Wild child

Hillary Johnson last wrote for the magazine about ethnic spas.

If you grew up in the suburbs, surely you remember the mom on your block who was every 10-year-old boy's first crush. She was probably a tall, flamboyant woman who drove an Avanti for carpooling, was the first one in the neighborhood to wear Capri pants and mesmerized the coffee klatch with stories about the summer she spent in Europe. She was a worldly, exotic creature who just happened to belong to the PTA and the Diners Club. This glamorous suburbanite woman is designer Trina Turk's inspiration.

"I grew up in California in the '60s and '70s," Turk says while sitting in her office in Alhambra. The room is all white save for a couple of rolling racks of brightly colored vintage wear and a pair of orange office chairs. "It was a time when women thought nothing of wearing a floor-length printed caftan to their next-door neighbor's cocktail party."

Turk's sensibility is wild but never adolescent, cool but never trendy. She calls it California resort wear, inspired by the casual, googly modernist sensibility of Palm Springs, where she and her husband have just finished restoring a house and where the new Trina Turk flagship store opened in March.

Today Turk is wearing jeans and a soft wool sweater with a profusion of Toulouse-Lautrec ruffles along the decollete and cuffs. It's a spectacular sweater, mainly because it's kind of zany and unlike anything you've ever seen before, but it also happens to be as soft and flattering as any Brooks Brothers cashmere. The sweater is one of Turk's bestsellers. When business partner Lyne Lee pokes her head in to say "hello," Lee's wearing a sleeveless version of it in a vivid black-and-white striped cotton blend.

Turk's signature style is crisp and whimsical, featuring bold, eccentric prints and daring details incorporated into garments with flattering, classic lines. Imagine if Jackie Kennedy had married Andy Warhol instead of Ari Onassis, and you'll have an idea of Turk's brand of sophisticated psychedelia. In a year when you can buy Indian-style kurtas by the dozen at any given mall outlet, Turk's are made from a paisley cotton voile cut on the bias to make them drape over the hips just so.

Her designs echo her personality: Far from being your typical gaunt and haughty fashionista, Turk is a warm, round-faced woman who is quick to laugh at herself. She's been married for 17 years to her college sweetheart, Jonathan Skow, a fashion stylist turned photographer (he's also her other business partner). She's positively gleeful that she has grown up to be exactly what she wanted to be, ever since she learned to sew at her mother's knee. "I never went through that trauma of wondering," she says.

Turk burst onto the scene seven years ago, when she quit her job designing sweatshirts and other sportswear for B.U.M. Equipment and launched her own company without so much as a business plan. The colorful holiday line that she whipped up in her living room was a perfect example of being in the right place at the right time with the right product. That year she got into Barneys New York, Fred Segal and Saks Fifth Avenue, and the buzz began.

Incredibly, Turk had never designed anything but sweatshirts, T-shirts, casual tops and board shorts until then, working for companies such as Brittania and Op. Nor was she a fashion insider, having gone to design school at the University of Washington in Seattle. "It wasn't until I was interviewing assistants, and I saw what the students were doing at FIT and Otis that I realized the program I'd gone through was actually quite bad," she says.

Turk says she set out on her own because she understood all too well her limitations. "I'd never done anything but design juniors, and I knew no one would hire me to design a contemporary line," she says. "Why should they? I figured that the worst that could happen was I'd end up with a good portfolio and I could get a better job. All I wanted was to design something I could actually wear for a change."

Being an outsider only helped Turk zero in on what women like herself would really wear. She had always loved clothes, but not necessarily trends. Her real design education began long before college. "I would come home from school every day and sew," she says. "At first I sewed millions of halter tops. Later on I started buying weird fabrics and making all kinds of things. I once made a pair of pants out of my brother's corduroy bedspread."

As a teenager, she and her friends shopped at thrift stores, collecting garments from the '30s, '40s and '50s. "We realized early on that the quality of these garments you were buying for $3.99 was way beyond any designer piece you could go into Neiman's and buy. All that obsessive thrift store shopping was a great education in construction and textiles."

These days, fit and fabrication are the backbone of Turk's business, and the reason that her core customers range in age from 25 to 50. Her target customer is "this woman who loves fashion but is not a victim." What the women who buy her line have in common, Turk says, is more a personality than a demographic. "Someone who is shy is not going to wear a lot of my clothes," she says. "Let's just say that's because I don't really do dusty and muted. I don't even go there."

Now, with 40 employees and a company whose business increased last year at a rate of 60% with sales of $10 million in 2001 and $16 million in 2002, Turk is still flying by the seat of her well-cut pants. She designs every item in her line herself, usually in the evenings and on weekends. She's proud that at her company there are rarely any meetings. "I am the marketing and sales departments," she says. "I'm bad at delegating. But with clothing, it's all about the details. A single button can screw up everything."

The store in Palm Springs wasn't planned. It came about when one of Turk's favorite mid-century modern furniture shops closed and the space became available. "I thought it was an omen. I felt like my clothing was somewhat inspired by Palm Springs, and we should try it."

The space, designed by Kelly Wearstler, is a confection of glass, rattan, mirrors and deep, fluffy carpeting. "Lilly Pulitzer started in Palm Beach, Pucci started on the isle of Capri, and we're in Palm Springs," Turk says. "It's fitting." Being in this environment has inspired Turk to make menswear, which is as yet only available in the Palm Springs store, and may stay that way. "If you're a guy in New York, you're not going to want to walk down the street wearing an orange-and-yellow paisley jacket," she says. "But there's something about Palm Springs that makes you feel like wearing that kind of color. It just feels normal."

Like a hunter in a duck blind, Turk loves to hang out in the store and watch her newest customer base shop. "There's this clientele out there," she says. "It's a mixture of these young hipster golfers and gay men, and every once in a while an older guy who comes in and finds a garment that reminds him of something he used to have and he gets really excited about it."

"I don't make red carpet gowns," she says. "I make clothes for people who feel good about themselves."

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Resource Guide

FASHION, Pages 24-25: Trina Turk Palm Springs Boutique, (760) 416-2856.

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