Byline: Rose Apodaca Jones

LOS ANGELES — They are neither for the beach nor the red carpet, but Michelle Mason’s clothes are widely touted as the new look of the fashion scene here.
Mason has become the most likely to succeed in a school that includes Rick Owens and newcomer Magda Berliner, and is finding stimuli in the city of the 21st century outside the bikinis and beaded numbers that have long defined its native style.
Collectively, their design aesthetic references punk rock attitudes, Victorian prudery and perversion, Golden Age glamour, deconstructionism, industrialism and an ethnically mixed culture in constant flux.
They find beauty in the tarnished and scuffed neighborhoods of old Hollywood, where Owens keeps a studio and living quarters behind the historic Egyptian Theater, and in a gritty corner of downtown, home to Mason’s 6,000-square-foot compound.
“It’s the wackiest part of L.A.” observed Mason, in a rare break recently from the sleep-deprived chaos involved in completing her spring collection while working out the minutiae of her runway show at Union Station this Saturday night.
“Being in downtown has really inspired me. It’s a completely different world: the artists living down there, the homeless. It’s so industrial.”
Mason noted she’s “not trying to go in the opposite direction” of what the city is all about. To the Korean native who transplanted to Southern California at age 10, it’s an entirely organic outgrowth of her environment. Which has nothing to do with sand or starlets.
Not that her take hasn’t found a following among celebrity fashionistas, as well as costume designers, stylists and key retailers — who also happen to service all of the above.
The line is made locally and retails from $200 to $1,800 for apparel, $240 to $340 for shoes, and sells at specialty stores in England, Japan — including the chain, Beams — and elsewhere here and in New York.
Barneys New York has picked it up for a sixth season for the Los Angeles and New York units, according to a buyer. It is also available here at Ron Herman-Fred Segal, Curve and Blue.
Uberstylist Arianne Phillips regularly outfits Madonna, Gwen Stefani, Courtney Love and Melissa Auf der Maur in shoulder-to-toe Michelle Mason, considering her “sensibility very rock ‘n’ roll, sophisticated and smart.”
(So smitten, in fact, was Auf der Mar with the designer’s wares that she ended up as model and muse for last fall’s collection.)
“She has a great sense of the female form,” added Phillips, who treasures a few pieces in her own closet. “My clients really respond to her clothes.”
Delia Seaman, an owner and buyer of Curve here, agreed. “She’s refreshing as an L.A. designer because she doesn’t follow trends. She starts with a real clear concept of what she’s inspired by and she doesn’t waver. Michelle Mason is definitely part of that small group of designers who’ve given a new respect to fashion in Los Angeles.”
Mason can now entertain those willing to make the pilgrimage downtown inside the recently opened 1,500-square-foot showroom-atelier that is part of the compound, already home to a work studio, cutting room, patio and a large hall ready for photo shoots, runway presentations (she staged her April show there) and a temporary warehouse for production right before it ships out.
Sales showrooms are Hatch in the New Mart, here and Denise Williamson in New York.
In her new digs, Mason attends to special orders and offers samples that never made it to production. Eventually, it will exclusively house other limited products, from handbags to jewelry — all designed by Mason.
John Lee, her fiance and partner, created the minimalist space, borrowing from Schindler in his integration of light, wood, metal and concrete. It’s actually a welcome respite from the other world beyond the front door and security gate.
Just don’t call it a store.
“I have a lot of good accounts in L.A. and I don’t think what I need is another outlet,” said Mason. “Doing retail was not the priority. I wanted to have the collection here to do p.r. and to make it more personal.”
“Personal” has become an operative word for the firm this year, which Mason characterizes as pivotal with all its millennium underpinnings.
Happiness over her new work space, engagement and continuing success has transpired dramatically in a spring 2001 collection that trades on Mason’s favorite dark, muted palette for canary yellow, kelly green and even pink — black hasn’t completely disappeared, however.
“I’m seeing downtown in a different light,” shared Mason, who previously occupied a space in a building around the corner. “We just put in a garden in the patio. I’m just feeling lighter.”
Along with her standbys of leather and men’s wear fabrics, she’s making generous use of nylon, lace and silk.
“The silk reminds me a lot of Richard,” she added. The reference is to her former mentor, Richard Tyler, for whom she spent two years illustrating and assisting after a brief stint at the Otis School of Design in downtown. After leaving in 1995, she headed to London and Paris, modeling for Hussein Chalayan and Dries van Noten, among others.
In late 1997, in a mad search for the shoe of her dreams, Mason ended up cutting and taping together a prototype from a cardboard box and took it to a woodworker in north Los Angeles.
The resulting signature style continues to define the footwear line: a wooden wedge heel that leans into the arch at a slant creating a stilt effect. It suggests Asian sandals, but a geometrically cut leather or suede top gives them a contemporary edge.
The following January, the apparel line bowed. The self-financed company is expected to hit more than $1 million in sales this year.
“I’m perfectly fine where it’s at for now. I’ve never wanted to become a household name. This is my medium and I can’t survive doing what I love any other way.”