Linda Stokes' voice is so soft and her demeanor so reserved, you'd think the Woodland Hills clothing designer specialized in pleated skirts, paisley blouses and navy blazers.
But Stokes' personality and fashions don't quite match. Stokes goes for gold sequined bustiers, mile-high shoulder pads and ruffled organza miniskirts.
"I'm not as wild as all of these," she said, pointing to the dozens of glitzy garments hanging on racks in her living room. "People think that's where I become talkative, and I guess that's true. The crazier it is, the more fun I have making it."
Stokes, 35, has been having bolts of fun lately. Her flashy, futuristic fashions have earned her increasing recognition among a celebrity clientele, and she says her company, LSO Designs (Linda Stokes Originals), is growing rapidly. Her clothes are modeled in fashion shows about once a month.
Stokes makes and sells her garments out of her home, but she hopes to open her own boutique by year's end. Her designs should be available in retail stores soon.
"I would love to carry her line," said Maria Atanasio, owner of 818 Freight, a large boutique in Woodland Hills. Atanasio says
that she has just expanded her store to include black-tie garments and that Stokes' designs will fit right in.
"Linda is really on a couture level," Atanasio said. "She has a very good eye for color and style. In this business, you see a lot of people come and go, and many copy their designs. It's hard to find a designer who is really a creator, and Linda definitely is."
Designing for both dressy and casual occasions, Stokes uses a variety of fabrics--silk, cotton and wool among them--and decorates many of her garments with leather and snakeskin appliques. She also makes earrings and covers shoes to match her designs.
"I've always been willing to go a little further," she said. "I've taken a lot of chances, gone way out."
Too far out for some, perhaps. Stokes would eventually like upscale department stores to carry her line. But she said buyers have asked her to alter her designs. "I'm not ever going to do that," she said. "Not for anybody."
Stokes' garments sell from $200 to $1,800 and rent for $50 to $150 a day (about 25% of her business). Spokesmen for several department stores said similar, handmade items typically run from $1,000 to $10,000.
The mother of four teen-agers, Stokes works on her designs almost every day, sometimes for up to 18 hours. She and her six employees can make most dresses in about three hours (her living room is full of sewing equipment, fabrics and racks of clothing), although designs with beads can take more than a week.
Stokes does much of the sewing herself, which she says is unusual. "Most of the designers I know will just sketch," she said. "Most of your big designers can't sew."
Stokes, a Detroit native, learned to sew in a junior high home economics class. It wasn't long before she was making prom dresses for her friends. After high school she moved to New York to attend the Pratt Institute of Fashion, but six months later she was bored and moved back to Detroit. "I was already beyond that point, and I was too anxious to work."
Stokes and her family moved to Woodland Hills six years ago. They chose the San Fernando Valley because it is a "peaceful atmosphere for kids," but most of Stokes' clients live in Beverly Hills. "My clients are always asking for me to move," she said.
'Close to Home'
She says she will probably open her first boutique in Beverly Hills, but would like to open a store in the Valley too. "I'd like to be close to home because that's where I'm comfortable," she said.
Stokes has built a clientele primarily through connections in the entertainment industry. Her husband Michael is a record producer for Motown, and she is part of an R & B singing duet called Magic Lady, which has issued three albums and toured Europe.
One of Stokes' best customers is Marla Gibbs, star of NBC's "227." Gibbs met Stokes five years ago at a charity fashion show. "We all fell in love with her clothes," said Gibbs, who recently wore a Stokes design--a full-length purple knit dress with gold and silver appliques--for a scene in "227."
Gibbs says Stokes is very easy to work with. "She's very quiet and shy, but she's confident about her fashions. And she's very good about matching your personality. I get a lot of compliments, and she gets a lot of business."
In addition to sewing for celebrities, Stokes has made prom dresses for students at Taft, Reseda and Chatsworth high schools. However, she does offer special prices for high school students: $150 to $300.