirt is now considered a sophisticated shirt across the board," he said.

T-shirts have also proven to be endlessly variable.

"They're being done in a way that's not so generic," Perse explained. Wraparound, square-neck, scoop-neck or V-neck, T-shirts come in so many shapes, they're rarely a standard T-shape. As a result, they're more versatile.

And most important, bold tops are also kinder to figure flaws than, say, cheetah print capri pants and scarf-print skirts.

"You can't pull off the same rainbow on the bottom half," Perse said. "That allows the top to have a mind of its own."

Joomi Lim douses her Joomi Joolz T-shirts and bags with glitter and Swarovski crystals.

"The more stuff we put on the bags and shirts, the more people like them," the L.A. designer says.

"All of us sit around after hours, coming up with ideas, and it's like girls' night out," Lim said. "There is no meaning to any of this. We are just being playful."

Many of her shirts sport goofy and glittery graphics that are equal parts spoof and fantasy. Her shirts have "Red Dragon Cafe," "Rock Star" or "Supergirl" spelled out in rhinestones and glitter. The glitz adds to the price, but her $100 shirts sell better than the less expensive, less decorated varieties, she said.

The trend toward colorful, whimsical decoration spills over onto accessories, where fanciful totes are beaded and embroidered until they sparkle like jewelry.

"The genie is out of the bottle," said Jennifer Kaufman, owner of the namesake Beverly Center boutique. "Fashion trends come and go, but people need to remember that women like color. And there's a certain femininity to a small bag."

Carrying a compact bag helps avoid decoration overkill, particularly next to some of the wildly patterned clothes for summer. L.A. designers are helping to fuel the tote craze with notable lines that include Sarah Shaw, Rhooby Sue, Jennifer Tash and Trang Huynh for Isabella Fiore, and Angela Amiri.

"A person may not want to wear head-to-toe fuchsia, but they'll carry it in a handbag," said Amiri, who cuts vintage fabrics into modern handbag shapes.

Kaufman agreed: "This whole concept of fundamental sleek bags--that's dead."

Because fabric bags yield so easily to flights of design fancy--with feathers, flowers, fluff and more--"anything goes. You name it," Kaufman said.

"You want a pink and fuchsia leopard-spotted and fringed bag, you can find it," she said. "Will it be tasteful? That's another conversation."

*

Valli Herman-Cohen can be e-mailed at valli.herman-cohen@latimes.com.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

The Buying Guide Details for the T-shirts and totes

shown on E1.

1. Supergirl rhinestone and glitter T-shirt by Joomi Joolz, $105, at Planet Blue in Malibu.

2. Vintage California print fringed bag by Rhooby Sue, $215, at Jennifer Kaufman, Beverly Center.

3. Python-print muscle T-shirt by Velvet, $58, at Macy's and Bloomingdale's.

4. Hot pink straw tote with fruit appliques and change purse by Bloomingdale's private label, $18.

5. Neon T-shirts by Michael Stars, $29 to $49 each, at H. Lorenzo in Sunset Plaza.

6. Orange "seat belt" webbing strap tote by Harveys, $65, at Jennifer Kaufman and Neiman Marcus.

7. Twin girlfriends print by Custo Barcelona, $62, at Traffic in the Beverly Center.

8. Green checked tote with wood-bead handles by Joomi Joolz, $289, at Jacqueline Jarrot at the Beverly Center and Sherman Oaks Fashion Square.

9. Green tie-dye muscle T-shirt by Language, $54, with rhinestoned V-neck T-shirt by Velvet, $40, both at Macy's.

*

Details for the T-shirts and totes shown on this page from top left, counter-clockwise.

* Beaded, three-quarter sleeve T-shirt by Jane Doe, $58, at Macy's and Bloomingdale's.

* Green tooled-leather tote by Sarah Shaw, $135, at Jennifer Kaufman.

* Green batik-print V-neck by Language, $50, at Macy's.

* Vintage floral tote with hot-pink leather trim by Angela Amiri, $330, at Fred Segal Santa Monica.

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