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LEATHER’S SUNSET TRIP

Fashion Critic

Stylish leather is as much a part of the rock ‘n’ roll image as groupies and smoke-filled tour buses. And these days, nobody is doing it better than South Paradiso, the hippie glam, art leather label following in the grand tradition of such music world haberdashers as Nudie’s Rodeo Tailors, Granny Takes a Trip and East West Musical Instruments Co.

The interior of the new South Paradiso Organic Haberdashery on Sunset Boulevard is trippy by design, with 1920s-era pink flocked velvet wallpaper, a buffalo head and a laughing clown on the wall, Grateful Dead music in the background and the sweet smell of -- something -- hanging in the air.

Then there are the jackets -- slim-fitting buffalo, calf and deer leather with strangely shaped yokes and curving seams, inlaid with miniature paintings of castles and demons, airbrushed with psychedelic-looking leafy plants, or appliqued with metallic aqua and pink parrots or rainbow flames. Each one is handmade and no two are alike. It’s no wonder Jack White, Devendra Banhart and Steve Jones are fans.

The look is a welcome departure from the ubiquitous Goth leather jackets that have been in fashion for so long, embellished with skulls, crosses or fleurs-de-lis, by such labels as Chrome Hearts, Thomas Wylde and Royal Underground. South Paradiso (southparadiso leather.com) is less aggressive and more fantastical, paying homage to the colorful Bay Area art-to-wear movement of the 1960s and ‘70s and L.A.'s folksy canyon culture, which after all these years still influences style here, particularly when the weather starts to turn hot.

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It seems particularly relevant now that the Dead are back on tour, “Hair” is back on Broadway, Pepsi Throwback is hitting grocery store shelves and seemingly everyone -- Chanel, Mischa Barton -- is making hippie headbands.

In addition to jackets, South Paradiso sells vests, jeans and pants, tie-dye T-shirts with smoking monkeys on the fronts, and smaller items such as airbrushed leather cuffs, belts and appliqued parrot wallets. (Prices range from $150 for a belt to as much as $6,000 for a jacket.) One of the most impressive pieces isn’t leather at all -- it’s a bell-sleeve velvet jacket with inlaid paintings by a woman who was an original member of the Fool, the Dutch design collective responsible for the psychedelic facade of the Beatles’ Apple boutique in London and for the painted guitar Eric Clapton used while he was with the group Cream.

“I tracked her down in Pasadena,” says Romulus Von Stezelberger, the force behind the 8-year-old South Paradiso. Von Stezelberger lives in a house in Laurel Canyon that is also his studio, and he parties as hard as his musician clients. He is dressed for an afternoon at the store in a top hat, Elvis glasses and a jacket made from a deconstructed American flag.

His enthusiasm for vintage clothing -- which borders on obsession -- dates back to his teenage years in Bucks County, Pa. As an adult in the Bay Area, he first heard about San Francisco leather goods company East West Musical Instruments Co., which operated from 1967 till the early ‘80s, outfitting the likes of Janis Joplin and Elvis. Von Stezelberger plastered his neighborhood with fliers offering cash for jackets, and asked anyone who looked to be the right age if they remembered the shop or the brand, which was sold around the country.

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“East West was the look of music,” says Paul Gorman, who is working on a book about Granny Takes a Trip, a Kings Road store with outposts in New York and L.A. that in the 1960s and ‘70s helped bring swinging London style to the U.S., where it became dressed-up hippie glam. “East West Musical Instrument Co., North Beach Leather and Paraphernalia were challenging what was happening in clothing in London, the way the Grateful Dead responded to the Rolling Stones,” Gorman says.

“It was inevitable that East West jackets would become collectible and re-enter the process as cutting-edge design,” adds the author, who writes about rock ‘n’ roll wear on his blog the Look (rockpopfashion.com/blog). “Because in this era of mass-marketed global fashion, what’s available to all is not what you want.”

It was a single jacket that ignited Von Stezelberger’s passion in 2000. Working at the time as a freelance designer for Bebe, BCBG and other companies, he was en route to a flea market when he casually mentioned to his cab driver that he was looking for East West jackets. Turns out, the driver’s wife had worked for the company for 10 years.

In a matter of hours, Von Stezelberger was at their front door with a fistful of cash. “She had a prototype,” he remembers. “It had appliqued dragons around the collar and the notch of the lapel was the dragon’s mouth. It was unreal, because I didn’t find one of the ones everybody knew about, I found a collector’s dream.”

He went home, hung the jacket on the wall and started thinking. He was a high school dropout whose first stab at the music business involved showing up at Prince’s office in Minneapolis to try to score a job with his idol. He loved rock ‘n’ roll like nothing else, but couldn’t sing. “So,” Von Stezelberger says, “I said, ‘I can make the great gods clothing!’ ”

He started collecting anything by East West that he could find -- drawings, patterns, jackets (he now has more than 100). “I have the original design books where they hand drew each jacket and described how to make it. That book is the most important thing to me in life. I would rather have it than the cup of Christ,” he says. “It shows where the drug-stash pockets go on the inside, along with little jokes about sewing them. Things like, ‘If you messed up on that area, you must drive a staple through your thumb.’ ”

Von Stezelberger moved to L.A. in 2002 to go into business with rock ‘n’ roll denim designer Henry Duarte. That didn’t work out, but he did sign with a showroom in Milan, which introduced the line in Europe and Japan. Sales picked up. Then six months ago he met Joe Walters. A client first, Walters is now president of the store (as well as the music booker for the Redwood Bar & Grill in downtown L.A.). “You really have to try one on,” Walters says of the jackets. “They make you feel like a superhero.”

Business at the store, open just two months, has been good, says Von Stezelberger. “It’s a niche brand and it’s high-end, so if we sell one jacket we’ve made rent.” A huge part of the appeal is Von Stezelberger himself, a kooky, cool-older-brother type who has no shortage of chutzpah. He met Banhart after soliciting him over e-mail (a friend supplied the address), and offering to make a few pieces for the singer if he would play at a Halloween party (he did).

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Von Stezelberger is not the first designer to be inspired by East West. Roberto Cavalli, Balenciaga and Gucci have all made pieces that pay tribute, says Mark Haddaway, co-owner of vintage boutique Resurrection, who organized an East West exhibit in 2001 and sold the jackets for up to $10,000 each at the height of the collecting craze a few years back. “They will always be sought after by somebody. But I don’t know if people want to buy a copy.”

Von Stezelberger insists he takes the idea further and that the workmanship by his six employees is far superior. About half of the South Paradiso designs are patterned after vintage East West styles, and half are original. One of the new designs, called Right This Way to My Ice Palace, is a white shearling coat with lacing contouring the waist, contrast stitching and antler buttons. And all the belts, jeans and small leather goods are designed by Von Stezelberger.

“I don’t have money, I didn’t graduate at the top of my class at Parsons and become some famous designer’s assistant,” he says. “I have nothing except a dream that I want to put art back in fashion.”

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booth.moore@latimes.com


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