The Work of a Young Turk

LOS ANGELES — It took seven years, but Trina Turk believes she’s finally ready for show time. <br><br>Today, the designer known for her contemporary spin on lady chic by way of Palm Springs moderne (which one observer called Jackie...

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LOS ANGELES — It took seven years, but Trina Turk believes she’s finally ready for show time.

This story first appeared in the April 2, 2003 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Today, the designer known for her contemporary spin on lady chic by way of Palm Springs moderne (which one observer called Jackie O-meets-Andy Warhol), will send out 23 looks in the Atelier venue as part of the Mercedes-Benz LA Shows at the Downtown Standard.

“Being in L.A., I’ve been able to get away with not doing a show all these years,” she said last Saturday afternoon, as her final fittings wrapped up for the day. “But there was a reason to do it this time. You want to do it for the press and the buyers, and there will be enough this time to make it worthwhile.”

Since Los Angeles Fashion Week has taken a turn toward seeking formality and legitimacy, Turk decided only a month ago to participate. She enlisted a show producer and public relations firm from New York to make the ride easier, and clearly, with most of the collection already designed before Coterie in February, stress is vastly diminished.

The decision to show neatly marks the beginning of a busy year for the Trina Turk brand, which has evolved into a focused contemporary resource available mostly in specialty boutiques, as well as Nordstrom and Saks Fifth Avenue doors, with 2002 sales of $16 million.

On the heels of celebrating the first birthday of her Palm Springs boutique, Turk hopes finally to end her search for a Los Angeles store, likely on the east side of town.

The desert door, a 2,500-square-foot confection of candy-colored mid-century cool by interior designer Kelly Wearstler of KWID that inhabits a Fifties building by modernist architect Albert Frey, brought in $800,000 in its first year. Besides Turk’s women’s wear, it is the exclusive outlet of her men’s wear, as well as a sprinkling of vintage apparel. “I don’t think I’m ready to do men’s in a larger way,” she noted. “At least, not yet.”

But several other expansions are in the works. By the next resort season, sunglasses will be ready — Turk is doing them directly with a manufacturer, skipping a licensee. Footwear and handbags could come next. “I want to do so much more than I’m doing, but I’m very methodical. I don’t like to do a hundred things at one time,” she said.

“Of course, I’m concerned about the war,” interjected Turk, adding she is conservatively estimating volume to grow by $3 million this year. Still, her first-quarter sales have already exceeded last year’s. “Our fall orders are coming in strong, but if everyone stops shopping tomorrow, then who knows. Luckily, our customers are women who need something new and fun every month. These are definitely optimistic clothes.”

Striped with black silhouettes of dogs or splashed with an avocado and hot pink-colored floral print like those mom used to wear, Trina Turk’s fall collection and her overall vision reflects her memories of growing up in suburban California in the late Sixties and Seventies.

Those flashbacks became particularly nostalgic once her family relocated to Seattle during her junior high years. There, she eventually studied fashion design at the University of Washington. But she and her husband of 17 years, Jonathan Skow, a stylist-cum-photographer, returned to the Golden State, eventually going into business for themselves after Turk got her fill designing T-shirts and shorts for Brittania, BUM Equipment and later, Op. (A third partner, Lyne Lee, oversees production.)

Turk remains unabashedly a California and Los Angeles designer —but has resisted getting caught up in the red-carpet mania that even affects jeans and tracksuit makers here. Instead, she designs 10 groups a year of “stuff people can actually wear,” she insisted. “What I am not is super trendy. I’m not cutting edge. I’m perfectly happy with that. And I’ve been able to build a decent business off that. Our target customer is a woman who loves fashion but is not a fashion victim.”

While most of the line is produced near the company’s 28,000-square-foot headquarters in Alhambra, a community with a heavy contracting base 25 minutes outside of Los Angeles, the soft sweaters and stretch jeans (only two silhouettes that are endlessly available) are made in Hong Kong.

The jeans and her pants in fabrics from wool to twill are a cornerstone of the collection, thanks to cuts acknowledging curvier figures, and generate as much as 60 percent of sales.

For fall, rayon trousers wholesale at $78; miniskirts, $74; shirt dresses, $122, and the houndstooth wool coat is $198.

At Henri Bendel, it’s all about the pants and minis, said Allyson Krowitz, merchandise manager for the New York store, who buys from Turk monthly and places the line near Anna Sui, Tocca, Tyler and Nanette Lepore. “The dresses do well, too, and if she did more for summer they would blow out. She should do bags because her prints are so great.”

Prints have been a hallmark of Turk’s style since the start. “I felt it was really important to distinguish myself somehow, so I went after prints,” she said. “But I did eat a lot of fabric in those first seasons because of the minimums.”

A signature print, also a first this year for Turk, is showing for fall. But she humbly points out that it’s not exactly screaming her name: letters of varying sizes dance across a silky pink or black backdrop.

“The thought crossed my mind to make a bunch of stuff just for the runway,” continued Turk. “But why? Then I’ll have buyers wanting something they can’t have, and that wouldn’t be me.”

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