Urban-Armor Concept Tells the World Who You Are

Times Staff Writer

Harry Parnass is wearing his urban armor.

It may be just clothing to you and me, but to the man who founded Parachute shops and clothing, urban armor is a concept responsible for a fashion empire with an annual retail volume of $27 million.

“In our society, things move so fast that people have to tell each other who they are within the first 10 seconds,” Parnass says. “Before you open your mouth, you communicate who you are and how you are feeling by what you are wearing. As clothing designers, we provide the vocabulary. To the people who wear them, it is urban armor.”

During a visit to Los Angeles from his base in Montreal, Parnass is dressed in armor that could be described as dark and colorless, warm and functional, save for the shirttails, which are fashionably left hanging outside his jacket.


A working architect and professor of architecture and urban design at the University of Montreal, Parnass created the Parachute concept in 1977, bringing the same seriousness of intent to fashion design as he does to projects of larger scale and permanence.

With Nicola Pelly--his partner, live-in companion and mother of his 8-month-old baby--he designs five collections a year, 200 styles per collection. They are available in about 200 stores around the world. The seventh Parachute store opens today on Camden Drive in Beverly Hills.

A high-intensity man who thrives on pressure, Parnass seems to take as much pleasure in having Woody Allen as a customer as he does in being considered one of the intellectuals of the fashion world.

“Woody Allen filmed part of his latest movie in our New York store,” he boasts.

Science of Signs

Parnass’ approach to fashion is based on semiology--the science of signs. “We’re reconceptualizing traditional notions of dress,” he says.

His ideas for designs are drawn from what he calls “historical precedents.” A jacket has epaulets taken from a samurai warrior’s uniform. Pants are adapted from those worn by athletes in the 1932 Olympics. Belts are like the ones Parnass saw on rice pickers in Thailand. Colors are taken off the TV screen, then woven in patterns that resemble video dots.

“In a sense we mine the collective consciousness of our generation,” Parnass says. The results, he says, are cultural hybrids.


The look can range from elegant to very tough, rarely unisex, but always counterculture.

“We’re always being experimental and testing new ground instead of flogging the mass market,” Parnass says.

Asked if his experiments ever fail, Parnass replies: “A year and a half ago we introduced a shirttail look as an exaggerated statement of the 18th Century. Nobody understood it. Our failures have been in doing things too early.”

Most Parachute prices range from $100 to $500, although there is no target audience for the clothes.

“If we happen to find a very, very cheap cotton weave in India, it will end up being a cheap shirt. In Thailand, we may see a fine hand-woven silk, and it will become an expensive shirt. There’s nothing artificial or manipulated about our prices,” he says.

Parnass also rejects traditional notions of store design. His shops are devoid of gilt, chrome and marble--”all the standard Beverly Hills things”--and instead have concrete plaster walls, massive cardboard columns (“part of what I call ephemeral architecture”), industrial garment racks and window glass used in Italian aircraft hangers.

Loitering OK

The greatest luxury at Parachute is space. “That costs a lot of money too,” Parnass insists. In the center of each of his newest stores is a wide-open area, which he calls the urban promenade. It provides customers with room to “loiter and watch.”


The focal point, however, is a grand mirror, 21 feet high, located at the foot of the urban promenade.

“When people come out of the dressing rooms, they become performers,” Parnass says. “The key thing to me as an urban designer is city as theater. Everybody is a performer.”

With one store on Melrose Avenue, Parnass is now eyeing locations in the Little Tokyo area.

“We’d probably like to take over the Temporary Contemporary when it finds a new location.”