Designs For Living

If you're past the age of 3, you're making your own fashion decisions and, face it, you care about where fashion-with-a- capital-F comes from. Chris— Harvard grad, Whitney program grad, serious artist— thinks of clothes only in terms of function; often he wears gray twill uniforms, the oval name patch still bearing the moniker of the original owner. Mathieu, androgynous graphic artist, is likely to be tricked out in expensive, austere German utility gear and silver glitter nail enamel. Luke, socially conservative, a theatrical director and professor, dresses off the rack from Eastern Mountain Sports; his gear is functional, but color-coordinated. Rex, a Southern writer/snake wrangler, looks to be the spawn of Iggy Pop: sweaty, skinny, half naked, vinyl trousers so tight you can tell he's circumcised.

All of them would lay claim to intellectual property before material culture, but each one takes fashion seriously, whether he knows it or not.

And those are just my guy friends.

For all of you, the following are a few of the Long Island people who have, or will have, influence on what you wear:

Ramo: The New Look of New Hyde Park

Tucked away in a run-of-the-mill strip of Jericho Turnpike in New Hyde Park, behind a utilitarian storefront façade, Mario Ramo lives and works in a frothy couture fantasy world the mental compass of which points toward Paris.

Lavish silk draperies the color of whipped butter, hand-sewn on his industrial sewing machine, drift to the floor— separating the back workroom from the headless mannequins (recently exorcised from the Ralph Lauren operation) that wear his finished creations in the space up front— creations that can be seen from the street through an unadorned and cracked show window. I ring the buzzer that guard dogs the front door and am greeted effusively by Ramo, 38— a slim, tidy, dark man who is wearing charcoal-colored cotton drawstring trousers of his own design and a sky-blue nylon V-neck T, also made by his own hand. His assistant of seven years, Genevieve Iaboni, a friendly middle-aged, robust blond seamstress, is working on a bridal gown for a steady customer.

"She never told me it was her wedding dress— instead she said that it was a dress she would be wearing to a wedding," Ramo comments acidly.

"Why?" I ask.

"I charge more for wedding dresses than for special-occasion dresses," he explains.

Well, I would have lied, too.

I examine a slubby pistachio silk design on the padded dress form in the middle of the linoleum floor: Simple jewel neckline, three-quarter-length sleeves trimmed in white gold organza flat tape; the dropped waist is bordered in the same tissue-thin gold fabric. It is fitted to the waist, slimly continuing to the hipline, where Ramo now pins and re-pins the wrapped ankle-length shirt. He drapes the back in origami folds of Asian silk, pleating the fabric into a modest train. He is lost in the complexity of the emerging design.

The buzzer rings insistently.

He lets in a dark-haired beautiful slim teenager, who touches the current model appreciatively. It is for her mother. She slips into the curtained dressing room holding a Jackie O pastel blue A-line sheath with matching coat.

Ramo expertly pins the alterations on the girl's body. She thanks him effusively and leaves quietly.

Although Ramo dreams of a career sewing original designs summoned from his artistic soul, the reality of turnpike couture biz is that the finished output is often the scut work of alterations or collaborations with customers, who want celebratory gowns merely copied from glossy fashion mags— at a bargain.

Ramo has even been asked to create a burgundy dress for a favorite pup.

"It had silver lace trim," he says, piecing together the scraps of memory, "a matching basket for the dog to carry down the aisle...for a long-term customer's wedding...it was $200."

He laughs as he looks amid his files for a wedding snapshot to prove his point.

Ramo grew up in a family of seamstresses, in Guyana, seven miles from Georgetown in a little town called Better Hope. "Only later did I realize the humor in the town's name," he says. "Both my grandmothers sewed for a living. One was quite a social woman— her sister was a ballerina— so she had many fancy dresses. I remember one in particular, all pink and black alternating draped panels on the bust...the skirt was tulle, the fabric fanned out in pink and black, pink and black. I loved the work of Christian Dior— so did my grandmothers. There were always many fabrics, fashion magazines and sketchbooks lying about. I got all of her things when she died."

It sounds like a lovely childhood: Ramo sewing at the feet of the women who so clearly loved him, making frocks for his sisters.

"I could walk down the street and name 75 percent of all the people in the town," he recalls, "go into Georgetown, then hail a taxi from my town and be assured that the parcels I put into the car would be delivered to my house in Better Hope— no worries! Go out dancing at a club or go to a party without any burden."

In the tropical weather, he "couldn't indulge in furs, it was always a spaghetti strap dress," but he joined the family business in a seamless manner. He studied art in high school, then received a technical degree in architecture. At 25 he came to New York and studied at the Fashion Institute of Technology. He lived with a sister on 111th Street in Corona, Queens, and worked at Chemical Bank. When the ladies he worked with learned of his designing ways, they commissioned him to create dresses for parties and weddings. Soon he was able to leave behind the data entry job and design full time. In 1999, he decided to set up shop in the anonymity of busy Jericho Turnpike.

His aspirations are boundless— and miles from the turnpike. Ramo dreams of becoming a couturier, one those cosseted Parisian designers who create one-of-a-kind, made-to-measure confections for private clients, gowns and day dresses whose prices climb above $10,000. Couturiers, whose names festoon crystal flacons at perfumiers world-wide: Dior, Chanel, Yves St. Laurent and Lacroix.

So where does Ramo get his ideas?

"From magazines and books," he says, as he thumbs through the glossy continental fashion and fabric forecast and couture mags piled on a table, "magazines that my friends bring back to me from Europe. But, it always starts with the fabric. I go to the fabric houses and look at the cloth and am inspired to work with it. Stiff fabrics need to be worked one way, softer cloth makes for a different line."

Suddenly he jumps up from his chair and grabs a paper shopping bag over-flowing with jewel-toned whisper weight silk.

"See this Indian sari cloth!" he exclaims as he shows me hand-painted lengths of cloth embroidered with gilt thread, "From this I will create casual skirts for my ladies in the Hamptons— for outdoor parties!" His eyes glitter, as if he is imagining the rarefied scene the finished garments will costume.

The truth of the matter is that the fashion world is really about business, not dreams alone. One can make a living sewing one dress at a time, but the real money is in mass production: the licensing agreements drawn up between name designers and the established industrialists who own sportswear manufacturing companies, fragrance houses, handbag importers and the linen mills that create sheets and towels.

Ramo will eventually need a backer so that he can create original works of art, to elevate himself above the many dressmakers all over Long Island.

It is clear that Ramo has the technical skill to rise above the fray— his creations are carefully tailored with all the hand-sewn details of couture— but it will take some savvy marketing to catch the eyes of the fashionistas who set style rather than merely follow in the wake of Paris and Milan.

Especially when your current atelier is across the street, not from the Louvre, but from Domino's Pizza.

That Inc.: The Buzz That Can Come Only From Caffeine

It is 10:30 p.m. on a hot summer Thursday evening when I meet Alex That for a late night dinner in the gaudy fluorescence of the Seaford Palace Diner.

He is an imposing, good-looking man, 6-5, who apologizes for being tired this night before the National Boutique Show opens at the Jacob Javits Convention Center in Manhattan. Tired? I can't tell by his eyes or demeanor. When I ask him how old he is, he looks at his wristwatch and says, "In an hour and a half I'll be 30!" He's fitting in an interview among the last-minute preparations for the new season and for the orders that will be placed by small boutiques and major chains throughout the country starting tomorrow.

His demeanor may seem casual, but the success of Alex That and his operations Caffeine and Buggirl, is no accident. It has all been carefully planned and nurtured.

At 16, on his first day on the job in sales at DJs in Sunrise Mall, That recalls, "a little birdie came down and said, 'This is your calling.'

"I planned from that day— from the outset— to have a line of clothes, a whole collection, and to own a chain of stores all over the country."

At SUNY Oneonta, That majored in fashion buying and merchandising, with a minor in business communications. He had planned to spend a semester studying in Florence, but the program was canceled because of the Gulf War. So That ended up going to F.I.T., where he ran into an old friend, Kevin Kraft, and they decided to go into business together.

They threw parties to raise capital; the first was on April 13, 1991, at Starz in Deer Park. "We called the night 'The Party'— a college night— which combined music, dance and fashion," says That. "This was successful, so we created Caffeine— a techno night. Our first fashion design was a T shirt, with the Caffeine logo that I had designed."

Then came the club called Caffeine— DJs spinning different grooves in every room, night crawlers from Manhattan ferried out on chartered buses, trannies, punks, drags, hip hoppers, ravers, club kids of all ages and genders and colors, united in the groove of the beat nation.

That watched it all from the sidelines, on a cool hunt of his own: the morphing of kids' club gear into his own interpretations for the retail masses. The first dozen or so lines were T shirts, including the Caffeine logo for club promos." Most were a combo, he says, of "old school grafitti, Dee Lite logos and Japanese animation characters. The Buggirl logo represented the underground club culture girl: one-third girl, one-third insect, one-third alien." Lost in his thoughts, That recalls, "I'd design lines in my head by watching the kids."

We make plans to meet at the Javits Center, so I can see the machinations of the label Caffeine in its natural environment— the sales floor of the Boutique Show. The place is crawling with signs of the denizens of the alternative army: jellybean colored cropped hair, pierced and tattooed, neo bondage wear or utility gear. Old friend Raymond Ercoli mans his booth of interesting romantic gothic threads, Ercoli. At Archaic Smile, Jeff Gladhart— ginger quiff immaculately lacquered in place, dressed like an English teddy boy— shows me his line of quirky cocktail kitsch: atomic motif '50s send-up lamps and shower curtains with line drawings of coy nymphets perched atop martini glasses.

The small-town camaraderie among the purveyors of what is known in the clothing biz as streetwear belies the fact that these hot little resources that can turn on a dime, who design their lines closer to the point of shipping, often serve as the design inspiration for behemoths like Calvin Klein and the Gap. Prada creates prissy little versions of Yak Pak's body bags. Big-ticket European designer Claude Montana frequently samples an S/M 'tude in his slick black creations. All about the cavernous wholesale hall, knock-off companies are checking out designs on the racks.

At Caffeine's booth, Alex That has made certain that Caffeine gives away nothing.

One has to part heavy draperies to enter the secretive little womb/room where the current line of utility gear is racked. Crew Caffeine is casually huddled about the Sbarro pizza slices fueling the sales staff in the middle of this early August afternoon. Scrubbed clean, cheerful and chatty, these guys and gals are the very embodiment of the customers who buy Caffeine club gear. Mostly longtime friends and family members, including his No. 2 man brother Jeff, they're just about a decade older than the Caffeine customer: teens who have immense disposable income— spending money, not earned money— that Teen People magazine estimates to average about $90 a week.

Caffeine is no longer a small-time operation; it now has worldwide distribution and multimillion-dollar annual revenues. What started out as a two-man operation of That and Kraft now employs about 25 people and is always looking to diversify— Caffeine is talking to major labels about product and distribution deals involving Caffeine Records. That also is developing a Caffeine footwear line— starting with sneakers— that is scheduled to be on the market in the fall of 2000. Recently, That has joined forces with Knight Industries, forming a partnership with the major clothing manufacturer that produces the Palmetto and Tapemeasure labels to create That Industries. He says he'll keep the Caffeine retail store on Park Avenue in Massapequa Park but plans to open a retail venue in Manhattan in the next year or two. Despite all the wheeling and dealing, Alex That says he still calls the design shots.

Like many other businessmen who grow up along with their companies, That matured into a family man— a private one who doesn't want the names of his children and wife disclosed. He is carefully expanding his lines slowly, so that he is on a firm footing with current output before he goes to the next level. An avid follower of success guru Tony Robbins, That has planned every step of Caffeine's ascent.

Today at Javits, he's wearing a Caffeine top with khaki bottoms from the Gap.

"I'll wear the Caffeine tops, but I'm not going to pretend to be our 18-year-old customer," he says. "We plan to expand our customer base and yet maintain our street credibility— to be the Ralph Lauren of the new millennium."

At Haven's House: Class is in Session

In a historic house on Main Street in Sag Harbor, Susan Penzner's carefully edited vintage shop, At Haven's House, is a bustling little hive of girlie activity. Inside what is one of the premier haunts for Manhattan fashionistas who summer on the East End, Jemima Kirke, 14, of the NYLON (New York/ London) set busies herself tidying up hand-sewn peach silk lingerie carefully displayed in an antique armoire.

Dressed in a sheer white cotton batiste peasant blouse that falls saucily off her tanned shoulder, Kirke is a sunny blonde. The daughter of Bad Company drummer Simon Kirke, she has a posh-English accent. She wears the drawstring top paired with turn-of-the-century silk ruffled bloomers the color of a lime Necco wafer.

"I used to work at a horrible shop I hated, but I always loved to come here," she explains succinctly. "My mom loves vintage and so does my older sister. I was influenced by them."

Fashion starts early for precocious lasses. Since money is frequently no object, creativity is a must. Status-y black satin slides from Jimmy Choo are worn with vintage petticoats and cashmere summer weight halter tops. Cindy Sherman walks through the shop during the weekend and buys a raffia embroidered straw handbag with a wooden handle. Will the handbag appear in one of Sherman's famous self-portraits?

A former stylist for Coach examines a pair of horse-y printed cigarette leg jeans by Lilly Pulitzer on the sale rack. They've been consigned to At Haven's House by a famous fashion designer.

Clothing is bought by designers, stylists and the beautiful faces you see in the social columns of New York, W and Interview. Sometimes a garment is then consigned to the store by the person who originally purchased it.

Groups of elegant blondes descend on the mint-condition psychedelic print Pucci originals, holding the bright Italian printed dresses and tunics up to their razor-thin bodies— conferring with one another— before one of their chic flock buys a colorful print tunic marked at $400.

"Baby Jane Holzer called about the Hermes bags. Could you call her back? She said you knew her number," Aura Dimon, sales girl number one, reports perfunctorily, as Penzner and her sister, Penny, bustle into the perfumed airy white room laden with parcels. We're talking about two new Hermes Kelly bags, marked at $3000-plus, on consignment from Susan's A-list clientele. On an old iron hook hangs a jewel-encrusted fuschia Indian cotton skirt, spoken for by Jimmy Buffett's daughter, Savannah.

"When I was in college everyone had a lot more individuality, but today things happen too fast," says Susan, a Roslyn native in her early 50s. "One of the reasons people come in here is that they're sick of seeing the same things on everyone. They're looking for items that are no longer available en masse. Someone from the design staff at Banana Republic came in and bought a sweater that they ended up featuring. People say I have a good eye. I only buy what I like. My aunt was a buyer for Hattie Carnegie; I think it's in the family. I only like very old lacy things on very young girls like Jemima. I don't like the '40s. I like the '50s."

"I love the '60s. I need some help with the 1970s, all these young girls who work with me help me with the '70s."

One of the "girls" who has helped Susan understand the '70s is salesgirl No. 1, Aura Dimon, known throughout the rave scene as Aura Z— also known for her massive 60-inch-bottom fat pants. Susan still calls her by her given name: Amy. While Dimon was attending Southampton High School, working part-time in At Haven's House, she brought in a pair of wide-bottom pants she had created. Dimon had been selling them to fellow rave scenesters. Penzner was impressed with her talent and introduced her to Beau Baker, who signed her to a design deal for his manufacturing company. Suddenly her raver gear, bearing the Aura Z label, appeared in Bloomingdale's Lexington Avenue windows and Brown's Focus Store in London. Dimon was featured in Women's Wear Daily and appeared on a John Stossel ABC-TV special on teens.

"I get inspiration from kids on the street, from magazines and vintage," says Dimon. "I look to the 13- and 14-year-olds— the kids who go to the raves. I work pretty close to the actual season, unlike larger companies that sell a line six months before customers will be wearing them. There's a hard-core group of big-pants-wearing ravers, so I'll continue to make the 60-inch pants. I'll also be doing bottoms in iridescent denim and dazzle nylon."

Susan Penzner, on the other hand, has a lot more than fashion on her mind. She juggles her appointments effortlessly, spending the week in Manhattan, the weekends in Sag Harbor— just like the ladies who frequent her store. She keeps in touch with the shop during the week by cell phone, as she jaunts about Manhattan, showing spaces to her Manhattan real estate clients, such as Isaac Mizrahi, at Susan Penzner Real Estate.

"It's all about recycling," says Penzner. "I recycle buildings— mainly lofts— in the city. Then I recycle clothes out here."

Susan and Penny have been combining real estate and vintage fashion since the '70s, when Penny lived upstate. She'd go to estate sales in the grand old mansions of the railroad barons, load up her suitcases with beautiful old clothes and bring them to Manhattan, where she and Susan would host wine and cheese parties for their friends. "I heard that Norma Kamali liked cocktail hats, so I contacted her," Penny says.

It was much easier in those days, when designers were not secreted away behind layers of publicists and assorted other handlers.

"I'm editing the vintage collections for stylists and designers who no longer draw," Susan says. "They just pick."

Sid's Pants: How to Become a Man of the Cloth

Joe Fristachi, in his early 60s, a partner in the Sid's Pants at Roosevelt Field and developer of the private label bottoms for the clothing chain, had owned his own tailor shop in his native Italy by the time he was 19. He arrived in the U.S. in 1954 and walked the streets of Brooklyn until he saw a shop with suiting fabrics in the window. He walked in and offered to work for free for a few hours. Fristachi remembers being so sure of his tailoring skills that he knew a permanent position would be his.

"If the man had refused my offer," Fristachi says, "I didn't want to work there, anyway. I wanted to work for a good businessman."

Fristachi worked for many apparel manufacturers over the years. At Combat Uniform, he worked quality control and perfected the setup of a military epaulet. Boykoff, a ladies' suit manufacturer that made fashion suits often inspired by celebrities like Jackie O, hired him as an assistant designer.

But no matter who his primary employer was, Fristachi has worked at least part time for Sid's Pants for the past 44 years. Sid's is the mother company of an operation that has owned— at various points in time— Just Shirts, Jean Country, Jeans Only, Zachery's and Screeem. At the peak of its penetration into chain store mall retailing, Sid's owned nearly a hundred stores. But Fristachi has always loved the tailoring part of the operation as well as the business end. When his first grandson, Chris Vitale, was born 21 years ago, Fristachi made him a coming-home-from- the-hospital suit.

Now, on a recent day, Chris Vitale, by this time a good-looking guy with a buzz cut, walks into his grandfather's office wearing khaki cargo shorts from Abercrombie and a Nautica T-shirt from Sid's. Vitale recently completed the fashion buying and merchandising program at Nassau Community College and did a quality-control internship in Manhattan, at French Connection, which offered him a job as a production assistant.

But he came back to Sid's, where he brainstorms with his Grandpa.

When you ask where they get their ideas for new designs for the private label Epic, Fristachi describes a guerrilla-type seat-of-the-pants method, saying, "We watch who walks into the store. We sampled four different shades of gray trousers at the beginning, then watched to see which ones became the most popular. We go to the major menswear shows and see how they lay out the colors."

Noting the massive popularity of khaki in the fashion market, Sid's decided to do the color in rayon-poly-gabardine club pants. Seeing the fat-legged baggy trousers so popular in the street scene, Sid's created wide-legged dress pants, making 3,000 pairs for the Roosevelt Field store alone. They're not as wide as Aura Z's 60-inch big legs, but a dressier 24-incher. Cargo pockets? Added 'em to dress trousers.

Sid's is a mass-market mall retailer. Brad Pitt is probably not wearing the label. But the young suburban men who see Brad Pitt's films, who watch MTV and note Puffy's latest gear will buy the versions that Fristachi creates in the back room with the industrial sewing machine and presser, at Sid's in Roosevelt Field.

And that's likely to continue. Grandpa beams as grandson Chris comments on several aspects of the sales day that is bustling about out front. Nothing of critical importance, just the small talk of workday business: Vitale mentions that one of the sales staff has gone on an errand— Fristachi checks the time clock to see how long he's taken. They talk about new items in stock and how they're moving on the sales floor. It's a seamless give and take between the two. They have been together since the first day that Vitale appeared on this planet. It couldn't be any better.

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