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The No-Sweat Sportswear

Fashion Active Lab's low-upkeep duds use luxury blends for a stylish, go-anywhere look

October 04, 2002|VALLI HERMAN-COHEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

All those futuristic visions of the 21st century invariably included a wardrobe of simple, unisex, high-tech uniforms. Fortunately, that look has never materialized, but something more attractive has.

A fusion of fashion and active wear, Fashion Active Lab, or FAL for short, blends luxury fibers such as cashmere with a minimalist sports vibe to make distinctive men's and women's clothes. The tailored jackets, cashmere sweaters and simple skirts and pants have the comfort of sweats, but are elegant enough for a restaurant or casual workplace. Everything is wrinkle resistant, color coordinated and washable.

Designer Jeffrey Grubb, 40, launched the women's line three years ago and the men's this fall. "The collection really incorporates my whole life experience," the designer said from his Manhattan atelier. Grubb is a native Minnesotan-turned-New Yorker who is a former gymnast, fitness trainer, gym owner and veteran of fashion showrooms, retail stores and designer ateliers, such as Industria and Andrew Dibben.

"I feel like the world, along with me, is rejecting the conformity of the shirt and tie," he said. "We all work very hard, and we go a lot of places on the run. The clothes we require have to work with us, not against us."

Toward that end, the multi-tasking collection offers high-performance separates that range from $45 for a Pima cotton shirt to $180 for a cashmere sweater to $900 for a techno-cashmere sweater that's stretchy, machine washable and sometimes lined with moisture-wicking fabrics. The techno-suede skirts, pants and jackets are softer than previous synthetic versions and also washable. That means white is now an option for subway riders and fans of messy food.

"The whole thing was to inject luxury into it, which gives it a certain amount of acceptance in different places," said Grubb, whose synthetics often look natural, while the natural fibers are often tweaked to improve performance. To make dressing simpler, Grubb selected the colors and textures of each season's groupings to create an interchangeable wardrobe of sleek basics. He added conveniences such as a locker loop, extra-long sleeves, zippers in sleeve cuffs and elastic in waists, and he eliminated logos. As for the image of Jimi Hendrix woven into a cashmere sweater? That's just for cool.

"It's really good travel clothes," said Hollywood stylist Phillip Bloch, who has outfitted client Halle Berry in FAL. "It packs well, it washes well and it looks great. Everything these days is so boring or too freaky. This is luxe with simplicity."

The collection hit a chord with customers at Savannah, a Santa Monica boutique, where most of the first fall shipment sold within a week, said owner Susan Stone. "I'm going to wear this on the plane to Milan," said Stone as she showed a Pima cotton T-shirt and a pair of trousers with a disguised elastic waist. "It's very modern clothing. A sporty look is so important in fashion, but these don't look like you're wearing Michael Jordan's clothes."

FAL isn't the first collection to offer high-performance designer clothing. However, Grubb's efforts evolve ideas set forth by pioneers Norma Kamali, Francois Girbaud and even Miuccia Prada. Unlike some of those designer lines, FAL offers a range of lower-priced pieces that helps remove the feeling of preciousness--and the guilt over wearing it to the gym or playground.

The collection's emphasis on layering and comfort particularly meets the needs of the California lifestyle, Stone said. Boutiques, such as Theodore, Fred Segal Flair and R.K. Shugart, have been especially receptive to the line. Linda Dresner is installing a special FAL section in her namesake New York boutique on Park Avenue. Department stores haven't decided, exactly, where the collection belongs. Neiman Marcus tends to stock it in the designer sportswear department, while Saks Fifth Avenue skews its selection toward the more technical fabrics and sells the collection in the contemporary sportswear department. The collection allows for a lot of interpretation, even in the mind of its creator.

"This piece is what Jeff wants people to wear in the future," said Susan Beischel, spokeswoman for Fashion Active Lab, pulling a stretchy men's jumpsuit from a rack at the Hatch showroom at L.A.'s New Mart. "Just one piece to put on," she said of the jumpsuit that looked, well, like those unisex uniforms designers are always touting. That's the problem with fashion visionaries. They're ready for revolution when the rest of us are just trying to keep up with evolution.

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