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What's My Line?

Forget that screenplay in the desk drawer: The New York fantasy of the moment is your own line of handmade T-shirts, halter tops, or handbags. And it's become a reality for a remarkable number of amateur designers armed with scissors, a sewing machine, and a way with rhinestones.

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Meredith Straus will never forget the brisk morning last June when she stood in line outside of Henri Bendel for three hours. She had responded to an ad in Women's Wear Daily calling all wannabe designers to show their wares at Bendel on Monday, June 5, at 8 a.m., on the lower level. This twice-yearly event is called Open See, something like an open casting call, and it seemed too good an opportunity to miss.

"I figured if I got there at 7:30, I'd have time to grab a cup of coffee and make the front of the line," says the 26-year-old Woodbury, Long Island, native. But she was wrong. Straus was the one hundredth person to arrive, and by nine o'clock the line had snaked around 55th Street.

"I felt like I was auditioning for A Chorus Line," Straus reminisces with a laugh. "It was very Fame. Everyone was there with a garment bag in hand, checking each other out. But everything was all wrapped up, so you had no idea what the next person was showing."

If everyone in L.A. from the valet to your personal trainer has a screenplay in the works, the quintessential New York moonlighter-of-the-moment has an idea for a cool new halter top or studded T-shirt. When Bendel revived the Open See two years ago, about 50 aspiring designers showed up; at the next one, January 22, they expect ten times that number of after-hours designers. Straus, for instance, works for Merrill Lynch by day but makes slinky silk camisoles at night.

This may seem odd until you realize that's exactly where Josie Natori came from before she started her own lingerie business. "How do you leap from finance to fashion?" asks Natori, who fled a six-figure salary as a Merrill Lynch vice-president some 25 years ago. "I got bored at my job. I had money, but creatively I felt dry. And I've always had an artistic streak. I realized I needed that creative side to be fulfilled."

"I brought in a vintage Pucci bandanna that I had rhinestoned to the owners of Kirna Zabête, and they flipped," says Charnin Morrison. "They ordered five more immediately. And that's how it started."

From her Wall Street perch, Natori tried her hand at various ventures, from importing baskets from her native Philippines to dealing furniture, until one day she showed a traditional Philippine embroidered blouse she'd found to a buyer at Bloomingdale's and everything clicked.

Natori quit her job as soon as she got her first orders -- not from Bloomingdale's -- and within a few months, she had designed a whole line. She has never looked back.

But Meredith Straus isn't about to leave her job at Merrill Lynch just yet. "It's a means to make money until my dream of being a designer pans out," she says. "And strangely, it's a good balance. My day job is so conservative that when it's time to design, I'm dying to be creative."

"A lot of these people have day jobs," says Ed Burstell, vice-president and general manager at Bendel. "And through the years, some of them have become part of our core buys."

Of course, Bendel isn't the only store in town tapping into this world of not-ready-for-prime-time designers. Barneys and Bloomingdale's are in the game, and it seems every boutique from Smith Street in Brooklyn to the Upper East Side carries merchandise hatched in the wee hours in the bedroom of some makeup artist or stylist or new mom or magazine editor.

"People are constantly wandering in wearing something that we think is great," says Stacey Pecor, owner and founder of Olive and Bette's, "so we'll ask, 'Where did you get that?' and they often say, 'I made it myself.' " Her boutique carries lines like Lucy 2000, jewelry designed by a hair-and-makeup artist who had one of her creations photographed in InStyle because a model on a shoot she was working on loved it. "This is how boutiques stay ahead of the game," Pecor says. "We're less bureaucratic than a department store, so it's easier for someone designing on the side to place some great limited-edition item here than, say, at Bloomingdale's."

Stores like Olive and Bette's, Scoop, Calypso, and Selima have proliferated all over town because customers are hungering for individual touches that can't be mass-produced and easily identified.

"It's an interesting phenomenon," notes Valerie Steele, chief curator of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology. "Fashion is in a particularly eclectic moment. There are multiple looks running at the same time, and stores are interested in local, specialized, cutting-edge, and even marginal talent. People want to express themselves through fashion and add their quirky, unique touch."

To Steele, this amateur hour in fashion has less to do with the free-yourself ethos of the sixties than with eighties entrepreneurship. There's a "Gee, what if?" attitude. "Handbags and accessories are not capital-intensive," Steele says. "You can fabricate them on your kitchen table. You could really do it at home."

"Most of us have been brought up with this vision that you can only do one thing in your life," says Hugo Uys, part owner of the Paris Commune restaurant and also the designer of Ekoo, an upscale line of canine couture. "I have been so many different things in my life," he says, "I don't think I would be content doing just one thing."

For Vera Wang Uys has made a dog's wedding outfit; for Swarovski, he's made a coat featuring their crystals; and he's even made a pooch pattern for Donna Karan. His elaborate quilted dog coats are sold at Bendel's, Fetch, and other specialty boutiques.

Uys (pronounced "Ace") considers Ekoo to be a sort of extension of his work at the Paris Commune, a West Village restaurant frequented by Marc Jacobs and his ilk. "The kind of person who eats here would buy Ekoo coats for their dogs," he explains. "It's a lifestyle concept."

Bridget Daly Gerety, designer of the whimsical label Daly Wear, is also the photo editor of Scientific American. And while her day job is worlds away from Seventh Avenue -- the dark, librarylike office is decorated with Star Trek posters and images of cells and microscopic matter -- she says she finally decided to try designing one day at work while she was searching the Internet for stock images and new photographers.

"I found this great kimono fabric online and had to order it," says the winsome 29-year-old. After making little handbags out of another Japanese fabric from the same site, she tested the retail waters and placed them immediately at Steven Alan, a SoHo boutique where 50 percent of the stock comes from new talent. A month later, she spotted a woman carrying one at the museum P.S. 1 and was overcome with excitement.


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