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Out of Africa : Fashion: A group of white South African designers are succeeding in Southern California. They take cultural inspiration from home.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the display window of her Heliotrope Drive studio at the eastern edge of Hollywood, clothing designer Jocelyn Winship displays bright African tribal-print fabric along with her own silk-screened T-shirts that read Nkosi Sikela i Africa.

Translation: God Bless Africa.

Winship, who donates $1 to a foundation that helps educate rural blacks in South Africa for each T-shirt sold, is one of a dozen or so South African-born designers who have settled in Southern California, lured by business opportunities and succored by the balmy climate, beach and palm trees that remind them of home.

Although they sympathize with Nelson Mandela, the inspirational, 71-year-old African National Congress leader who visits Los Angeles today, few of the designers are politically active. Most prefer to say they are “politically aware.” And most say they draw little besides cultural inspiration from their homeland.

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“The fact that I’m here and not there is a political statement in itself,” says Mimi Cox, a 29-year-old designer from Cape Town whose Opera line features crisp, structured outfits that retail for about $250.

Most of Cox’s fellow emigre designers echo this sentiment. Articulate and successful, the clothiers--who are all white--for the most part steer clear of politics. Some say they are too busy. Others would prefer to keep a low profile because they are still dealing with immigration officials.

Some, however, do take a stand, including Winship, who has printed anti-apartheid T-shirts, and designer Peter Cohen, who will attend a benefit for Mandela Friday night, then head to the Coliseum to hear the South African leader speak.

None of these established designers seem surprised that there are no blacks among their numbers. Under apartheid, it is whites who have more opportunities to attend good schools, travel and learn business skills.

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The white South African designers contingent has indeed done well. Today, their clothes hang in Bullock’s and Saks, Neiman Marcus and Fred Segal.

But they share little in common except a drive to succeed. They don’t band together or operate as a group.

The reason, they say, is that their country--by its very isolation and broad open landscapes--bred a pioneer mentality, a rugged individualism that they retain in the diaspora.

“In South Africa, if you wanted something, you had to do it yourself. We had a pioneer type of mentality,” says Mark Eisen, who designs a women’s wear line carried in stores nationwide. “We’re friendly to each other, but we don’t really operate in the same markets.”

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Some designers, including Joel Cooper and Michael Tomson of Gotcha Sportswear, hearken to the beach for creative muses. Others favor tailored, British-squire themed elegance. Yet others embraced ethnic patterns and colors and still resurrect those themes occasionally.

“A couple years back, I had my mom (in South Africa) buy me some indigo and white prints that the Africans wear and I had them redone here,” says designer John Murrough, 36, who has lived in the United States eight years. “But it’s a trend like anything else. You throw it in, then jump out of it real quick.”

Murrough, formerly of TJ Boys, designs under his own name. As a new arrival in Los Angeles in the early ‘80s, he showed wrap skirts and vests made of natural, rough-edge cowhide; their rugged look suggested safari hunters in the African bush.

Now, however, he styles far more citified suede jackets, pants, skirts and shorts that retail from $100 to $275 and a sportswear line, which runs from $40 to $135.

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Designer Ricki Wolman who designs the Cafe line of men’s shirts, features bright ethnic prints this summer--including tribal masks printed on rayon fabric--inspired directly by his South African heritage.

Winship, who designed the men’s fashion line for Body Glove for three years, now focuses on casual evening wear and funky day wear for individual clients; the anti-apartheid T-shirts are a sideline, a way to “give something back.”

But she also plumbs her roots for all her fashion ideas.

“I have a private collection of African prints that I look at to get inspirations for colors and combinations,” she says.

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Another designer who continues to pepper her work with African and other ethnic motifs is Lianne Barnes, 28, known for hand-loomed and crocheted knitwear that sells under her own name for between $120 and $700.

In one collection of sweaters, Barnes used buttons made from African goat bones that tribal members had polished, carved and dyed natural browns and earth colors. Another season she showed earrings from Afghanistan.

But her new designs have lost the strong ethnic feel of her earlier years. “My style is much more classic now, more sophisticated with cleaner lines. I’ve grown up,” Barnes says.

Fashion runs in the Barnes blood, it seems. Lianne’s sister Jenny Graham is the designer behind Jenny & the Boys, a line of hand-stitched, all-leather belts, handbags and accessories. In classic and contemporary styles, the label ranges from $60 for a belt to $250 for a hand-tooled handbag.

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Emil Rutenberg, who has lived in Los Angeles since 1982, has shown safari looks in past collections, that might suggest his South African heritage. But he is better known for his updated classic sportswear and suits, in tailored rayon and silk fabrics.

“We’re doing very light greens and dirty pinks and neutrals like beige and rust,” says the 40-year-old designer, whose line ranges from $110 to $150 for skirts and $95 to $185 for shirts.

“What we do is quite removed from any kind of ethnic influence.” he adds.

A clothier who blends ethnic looks with classical design is Peter Cohen, who hails from Zimbabwe and is known for his elegant, dressy sportswear and separates in luxury fabrics.

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Cohen and South Africa remain firmly entwined. His fashion business bears the name Piet Retief after a 19th-Century leader of the Boers, South Africa’s early Dutch settlers.

Perhaps the most whimsical of the South African native designers now based in Los Angeles, Cohen says he would love to have outfitted Nelson Mandela’s wife, the regal and controversial Winnie, for the couple’s visit to the White House earlier this week to meet President Bush.

Cohen’s fantasy choice: lots of flowing ethnic fabrics in the gold, green and black colors of the African National Congress.

Cohen is also intrigued by the idea of one day designing an African couture collection that would blend high fashion with traditional African crafts, jewelry, fabrics and beadwork.

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“It’s a secret fantasy,” he confesses, recalling an African-inspired couture collection by Paris designer Yves Saint Laurent that grabbed the spotlight in the ‘60s. Among other things, it featured dresses made of wooden African beads.

On visits back to Africa, however, Cohen finds trendy white South African women adopting traditional African dress while some of their African counterparts embrace the suited “dress for success” look of businesswomen the world over.

“I like my work best when its cross-cultural,” says Cohen, whose clothes bear his own name and a signature gold star. Then he muses for a moment.

“I’ve always interested in that point of intersection, in putting together the primitive with the modern and finding the point where they’re in agreement. Done correctly, African (inspired clothing) could be a big trend because of the visibility of Africa today.”

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