Raising the bar for shorts

Times Staff Writer

Who wears short shorts -- just about anyplace? Lindsay, Nicole, Mischa, Paris and Nicky started the trend last summer, and it has since spread to the runways, the red carpet, even the office. Blame Kristen Johnson and her shorts company Johnson, a favorite with the paparazzi-trailed pack. In just one year, the designer’s line has gone from being sold in three stores to 500, from being backed by her boyfriend to having a business partner.

Forget denim cutoffs and Gap circa 1986 khaki Bermudas. This summer, it’s all about tailored shorts, city shorts, dressed-up shorts. Whatever you call them, they are not for the beach. And what makes Johnson’s shorts so special is that they are made from vintage silk, cotton, wool plaid and houndstooth, with a loose fit and a low waistband modeled after men’s trousers. The legs are cuffed and fastened with one-of-a-kind buttons. She has four basic styles that sell for $120 to $500: short shorts (the Millicent), mid-thigh (the Gertrude), Bermuda length (the Esther) and bloomer (the Louise). For fall, she’s also offering printed Capri leggings, unitards and tights to wear underneath. The timing couldn’t be better with all the layering in designer collections.

Johnson, 29, who has a mass of curly hair and, not surprisingly, a great pair of legs, has been obsessed with shorts since she was a kid growing up in San Diego.

In high school, she was that girl who wore dolphin shorts, and Levi’s cut off and hemmed. She started collecting vintage pieces in polka dot prints or corduroy. “But they were always too short and too high-waisted,” she said earlier this week at her downtown studio, which is decorated with a porcelain deer statue, a 1960s rooster wall piece and other thrift store finds. “I thought they would have been cuter if they had been more like men’s trousers, hanging on the hips.”

So, she started making her own about two years ago. A stylist friend borrowed a pair for a shoot with Hilary Duff, who was photographed in the shorts for the cover of Blender magazine. When the job was over, she didn’t want to give them up.


Johnson started taking her samples around to stores.

“The feedback was pretty good. But there were those who said, ‘Where’s the rest of the collection?’”

Satine, the trendsetting 3rd Street boutique, was one of the first to place an order.

“They recalled the 1940s pin-up girl with a punk-rock edge,” said Jeannie Lee, founder and co-owner of Satine. “Kristen was a pioneer in that she came out with shorts to be paired with tights in the winter time in lieu of jeans. In recent seasons, we have seen so many designers who have jumped on the shorts-for-all-seasons trend.”

The shorts have even spawned a waiting list, Lee said. “The tailoring is impeccable -- slouchy without being frumpy. People are wearing them with a V-neck sweater layered over a button-down shirt. We also see girls wearing them with heels and a blazer on the red carpet.”

Shorts scare the heck out of a lot of women, but Johnson says they shouldn’t.

“They can be worn almost anywhere a short skirt can be worn,” she said. “And, like jeans, they can be paired with almost anything.” At her office, she is wearing a pair of Millicents in black and white pinstripes with a black twin set, white anklets and black ankle boots. Of course, she looks fabulous.

Johnson said her mother, who is 57, is a fan of wearing the longer shorts with T-shirts and sandals. “But she’s a workout freak. I don’t think someone over 70 should wear them. And in the office, they have to be the right length. Or you have to work somewhere artsy.”

Planning ahead, Johnson intends to invest in a little more fabric and expand her line. Now that everyone from Banana Republic to Chanel is making shorts, she knows she has some serious competition.

“I feel so grateful,” she said. “A lot of people in this business struggle. This is just right now, which is not to say tomorrow we aren’t going to go under.”

Sykes’ divorcees know status items

Nearly every chick-lit book that has crossed my desk since “Bridget Jones’s Diary” is tripe. One author even had the audacity to write about a newspaper reporter staying at the Ritz for Paris Fashion Week. (Yeah, sure.)

But Plum Sykes gets it right. Her second book, “The Debutante Divorcee” (Miramax Books, $23.95), is full of compelling fashion nuggets that give new meaning to status items. (“If she wore vintage, it had to be Ossie Clarke or Dior and she would fly to London especially to stock up on the best things at the Dover Street Market.”)

Sykes’ socialite characters don’t obsess over run-of-the-mill Tiffany and Co. sterling silver ID bracelets, they obsess over a diamond necklace that belonged to the Duchess of Windsor, Smythson stationery with white engraving and Faberge cufflinks given to Czar Nicholas by his mother in 1907. They also obsess over divorce showers.

Sykes coined the term “debutante divorcee” after noticing that women of a certain social set were no longer embarrassed about divorce, but embracing it -- shopping at Bergdorf Goodman, jetting off to St. Barts, partying at Bungalow 8 and throwing themselves showers.

“These are women who are under 31 1/2, newly divorced and not moping around at home; they have turned themselves into It Girls,” Sykes said over breakfast last week, when she was in L.A. for a book party at the Chanel store in Beverly Hills. “Because the truth is, when you get married, you’re not that much fun anymore. In that age group, a girl who is suddenly single is a breath of fresh air.”

The divorcees that Sykes interviewed remain anonymous, but she admits the characters (and their clothes) are modeled after her real-life fabulous friends, including Tinsley Mercer-Mortimer and Muffy Potter Aston.

Sykes, who splits her time between New York and her native London, is not a debutante divorcee. She was married 9 months ago, an affair that was chronicled in the pages of Vogue magazine, where she is a contributing editor. She’s also four months pregnant.

“I think it’s a human thing to want to be in love. One slightly envies a girl who doesn’t have to tell her husband that she wants to go out until 4 a.m.,” she says. “But I don’t want to go out until 4 a.m. anymore.”