What’s My Line?

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.

“I can’t tell you what that felt like,” she says. Through Scientific American’s tuition-reimbursement program, she signed up for fashion illustration and pattern-making classes at FIT. And now she turns out a full ready-to-wear line of smart silk cocktail dresses, playfully pleated skirts, and flirty tank tops, sold at places like TG-170 that specialize in streetwear.

Her appetite for fashion was whetted during her teen years, spent running to stores like Fiorucci and Unique on lower Broadway, watching T-shirts get splattered with paint.

Daly Wear is not cutting-edge fashion, but it is coy and distinct enough to qualify as Gerety’s own thing. And she handles all aspects of her operation, from hand-dyeing garments in her mother’s washing machine to photographing her sister modeling the clothes to punching out little snowflakes for a press mailing to sitting up late nights at her Singer sewing machine, working out every design detail.

“My boyfriend is a friend of Alexei Hay, who photographed a recent Gucci campaign. And he pitched in when I started, and photographed my first collection,” says Gerety.

Not surprisingly, many part-time designers are employed in fashion, as editors, stylists, salespeople, or publicists.

There’s Buzz by Jane Fox, the brainchild of beauty-P.R. executive Jane Burley Schoenborn and interior designer Alicia Fox. The two make colorfully patterned handbags inspired by the classic L.L. Bean canvas tote.

“We’re very preppy girls,” Schoenborn says. “And we wanted to do something very preppy. When in doubt, we say pink or green.” With everyone bracing for the return of high-Wasp style this spring, the two could not have timed it better.

Working in the business gives these dabblers excellent connections, as well as a feel for trends; they can tailor the look-of-the-moment to retailers’ needs with one-off items or niche accessories.

Lila, produced by InStyle senior fashion market editor Larissa Thomson and Lida Moore, a fashion editor at Self, is a sporadic operation that has produced everything from colorful crochet bags to beaded halter tops made of Indian silk scarves, which were available at Bendel’s and Scoop.

“Kate Spade is a total inspiration to me,” Thomson says, referring to the onetime Mademoiselle editor who started her business by making a fabric handbag to fill a void she saw in the market. “But we’re very happy at our day jobs too,” she hastens to add.

Sasha Charnin Morrison, fashion market director at Allure, designs her own line of rhinestoned bandannas and T-shirts today. “My mother had great style,” Morrison says, “and has always been major to me. She even designed her own line for a while.”

Last year, feeling the resurgence of an eighties vibe, she decided to resurrect some of the rhinestoned creations she used to make in the early eighties when she worked at Henry Lehr.

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

A year later, the line, called Sasha Charnin, has evolved into everything from rhinestoned panties to Miguel Adrover-esque I LOVE NY T-shirts to nameplate belts and even sweatbands with diamante on them.

“With a staff of one, working out of my apartment, it’s a little crazy,” says Morrison with a laugh. “There are rhinestones all over the floor. My poor husband has them stuck to his feet.”

The scenario is similar downtown at the Mott Street apartment of 29-year-old Richie Rich, a former Ice Capades skater turned club kid turned performer turned techno D.J. turned designer. His bed is covered with fabric remnants; his dressers are overflowing with pins, glitter, sequins, rhinestones, feathers, and embellishments of all sorts. And there are clothes hanging in doorways and on walls all over this small two-bedroom apartment.

His current day – or, in this case, night – job is working for Susanne Bartsch, helping her produce parties from New York to Miami.

“I’ve always wanted to be onstage, backstage, out there, and everywhere,” says the bubbly Rich, a slender man with jagged blond hair and a raspy voice. “I started performing in clubs and I never had anything to wear. So I started putting things together myself.”

Touring with Ice Capades, Rich spent his share of time in the wardrobe department.

“Some of my fellow skaters were cokeheads, and I didn’t like them,” he says. “So I befriended the costume designers, helping them press rhinestones, dye fabric, sew boas and feathers, and turn something otherwise ordinary into a $50,000 outfit.”

In December 1999, he showed up at a party in one of his own leather tops, and Sushi, the buyer at Patricia Field, ordered twenty of them on the spot. The store sold out immediately. Next, the hip-hop star Foxy Brown asked him to design her outfits for the MTV Video Music Awards.

“It was a teal-blue cavewoman outfit with rips and tears all over it,” says Rich. “The next thing I knew, I had all these pop stars knocking at my door.”

Lil’ Kim bought five leather shirts for her tour. Gwen Stefani wore one of his slashed halters for a shoot in Entertainment Weekly. Rich’s line, Heatherette, was born.

“I like a strong, powerful look,” says Rich. “Maybe warrior chic will be my next thing.”

For the time being, his collection ranges from T-shirts emblazoned with images of the rock band Kiss to slinky one-shoulder dresses with tiger stripes hand-stenciled on. There’s an I LOVE NY T-shirt with the words knit in yarn that dangles loosely as if unfinished. There are great studded and fringed suede chaps.

“These are for Cher,” says Rich, holding them up. “But I couldn’t have made these without Travor.”

Travor is Rich’s more demure partner, Montana native Travor Rains, who is an equestrian teacher at Chelsea Piers. Rains teaches Bartsch’s son horseback riding, which is how the two met.

Buyers around the globe, and as far away as Tokyo, are hot on Heatherette’s heels. How serious will Rich get with his fashion?

“This is meant to be fun, of the moment and totally disposable,” says the ever-perky Rich, handing me a sweatshirt featuring a glittery skull with Playboy-bunny ears, practically the same design Stella McCartney was prevented from using in her Chloe collection. “It’s as if Siegfried and Roy threw up,” he says.

Though her background couldn’t be further from Rich’s, 28-year-old Laila Minott is also banking on the showy look of pop.

Her line of open-back beaded bandanna halters, ponchos made of lamb’s fur, dark denim jumpsuits with plunging necklines, studded jeans, perforated bias-cut leather skirts, and even pleated skirts with chevron-patterned tops is being snatched up by up-and-coming hip-hop stars.

But it wasn’t the call of the high life that inspired the social worker to sit down at her sewing machine and get to it. It was her infant son’s battle with cancer.

“I think I’ve seen every major hospital up and down the East Coast,” says Minott, a tall woman with a gentle smile. “I didn’t have the money to go shopping for myself, because my son’s illness cost a lot. So I started going to the garment district and learning how clothes were made. I asked my parents to buy me a sewing machine, and I got to work. It was a great distraction.”

Her son, Amir Shell, was three and a half months old when he was diagnosed with a rare form of eye cancer called retinoblastoma. He also was born with partial Trisomy 13, which is similar to Down syndrome but has a survival rate of about a year.

Last May, he died at the age of two and a half. “After my son passed away, I left New York for a while,” says Minott. “I decided to take a job working in wardrobe on an independent film. I found I really loved working with clothes. When I got back, I met with my friend Katani Seagar and we became partners in this venture.”

They decided to call their line EffayNyrie, a combination of their middle names.

Seagar, who had studied design at FIT, works by day as a music publicist. Through a network of childhood friends, Minott and Seagar started custom-making outfits for emerging artists like Sonya Blade and Milian, Wyclef Jean’s group.

Though they haven’t placed any garments in stores yet, Minott and Seagar can barely keep up with the personal orders that have come through word of mouth.

“Thank God women are dressing up again,” says Minott, wearing a rhinestoned denim jacket with boot-cut jeans that she made. “We sell everything we make. That’s how we can afford to make it all. We put our paychecks into this collection.”

If a sick child can be the mother of invention, so can one who’s well. When Jann Cheifitz gave birth to her son Gabriel, now 4 years old, she had a hard time finding him clothes she liked.

“All the fun prints were for girls,” she says. “And the only colorful options for boys seem tied in with merchandising. So you can either dress your boy conservatively or put him in Pokémon.”

Cheifitz, a native of Cape Town, South Africa, started making her son T-shirts inspired by popular iconography. She silk-screened astronauts and stars all over the sleeves and front and back of a long-sleeve tee. She tweaked familiar logos, making a friend’s daughter a little pink tee that was a parody of the Sweet’N Low logo that read sweet’n high instead.

The 36-year-old got her start making T-shirts as a teen living under apartheid.

“They became my form of protest, like wearable graffiti,” says Cheifitz, who now lives in the East Village. “I was a political activist and taught people how to print up their own designs through a community arts project. The police were constantly surveilling the building I worked in, and once a bomb went off there.”

Inspired by the punk do-it-yourself ethos, Cheifitz moved to London for part of the eighties. There she sold her T-shirts on Kensington-High Street and in the Camden Town market.

When she arrived in New York in the early nineties, she put design on the back burner and painted sets for low-budget films. Then she got pregnant and noticed the void in the kids’ market.

When others began to take note of her designs and to request T-shirts for their own kids, she decided to take her silk-screening a bit more seriously.

She teamed up with a fellow South African, 39-year-old Carole Scott, a preschool teacher at Beginnings for eleven years, and started silk-screening T-shirts out of the garage of their summer share in Montauk two years ago. Then last May, a friend who manufactures upscale children’s bedding rented them the back room of his vast TriBeCa showroom. And Scott quit her job.

They dubbed their company Lucky Fish, a South African expression, and borrowed an image taken from a sardine can as their logo.

“I’d like to make kids’ clothing a bit more fun and interactive,” says Scott, who has two boys, Sam, 6, and Jonah, 4. “Why not incorporate something educational into the design?”

And their images of spaceships, tigers, trains, and dragons, hand-silk-screened in vivid hues like clover green, bright turquoise, neon orange, sunflower yellow, and poppy red, are enticing even to adults.

“I want to wear them,” says Elizabeth Beer, owner of Hoyt & Bond. “They’re so colorful and graphic, they really stand out.”

The boutique is also selling cloth bags and tops intended for moms that bear the Swahili saying MAZIWA YA MAMA NI TAMU, which means “Mother’s milk is sweet.”

“I love shopping at Old Navy as much as any other parent,” says Scott. “It’s just nice having alternatives to all those logos and perfectly computerized prints.”

And indeed, Lucky Fish T-shirts look refreshingly raw and different, even in a store like Hoyt & Bond that sells handcrafted children’s apparel.

“There’s a fantasy about fashion. A lot of people think, Hey, I can do that. But that’s not fashion; that’s ego,” Josie Natori says, in a cautionary vein. “I’ve encountered a lot of people with these one-off ideas, and that’s all their business is. They come and go, and as long as they’re enjoying themselves, fine.”

When she walked out of Bendel’s Open See last June, Meredith Straus was enjoying herself, to say the least. “I felt like I was on cloud nine,” she says.

On the way in, however, she was “petrified.” Wearing one of her hot-pink silk-charmeuse halters, Straus had been given five minutes to present her line of vintage-lingerie-inspired tops called Meredith.

“I don’t have a selling personality, and my attitude was that the clothing should sell itself. It either works in a store like Bendel’s or it doesn’t.”

Fortunately, the buyer thought it would. She handed Straus her card, instructed her on how to get a tax I.D. number, and asked to see some more prints and fabric swatches later that week.

“I was ecstatic,” she recalls.

Seven months later, Meredith silk-charmeuse tops were prominently displayed on the second floor right next to jeweled handbags and glitzy sequined wear. Straus has also placed her line at the upscale lingerie store La Petite Coquette in the Village, at Patricia Field, at Bond 07, at Hedra Prue, even online at girlshop.com and at a new store called Chroma in South Beach.

Her one-woman operation – which she still runs out of her studio apartment near University Place – has grown into a full-fledged business. She now contracts out her designs to a company that cuts and sews the hundreds of pieces she must deliver each season. And she is just beginning to turn a profit. Her collection has expanded to include dresses, skirts, and perhaps luxurious pants for spring.

Would she like to quit her day job soon?

You bet.

What’s My Line?