Past Is Present From This 'Vintage' Point

Times Staff Writer

Mark Werts drives a '56 Lincoln, lounges in a 1940s silk robe and lives at an aging Hollywood hotel when in town. He inhabits the past as much as any 1986 entrepreneur dares, committing himself to such blanket statements as: "I've never worn anything new in my life."

His spouse, Margot Werts, is less the purist, mixing her new Moroccan riding pants with a Nehru jacket and assorted bangles.

Together they create the eclectic style of the American Rag Cie, which, with stores in Los Angeles and San Francisco and a wholesale business, is one of the largest vintage clothes sellers in the West. The company expects 1986 sales volume to exceed $1 million, according to Werts.

Housed in a 10,000-square-foot former Acme Hardware store on South La Brea Avenue, the L.A. branch of American Rag eerily combines nostalgic decor with new wave music for a retailing mood Werts calls "neo-romantic post-high tech." Bland-faced '40s mannequins and Americana paintings by Paris set designer Alain Urcun overlook garments divided by decade or category--such as uniforms, blazers, '60s and "Hippy."

Werts says the '70s are toughest to push: "Seventies polyester--nobody wants that. But with '60s bell bottoms, if they're real, real horrible, people will wear them as a goof. It's so distasteful, it's tasteful."

Werts, who started in the '70s by selling jeans in Europe, travels incessantly in search of faded denims, leather bombers, gabardine shirts and other assorted threads worthy of second fashion rounds. He says he often buys according to his wife's intuition. Margot, 36, is a former fashion model from Holland.

"She'll say: 'Try to get as many narrow miniskirts in bright colors as you can,' " Werts explained. "Then, all of a sudden, she'll say: 'Everything in green--sell it out. Now it's brown.' "

The Wertses try to tap into street trends--from Dust Bowl farmer to Soviet chic. Both were themes last week the store's benefit for Find the Children.

The store also carries new pieces: sweat shirts, leggings, training pants, cardigan dresses and accessories.

But for Werts, fashion means the '30s and '40s--the era when "European tailors were set free in a new land," he said.

Werts, 40, grew up in the Los Feliz area of Los Angeles--he recalls playing baseball on Cecil B. de Mille's lawn--but it was the nearly two decades overseas that shaped his fashion sense. After attending UC Berkeley, he moved to Amsterdam in the late '60s, where he found people "scruffier" but also more fashion-conscious than Americans--and definitely in need of jeans.

"In Europe, part of their aesthetics is the mixing of old and new," he said. "It's a more eclectic, a more sophisticated look."

He opened in Europe what became a series of new and used clothing stores called Salty Dog.

But by the early 1980s, an over-valued dollar prompted Werts to sell his European companies and start over in the United States. In late 1984, he opened shop on Bush Street in San Francisco, discovering a ripe Yankee market for vintage clothes. He followed with the larger L.A. American Rag store last November. He says the two cities quickly showed their contrasting fashion tastes.

"San Francisco is a more conservative, straight crowd. More country club," he said. "L.A. is absolutely more eccentric, daring and fashion conscious." He also calls Los Angeles "wild and rude"--but not in a critical tone.

Californians, north and south, discard some of the best clothes anywhere, he says. Werts thinks this has to do with the state's constant search for what's new.

"And the wealth," Margot said.

Werts also tracks clothes throughout the states and in Europe (source of about a quarter of his merchandise) but he won't talk specifics.

Before selling them, he says, his garments are repaired and laundered or dry-cleaned, creating cleaning bills of about $5,000 a month. Clothes reach the racks with reassuring tags that read: "Sanitized."

"When we opened in France, the French were very worried about 'Who wore this before?' " he said.

Within American Rag, the consumer will find $2 military shorts, a $9.50 gabardine shirt, a $99 cashmere overcoat or a $25 rayon dress from the '40s. Top dollar is a Swedish leather jacket, priced $350.

Margot says old Levi's ($8.50 to $14.50) are constant hot sellers--to be worn "short, baggy and belted." She says her own ultimate find would be a pre-1960s navy Chanel jacket. Her husband's, another 1940s Sulka silk robe.

"If it's an intrinsically beautiful garment, it's not going to change," said Werts, whose other fashion criterion is humor. Old clothes supply it, he says.

"There's something a little wrong with them--but terribly right."

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