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DIY Style: Take inspiration from designers who retrofit fashion
Regardless of their past glamour, a few dresses in Doris Raymond's collection are, frankly, wallflower wear. The Chanel tweed jackets and Richard Tam gowns, of course, will never find their way to this category. But other specimens have funereal necklines, sequins that fail to seduce, drab silhouettes and floor-length skirts that leave everything to the imagination. They've tasted fashion's kiss of death -- they're passé.
"This was one of those '80s boxy dresses," Raymond says, flicking through a rolling rack stuffed with matte jersey and silk Jacquard on a recent afternoon at The Way We Wore, her La Brea Avenue vintage boutique. "This was a generic, '60s cocktail dress. And this one," she says with a smirk, "I swear it was a Republican. The scoop neck was horrible. I could maybe see selling it in Texas."
Raymond uses past tense, however, because these frocks are no longer irrelevant. Which is also why she's aglow in a way that only the truly fashion-obsessed become when in close proximity to innovative style.
This week she unveils 32 such vintage pieces, transformed by a small circle of Los Angeles and New York designers, including Jeremy Scott and Kevan Hall. Sleeveless gowns, silk hoodies and a black St. John dress turned into mirrored rocker pants that might thrill Kelly Gray herself are all part of the inaugural Out of the Ordinary charity auction that benefits Earth Pledge's Future Fashion, a nonprofit initiative promoting sustainable practices in the apparel industry. Dita Von Teese and "Entourage's" Debi Mazar will co-host a private Earth Day event Wednesday at Raymond's store, and all garments and one-of-a-kind necklaces by L.A. jewelry designer Sonia Boyajian will be sold by auction on EBay from Wednesday through May 2.
"We all have pieces in our closet that we're not wearing, and it's a pity," Raymond says. "There's still integrity and a usefulness to them, but how do you tweak it to a point where you want to wear it?"
For vintage devotees with tailoring skill, this is not a new question. But the tradition of overhauling the dowdy to create the divine may have new resonance in a time when economics and green sensitivity are making throwaway fashion and impulse buys feel increasingly passé.
It's in Raymond's interest for women to buy secondhand, of course. "I think we have to educate people not to buy trends," she says. "It's the antithesis of what a publication and what advertisers want to hear, yes. But if you buy classics, you'll have these pieces forever."
For the inaugural project, Raymond tapped designer friends and longtime customers who often peruse her vast archives for inspiration. Some started with simpler alterations that left them with unfinished hems -- perhaps as a statement that adapting a dress need not be the work of a couturier. "You shouldn't be afraid to take scissors to the garment," Raymond says.
Jeremy Scott took his creation a bit further (after all, this is the man who recently married classic toile print with a motorcycle jacket). For Out of the Ordinary, he transformed a matronly, no-business-like-show-business evening dress dripping with fuchsia sequins into a flirty minidress with an undulating, off-the-shoulder neck. "We took apart the dress completely to build a new base, as the former one had gathers and volume," Scott explains. "Then we used the excess [fabric] to cut out circular shapes that were sewed together, bound with black satin and encased boning to make the ruffles stand up the way they do." (Bidders beware: Lady Gaga is said to already covet the piece.)
Raising hemlines and hacking off long sleeves was a recurring strategy among many participating designers. Meritt Elliott and Emily Current of Current/Elliott chose a green, nylon chiffon dress with Ladies of the Canyon appeal. They excised several inches of gauzy fabric to construct a short Grecian number in Kelly green, recently worn by actress Emma Roberts on a "Tonight Show With Jay Leno" appearance. "Just look at that," Raymond says as she and her shop employees admire the dress on a form. "So diaphanous."
The project, says Magda Berliner, harks back to simpler design days. "It reminded me of those times where we'd go to Flip on Melrose, find something for $10 and rework it," she says. "I still have garments from when I was 9 years old."
Berliner transformed several dresses, among them a circa-1960s Oscar de la Renta that Raymond had snapped up at auction after a museum deaccessioned it. The tag was hidden inside the garment, and Berliner wasn't aware it was his work while redesigning. "I'm a fan of Oscar, and I have great respect for what someone's done in the past," she says. But from a modern perspective, the dress "made me think of a Stepford-y wife visiting the White House," Berliner says of the woven silk taffeta gown, which is now short-sleeved with an unfinished hem and a flouncy sash across the waist. "Now I could see Malia or Sasha [Obama] wearing it with ballet flats."