Offbeat fashion designer created kitschy items

Times Staff Writer

Gregory Poe, a fashion designer with an offbeat sensibility who caused a sensation in the late 1970s with a line of see-through purses and raincoats infused with plastic fish and other whimsical items, died Sept. 1 at his home in Los Angeles. He was 51.

In poor health for several years, Poe died in his sleep, according to his brother, Jeffrey.

Poe quickly established himself as a fashion talent in 1978, when he designed a line of plastic clothing and accessories that incorporated novel items: colorful plastic fish afloat in raincoat pockets and clutch bags with candy wrappers sewn into the flaps. The kitschy items quickly sold out at trendy Melrose Avenue boutiques, including Maxfield and Fiorucci.

“He was very creative, in an avant-garde way,” recalled Mary Stephens, director of the fashion design department at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles, who later hired him to teach advanced design students.


By the early 1980s, Poe’s creations were being sold at Macy’s in New York, where Japanese buyers discovered them. They bought entire racks of his merchandise and took them back to Tokyo, which launched his career there.

Wacoal, the company that helped make Issey Miyake a fashion icon, added Poe to its stable. For more than a decade, he designed men’s and women’s clothing and accessories that were sold exclusively in a chain of Wacoal-backed Gregory Poe boutiques in Japan.

He later sold an American line of women’s ready-to-wear that was distinguished by slinky shapes and unusual textures. It won raves from fashion editors such as British Vogue’s Jill Spalding. She told the Chicago Tribune in 1985 that Poe was “the most talented designer on the West Coast,” using materials such as Astroturf and nylon leopard skin “long before Melrose Avenue caught up with it.”

Born Oct. 17, 1956, Poe grew up in Westwood and graduated from an alternative education program at University High School. After briefly attending Immaculate Heart College, he transferred to the California Institute of the Arts, where one of his teachers was performance artist Laurie Anderson. She was so impressed by his designs -- see-through ties and bags stuffed with confetti -- that she encouraged him to leave school early to pursue a fashion career. He left CalArts after a year and soon found success peddling his wares in the trend havens of Melrose Avenue.


Poe was a direct descendant of Edgar Allan Poe, the 19th century author known as a master of mystery and the macabre. According to Jeffrey Poe, his family didn’t believe there was a connection (even though both his father and grandfather were named Edgar Allan) until Wacoal commissioned a genealogy study that established the literary lineage.

In addition to his brother, he is survived by his parents, Edgar of Oakdale, Calif., and Marion of Newbury Park.

The designer made no secret of his ancestry, telling People magazine some years ago that he perhaps owed his sense of color -- especially his love of blood red and raven black -- to the Poe known for such classics as “The Raven” and “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Like his famous forebear, he also did some writing but thought it was “a little kitschy to be a Poe and write,” he told USA Today in 1992.

In the mid-1990s Poe dropped out of the fashion world and fell into a slump. He found he was HIV-positive, abused drugs and suffered from depression, his brother said.

A few years ago, he found a new calling: designing funerary urns and caskets. He could have explained his new interest as a part of his genetic inheritance from his gloomy ancestor, who also suffered from depression. But according to Poe, the reason was more prosaic and personal. A few years ago he learned that the ashes of a close friend were being stored in a shoe box. Poe began looking at urns but found none that were aesthetically pleasing, so he began drawing.

He made sketches of urns with sculptural lines and elegant caskets crafted from rich woods and leathers. A Boston company agreed to manufacture them, and Hollywood Forever Cemetery plans to begin selling a few models later this year.

Poe’s remains will eventually rest in one of his unique creations: an urn shaped like an hourglass. Instead of grains of sand, his ashes will mark the passage of time.

The funeral will be held at 11 a.m. Tuesday at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, 580 Hilgard Ave., Westwood. Memorial donations may be sent to the pet charity Rescue Train,