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South Paradiso leather revives the arty East West rock look

May 17, 2009|Booth Moore | Fashion Critic

Stylish leather is as much a part of the rock 'n' roll image as groupies and smoke-filled tour buses. And these days, nobody is doing it better than South Paradiso, the hippie glam, art leather label following in the grand tradition of such music world haberdashers as Nudie's Rodeo Tailors, Granny Takes a Trip and East West Musical Instruments Co.

The interior of the new South Paradiso Organic Haberdashery on Sunset Boulevard is trippy by design, with 1920s-era pink flocked velvet wallpaper, a buffalo head and a laughing clown on the wall, Grateful Dead music in the background and the sweet smell of -- something -- hanging in the air.

Then there are the jackets -- slim-fitting buffalo, calf and deer leather with strangely shaped yokes and curving seams, inlaid with miniature paintings of castles and demons, airbrushed with psychedelic-looking leafy plants, or appliqued with metallic aqua and pink parrots or rainbow flames. Each one is handmade and no two are alike. It's no wonder Jack White, Devendra Banhart and Steve Jones are fans.

The look is a welcome departure from the ubiquitous Goth leather jackets that have been in fashion for so long, embellished with skulls, crosses or fleurs-de-lis, by such labels as Chrome Hearts, Thomas Wylde and Royal Underground. South Paradiso (southparadiso leather.com) is less aggressive and more fantastical, paying homage to the colorful Bay Area art-to-wear movement of the 1960s and '70s and L.A.'s folksy canyon culture, which after all these years still influences style here, particularly when the weather starts to turn hot.

It seems particularly relevant now that the Dead are back on tour, "Hair" is back on Broadway, Pepsi Throwback is hitting grocery store shelves and seemingly everyone -- Chanel, Mischa Barton -- is making hippie headbands.

In addition to jackets, South Paradiso sells vests, jeans and pants, tie-dye T-shirts with smoking monkeys on the fronts, and smaller items such as airbrushed leather cuffs, belts and appliqued parrot wallets. (Prices range from $150 for a belt to as much as $6,000 for a jacket.) One of the most impressive pieces isn't leather at all -- it's a bell-sleeve velvet jacket with inlaid paintings by a woman who was an original member of the Fool, the Dutch design collective responsible for the psychedelic facade of the Beatles' Apple boutique in London and for the painted guitar Eric Clapton used while he was with the group Cream.

"I tracked her down in Pasadena," says Romulus Von Stezelberger, the force behind the 8-year-old South Paradiso. Von Stezelberger lives in a house in Laurel Canyon that is also his studio, and he parties as hard as his musician clients. He is dressed for an afternoon at the store in a top hat, Elvis glasses and a jacket made from a deconstructed American flag.

His enthusiasm for vintage clothing -- which borders on obsession -- dates back to his teenage years in Bucks County, Pa. As an adult in the Bay Area, he first heard about San Francisco leather goods company East West Musical Instruments Co., which operated from 1967 till the early '80s, outfitting the likes of Janis Joplin and Elvis. Von Stezelberger plastered his neighborhood with fliers offering cash for jackets, and asked anyone who looked to be the right age if they remembered the shop or the brand, which was sold around the country.

"East West was the look of music," says Paul Gorman, who is working on a book about Granny Takes a Trip, a Kings Road store with outposts in New York and L.A. that in the 1960s and '70s helped bring swinging London style to the U.S., where it became dressed-up hippie glam. "East West Musical Instrument Co., North Beach Leather and Paraphernalia were challenging what was happening in clothing in London, the way the Grateful Dead responded to the Rolling Stones," Gorman says.

"It was inevitable that East West jackets would become collectible and re-enter the process as cutting-edge design," adds the author, who writes about rock 'n' roll wear on his blog the Look (rockpopfashion.com/blog). "Because in this era of mass-marketed global fashion, what's available to all is not what you want."

It was a single jacket that ignited Von Stezelberger's passion in 2000. Working at the time as a freelance designer for Bebe, BCBG and other companies, he was en route to a flea market when he casually mentioned to his cab driver that he was looking for East West jackets. Turns out, the driver's wife had worked for the company for 10 years.

In a matter of hours, Von Stezelberger was at their front door with a fistful of cash. "She had a prototype," he remembers. "It had appliqued dragons around the collar and the notch of the lapel was the dragon's mouth. It was unreal, because I didn't find one of the ones everybody knew about, I found a collector's dream."

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