Very Important Designers You’ve Never Heard of Slum at Stores You Can’t Escape


OK, pop quiz—who is Celia Birtwell? Give up? Unless you were alive in the 1960s and lived in London, or are a super-dedicated follower of fashion, it is unlikely that this name rings any bells. So I was frankly amazed that, even in this season of increasingly bizarre collaborations between high-end designers and mass-market stores, Birtwell has created a line for Express.

I never go to Express, much as I love cheap(er) shops. Its merchandise seems to swing between too plain or too skimpy. But the news that Birtwell has introduced a capsule collection of her floaty girly prints has me crossing the threshold, on the same day I decide to explore a host of other strange bedfellows: threeASFOUR shirts for the Gap, Marimekko at H&M, and the efforts of two notoriously cool girls, Chloë Sevigny and Kate Moss, at Opening Ceremony.

All of these characters, as it turns out, have powerful backstories, beginning with Birtwell, a textile artist who was married to and collaborated with Ossie Clark, a big-name fashion designer in 1960s mod London. They were a golden couple in those halcyon days; Birtwell a muse to painter David Hockney, who made her, along with Ossie and their cat, the subject of his famous 1970s work, Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy. (Lurid historical tidbit: Birtwell divorced Clark in the 1970s; in 1996, he was murdered by his former lover, Diego Cogolato.)

At Express, which is almost completely empty save for the burly security guard who is eyeing me suspiciously as I finger the clothes and take notes, Birtwell has reprised some of the styles that made her and Clark so famous in the first place: high-waisted diaphanous-silk chiffon dresses in art-nouveau prints, smocked blouses with covered buttons, etc. The dresses are already 25 percent off $128, which may indicate that the contemporary shopper doesn’t wish to look like a miniskirted version of pre-Raphaelite “It” girl Lizzie Siddal. On the other hand, if you have more than an academic interest in this look, these Express clothes are far cheaper than finding a Clark-Birtwell original. (If you’re desperate for the real thing, you can try your luck at the Manhattan Vintage Clothing show, this Friday and Saturday at the Metropolitan Pavilion, 125 West 18th Street.)

Not sure how much I really want to resemble Jane Asher or Marianne Faithful at this late date, I cross Fifth Avenue and pop into H&M, where the current collaboration is with Marimekko, a Finnish company, likewise famous for its fabric design. (H&M has been at the forefront of these partnerships—their recently announced deal with Comme des Garçons, set to launch next November, has me rolling on the floor and barking in anticipation.)

Marimekko, known for its cacophonous prints and unsubtle color combinations, had its heyday a few years before Birtwell and Clark. In the 1960s, the company had a huge store in Harvard Yard, and was the kind of place where Joan Baez–esque guitar-strumming graduate students would shop for boldly printed shapeless frocks. In my imagination, this woman, with her long straight hair and hand-hammered silver jewelry, would wear one of these shifts with Pappagallo flats, and she would look at once goofy and soulful, resigned to the fact that she was relegated to making espresso and keeping alluringly silent while the men discussed Habermas in the next room.

From this degree of historical distance, Marimekko’s blown-out swirls of pink and orange still evince a revolutionary impulse, even if, as a friend of mine’s partner once commented when she showed up in a particularly graphic black-and-white Marimekko mini: “You look like a cow.” H&M has made the wise decision to use these prints in bikinis, sun hats, rompers, and other summer staples, including a Talitha Getty–type caftan in silk and wool for a mere $69.90. (Lurid historical tidbit no. 2: Talitha Getty, a beautiful actress/party girl and a contemporary of Birtwell’s, is best known for an iconic photograph taken on a rooftop in Marrakesh in January 1969, where she lounges in caftan, harem pants, and white boots. Getty died of a heroin overdose in 1971.)

Who knew that spring 2008 would be all about dressing like a dolly bird or a cow? Anxious for more options, I go downtown to Opening Ceremony, a large boutique on still charming if rapidly gentrifying Howard Street. When this place opened in 2002, the owners announced that the shop would spotlight a different country each season, an idea I thought was really stupid—in fact, I predicted that the store would be shuttered in a less than a year. But once again, I was wrong, wrong, wrong: The shop has thrived, though they have loosened up on that one-country-per-season conceit.

Loosened up, but not abandoned entirely: The second floor is dedicated to items from Top Shop, the wonderfully cheap London knockoff palace that is scheduled to open at long last around the corner at 478 Broadway next fall. In the meantime, Kate Moss’s Top Shop designs are here, and even with the appalling pound-to-dollar exchange rate, prices are inviting: A perfect striped sundress is only $110. (How much is it in England—a quarter?) Of course, this dress, and so many of the other Moss items, would benefit from the special touch that Kate brings to her own outfits: the armload of Cartier art-deco diamond bracelets; the artfully scuffed boots; the vacant Sphinx without a secret stare.

The far less enigmatic Chloë Sevigny also has a line at Opening Ceremony, which relies heavily on Liberty of London flower prints and has an appealing naughty schoolgirl quality only partially sunk by the prices—a printed blouse composed of two different prints and featuring a peplum is a depressing $450. Then again, a canvas bag with Sevigny’s name printed in a variety of Crayola colors is only $30, and with every indication that plastic supermarket bags will be banned any time now (happy Earth Day!), this might be a judicious purchase. (Fake versions of Anya Hindmarch’s popular “I Am Not a Plastic Bag” canvas totes are available a half a block away on Canal Street.)

My last stop is the Gap, where the latest crop of white shirts designed by finalists in the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund contest has just arrived. Last year’s efforts included shirts by Rodarte, which probably seemed like a good idea but which frankly failed to dazzle in person. (Guess the Rodarte sisters are just better at designing $10,000 Degas ballerina gowns than $50 button-downs.) This year, threeASFOUR are among the winners, and since these are old friends of mine, I decide to phone them up and find out what it was like for a trio of bohemians, who for years lived together in a silver spray-painted loft and supposedly all slept in the same bed, to work with the Gap.

“It was a dream come true,” threeASFOUR’s Angela Donhauser, who is originally from Tajikistan, tells me. “It was an honor, like we had finally arrived in America.” (The other two members of the group are from Lebanon and Israel.) The Gap imposed only two rules: It had to be white, and it had to be cotton—well, really three rules, since it was supposed to be a shirt.

“We gave them maybe 10 sketches, and they picked two,” Angela says. As it turned out, neither garment is, strictly speaking, a shirt: There’s a camisole with Jack Spratt shoulder straps—one fat and one thin—and a simple smock dress that I wish was bigger, but Angela thinks even a pregnant girl could wear. Though both garments have the team’s trademark curvilinear seams, Angela lets me in on a secret: Contrary to threeASFOUR’s usual designs, the Gap insisted that the clothes have side seams.

“We had to close our eyes, ” she sighs. “The factory in China couldn’t comprehend a garment with no side seams. It was a little compromise—but the clothes are still very us.”