Still dazzling

Times Staff Writer

If you have heard of Kaisik Wong at all, it's probably because of the infamous vest. After the spring 2002 collections, Balenciaga's much-ballyhooed designer Nicolas Ghesquiere was forced to admit he copied a 1973 patchwork vest from Wong, a relatively obscure clothing artist who worked in the Bay Area in the 1960s, '70s and '80s. As questions of plagiarism abounded, the buzz about the rediscovered talent traveled the fashion channels from Paris to New York to L.A.

Barneys New York began selling vintage clothing from Wong and others involved in the late 1960s San Francisco wearable-art movement. And "Native Funk & Flash," the 1974 book of hand-crafted fashion in which one of Ghesquiere's design assistant's saw Wong's vest, became a must-read for the style obsessed.

Wong, who died in 1990, was in the spotlight again in May with the release of a documentary about the 1960s-era drag troupe the Cockettes, with whom he collaborated. And now Cameron Silver, whose Melrose Avenue vintage boutique Decades is an idea lab for major designers who come from New York and Europe to plunder the work of others for inspiration, is celebrating the work of Wong. Silver has assembled "Live the Fantasy," a retrospective exhibit and sale of pieces from the Wong family collection.

Wong's clothing, like much of what designers have been showing on the runways recently, is escapism for a tumultuous time, said Silver, who has sold about a dozen pieces to customers who include Jennifer Tilly and Linda Evangelista. "The best-selling clothes are the most fantastic, over-the-top and one-of-a-kind pieces," he said. The pieces range from about $300 for a belt to $3,000 for a gown.

The 100 or so items on view through the end of the month are something to behold, each one a masterful fabric collage. Years before John Galliano did it, Wong was embracing the tribal look. He used the costumes of ancient civilizations -- kimonos, tunics, tapestries, and the embroideries and appliques of South America and Asia -- to realize fashion fusion early on.

Wong handmade most of his pieces, cutting them free form "with scissors in both hands," according to Juan Fernandez, an actor and model who was a friend of the designer's. The collection at Decades includes a coat crafted from patches of colorful Guatemalan fabric; a halter dress covered in jagged scraps of forest green and brown fabric that give the illusion of fluttering leaves; and a quilted vest that has two Japanese carp wind socks across the back.

Other pieces combine futurism with mythic themes the way the costumes do in the "Star Wars" films. Gold piping adds flash to multilayered, Greek goddess-like chiffon tunics; a dramatic dress with a metallic starburst front has a traditional Chinese knot at the waist; and a fabric headdress decorated with metallic thunderbolts evokes at once the Space Age and ancient Egypt.

"He really bridged the gap between the hippie movement and the glam-rock movement," said Jonalain Guzik, author of "Radiate -- The Life and Work of Kaisik Wong." The first book devoted to the designer is scheduled for a fall 2003 release by Rizzoli.

The only item on view that is not for sale is that patchwork vest. After the Decades show closes, it will travel north to the Oakland Museum of California to be included in the exhibition "Iconic to Ironic: Fashioning California Identity," which opens March 15.

Wong was at work at a time when handmade clothing became popular as a reaction against materialism. But Inez Brooks-Myers, who is curating the Oakland show, believes Wong transcends the wearable-art movement. "His work is unique," she said. "He had an eye not only for creating garments for the body but also for presenting them in a static manner. Some of the photographs he took are like mental collages of the real and the fantasy, put together to create theater in your mind."

The designer photographed his models with elaborate sets at botanical gardens, Stinson Beach and other San Francisco-area sites, creating pictures that were almost surrealistic.

Wong was born in San Francisco in 1950 and grew up in Chinatown. His father was an accountant and his mother a homemaker from New Orleans whom Wong's brother, Kailey, described in an interview last week as a "glamourpuss." From the age of 14, Kaisik was silk screening fabrics and making his own clothes, including shoes, hats and belts, according to Kailey, 57, a bus driver in the Bay Area suburb of Pleasant Hill.

Kaisik dropped out of high school at 15 at the urging of his art teacher, and studied for three years at San Francisco's Pacific Fashion Institute. He frequented the Fillmore, the Avalon and other meccas of the hippie movement, where he often was invited to after-parties because of his clothes, his brother said.

In 1967, at 17, Wong moved to New York where he worked with designers such as Adele Simpson. He traveled to Paris and met Salvador Dali, as well as Yves Saint Laurent, Thierry Mugler and Pierre Cardin. Cardin asked Wong to work for him. "Kaisik was wise enough to turn it down, because he realized he wouldn't be recognized for his work," said Kailey.

(Kailey Wong is a part of cultural history in his own right. According to the New York Times, he inspired the title of a famous Tom Wolfe book after meeting the author in San Francisco when Wolfe was working on a story about Chinese American activists. Kailey was taking fitness tests to become a cop, and told Wolfe, "I guess they want to make sure you're made of the right stuff.")

In the early 1970s, Kaisik Wong returned to San Francisco to launch his own fashion label, Muuntux. He designed for stars such as Tina Turner and Robin Williams, and collaborated with filmmaker Steven Arnold of the Cockettes, creating costumes and performance pieces.

Always theatrical, Wong often appeared in public dressed as the Monkey King, a mythological Chinese trickster.

In 1973, Wong closed Muuntux. For the rest of his life, he produced one-of-a-kind pieces for the San Francisco art-to-wear boutique Obiko, I. Magnin and Henri Bendel.

After Kaisik's death from leukemia in 1990, his mother, Alma, refused to sell any of his clothing, and kept his workroom intact. "His scissors, sewing machine and pins were just the way they were, as if he was going to the store and coming right back," Kailey said.

When Alma died in 2000, the family decided it was time to let go. "His clothes have so much chi energy that they don't need to be in a closet or in a bag, they need to be shared," Kailey said.

Earlier this year, when a friend e-mailed him a picture of Ghesquiere's vest, Kailey was not surprised. He had already seen references to his brother's work in "Return of the Jedi."

"I guess nothing is original," he said. "Except maybe Kaisik."

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