When Banana Republic was looking for someone to collaborate on a summer collection inspired by Palm Springs, Trina Turk was the one to call.
The L.A.-based designer, known for playful prints with names like "Deco Palms," has had a lock on the Palm Springs look for 17 years running.
The 60-piece Banana Republic Trina Turk collection, which launches in 450 stores worldwide Thursday, brings her name to its biggest audience yet, with patio dresses, tunic tops and bikinis in her signature "Pisces" and "Crazy Botanical" prints. Pieces are priced from $34.50 to $150 — roughly half as much as her namesake line that sells at department stores and boutiques.
Turk is in brand-building mode. She recently rolled out jewelry, stationery and bedding, and she's ramping up the Mr. Turk menswear collection designed by her husband, Jonathan Skow. She also remodeled her 10-year-old Palm Springs boutique — the first one she opened — to better reflect the ever-widening Trina Turk world.
"My goal is to complete the lifestyle. Shoes, sunglasses ... anything that would look good printed is something we should be doing," the designer says, sitting under a sunshade by the pool at her 1936 Palm Springs house "Ship of the Desert," which looks like an ocean liner moored in the side of the mountain.
"The landscape, the architecture and the air — that's what I love about Palm Springs," says Turk, 50, who has been a fan since she came here as a kid to visit her great-aunt Rose at the Villa Roma condominiums. "It's automatically relaxing when I get here."
Although Turk's primary residence is in Los Angeles, this house and Palm Springs have become the $100-million brand's spiritual home.
The swimming pool with its cliff's-edge view of the open sky has been the location for many Trina Turk photo shoots. In the late afternoon, the sun reflects just right off the sparkling water and dusty hills, creating a canvas for Turk's kaleidoscopic prints and cocktail culture dreams.
"It just kind of happened that it became part of the identity of the brand," says Turk, whose company is headquartered in Alhambra. "We do winter clothes and fall and holiday too. But [Palm Springs] overrode all the other information about the company."
Turk and her husband started their search for the perfect Palm Springs hideaway in the early 1990s, when a lot of fashion folks were discovering the midcentury architecture here. They thought they wanted a 1950s house with a pie-crust roof until their real estate agent showed them this place, which they have furnished with midcentury antiques and outdoor loungers upholstered in Turk's signature fabrics.
Turk has been a student of the Southern California lifestyle for as long as she can remember. Born in San Francisco, she spent only a short time in L.A. before her father, a cosmetics industry executive, moved the family to the Seattle area. But her time here made quite an impression, and all through high school and college (she met Skow in 1981 at the University of Washington), she was aching to get back.
Her mother, who is Japanese, taught her to sew, and her first project was making a halter top. From then on, Turk knew she wanted to study apparel design.
In 1985, she moved to L.A. to work for Ocean Pacific. "It was a great job because it got me back around to surf culture, which is so important to Southern California. I was doing color-block board shorts and designing prints. It was a good training ground."
Her next job was designing a short-lived sportswear collection for swimwear label Anne Cole. When that folded, Turk moved to Bum Equipment "of the awful puff-printed sweat shirts," she says. It wasn't her ideal job, but it did allow her to travel the world, visiting factories in Asia and Europe.
"I wanted to work for myself," she says. "A lot of times I bristled when I knew instinctively something was not going to sell. When you are a cog in the wheel, you don't always get to set the tone. Plus, I was working in the junior market, and I didn't ever wear anything I designed."
When she started her own line in 1995, she was working out of her house. Her parents took out a home equity loan to help fund the first collection, which consisted of bright-colored silk dupioni separates screen-printed with giant photographic prints of flowers. Bebe, at the time a multi-brand retailer, placed a $250,000 order, which ended up financing the company's first year.
Turk was still honing her design vocabulary. She bought some yardage of vintage silk jersey in fun prints and made simple drawstring skirts and button-down shirts. Fred Segal bought them and "they sold like crazy," she says. "It made me realize we had to do prints."
Prints have become the brand DNA. Turk introduces several new ones each season, some entirely original and others reworked from vintage fabrics.
She launched swimwear in 2005 and home accessories soon after that. "We started making pillows out of our fabrics for models to loll around on at photo shoots. Afterward, we would stick them in our stores and they sold really fast," she says, by way of explaining the decision to go residential. She also produces indoor-outdoor fabrics with Schumacher. And her first bedding collection shipped in April to Neiman Marcus,Macy's and Bed, Bath & Beyond stores.
Menswear was once an afterthought, but since Skow took over the design two years ago, Mr. Turk is becoming a more robust part of the business. "He was a stylist for 12 years," Turk says of her husband. "He studied apparel design before he switched to marketing. He knows a lot about clothes. When we first met, we spent most of our time vintage-clothing shopping — more time doing that than going to classes." Skow is building a fan base that includes Decades owner Cameron Silver for his vintage-y, slim-fit, horizon stripe "Thurston" blazers and trousers and citrus plaid "Slim Jim" shirts.
There are eight Trina Turk boutiques, including one in L.A., a summer-only store in East Hampton, N.Y., and the recently renovated Palm Springs boutique, which has distinct spaces for all of Turk's product categories.
While the Palm Springs look has certainly been mined by a lot of apparel brands of late (J. Crew, Tory Burch), Turk isn't worried. "We're the authentic brand because we're here in California making clothes in L.A. And they're making clothes in China, and they are from the East Coast," she says. "I feel like we can own it."
Besides, nowadays, she gets inspiration from all over — such as the Coachella Valley Music & Art Festival (she blogged about this year's festival fashion, and Skow took photos) and Capri, Italy, where the couple recently vacationed with their friends and frequent travel companions, interior designer Jonathan Adler and Barneys New York creative director Simon Doonan. In stores now, Turk's "Silk Road Rendezvous" collection features paisleys and Jaipur florals inspired by India.
"Trina's design sensibility is playful, but her approach to creativity is very serious," Doonan says. "Whenever we go on vacation together she is constantly harvesting inspiration, whether from twinkly teens or glamorous grannies, rock-formations, lumps of coral piles or fruit. She is Miss Eagle-Eye. Her approach to fashion is very life-affirming: It's about glamour and non-sleazy hedonism."
[Updated at 5:10 p.m. June 6: An earlier version of this story said there are seven Trina Turk boutiques.]