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STYLE

Three Dots designer Yuchin Mao is expanding the high-end T-shirt company's offerings with clothing that blends casual with couture.

July 30, 2006|Randye Hoder | Randye Hoder has written for West and The Times' Op-Ed page.

I've assumed that Yuchin Mao, creative director for T-shirt maker Three Dots, will show up for our interview wearing--well, what else but a T-shirt? Instead, she arrives in a dress, which throws me off until I realize that Mao's sleeveless cocoa-brown number is her way of telling me everything she needs to about the direction she's taking the Garden Grove-based company.

Call it Three Dots multiplied.

"Hopefully, pretty soon I'll be wearing Three Dots undergarments," Mao says.

Once known exclusively for its high-end T-shirt line with its ellipses trademark, Three Dots has expanded into all sorts of clothing: dresses, skirts, pants, jackets, even flip-flops. The common thread, says Mao, who joined Three Dots a little more than a year ago after working in Manhattan as a senior designer for Helmut Lang, is simple elegance.

It's a "laid-back style that at the same time" is "refined and well-designed," she says. "It's easy to wear, clean and sophisticated."

Take the $148 "mixed-media dress" that Mao, a petite 35-year-old born in Taiwan and raised in New York, is sporting. It is, she tells me, an amalgam of six cotton fabrics. Among them: a lightweight sanded jersey, a high-twist cotton, a cotton rib, a lightweight sheer cotton and a cotton-Lycra blend. I remark that the dress is very pretty, but you'd never know that it is so intricate.

"That's the whole point," she says. "We, the design team, spend a lot of time to make it look effortless."

What Mao is trying to pull off is an unusual combination of casual and couture. "We are blurring the lines between high end and low end," she explains. "I worked with one of the great visionary thinkers" in fashion, Mao says of her five years with Lang. Now, she's applying some of the design techniques she learned from him--for instance, draping tiers of fabric on a $98 skirt made with everyday T-shirt material, just as she has in the past on a $7,000 gown.

"We can take that high-end aesthetic and apply it to our product for a much broader audience," Mao says.

Just how much broader isn't clear. Deborah Wolsh, owner of ethel, a boutique on Third Street in Los Angeles, is a big fan of Three Dots and of Mao's work in particular. But she says some of the company's newer offerings aren't selling as well as some of its earlier items did. "The fabrics are very clingy," Wolsh says. "It needs a very slim person . . . so it's not for everyone."

Even as Three Dots has moved into new arenas, it has not turned its back on its signature product. Of the 80 or so garments in Three Dots' spring-summer '06 collection, about 40 are T-shirts, ranging in price from $38 to $90. "You pay for the quality," Mao says. "Every stitch, the color, the measurement of a cuff, the neck trim, every single detail down to the seam" is given close attention.

Sharon Lebon, president and co-founder of Three Dots, says she recruited Mao in the hopes of "pushing the envelope" at the 11-year-old company. "We wanted to keep the same clean, simple lines that we are known for, but give it a twist," says Lebon, who persuaded Mao to come to Orange County rather than go to Europe to work for Prada. "Yuchin is really great at that. She can take us to a whole new place."

Eventually, that may be right out of the closet. Mao hopes to move Three Dots beyond clothing and into bed and bath. "We're taking it from being just a T-shirt company to a lifestyle brand," she says. "A home line is my dream.

"Can you imagine sleeping on sheets made from this fabric?" Mao asks, holding up a sumptuously soft, black Viscose Lycra dress. For her, it's a natural progression: from Ts to Zzzzzs.

*

Three Dots designs are available at Nordstrom, Bloomingdale's and Neiman Marcus stores, among others, and at the new Three Dots boutique at 8117 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles.

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