Slacking in style

How skateboarder and surfer dude Tracy Feith wheeled out of Dallas to become the latest, hottest thing in haute couture

Still very much the Texas boy who spent his days water-skiing and "chasing girls" on Lake Texoma, Feith seems to have a backup plan. "I've seen people go up and come down," he says. "As long as I can do it my way, I'm happy."

You know you're in Tracy Feith territory when in the middle of a weekday you can sip cappuccino, down a brioche, and eavesdrop on the conversation of a table filled with wannabe musicians. Nolita--that's short for Northern Little Italy--is the newest hip hangout in New York and home to Feith's first boutique. (The cognoscenti don't, by the way, call it Nolita. "Just idiots that are shopping there call it that," grouses one local landlord.)

The bodegas and drug dealers are gone now, and what's left of shrinking Little Italy meets booming China Town in Nolita. High-end boutiques fill in any gaps. On Mulberry Street, Feith's window displays two of his surfboards. Across the street is a playground where neighborhood children play without adult guardians.

Dallas scenester and musician Jeff Liles (here wearing a Feith jacket) says his designer pal never had trouble attracting women.
Mark Graham
Dallas scenester and musician Jeff Liles (here wearing a Feith jacket) says his designer pal never had trouble attracting women.

The walls of Feith's store are white; his clothes provide the color. One of the two rooms is devoted to his lower-priced line of wispy silk dresses, low-riding skirts, and sleeveless tops--what Feith calls his "Raj Collection." The fabrics are decorated with fine prints that he creates, incorporating his name in the design. The signature is helpful now that many in the industry have begun to copy his look.

He keeps his couture line in another room, where the more finely detailed dresses start at $800. For couture buyers, Feith's prices are not steep. A camisole of pink silk and fake leopard skin can be picked up for $160. Feith is known for mixing fabrics unexpectedly--silk with denim, leather with lace. The clothes are simple but bright. Feith hasn't used black, a mainstay of most designers, for years. He plans to include it next season, now that other designers are dipping into his palette of colors.

"I don't have runway shows. This is my show. It says everything about me," Feith says of his store. Two stools on a white rug are the only furniture in the room. A photograph of a wizened Mexican musician is the only framed art. "The clothes are the art," Feith says, only half joking about the barren decor.

Wearing jeans and an aqua-blue shirt and Polynesian-print dinner jacket that he designed, Feith stretches his lanky legs as he tries to get comfortable on one of the seats. The designer seems almost oblivious to the opening and closing of the dressing-room doors by a passel of customers on a late Friday afternoon.

"You look at Tracy in New York, and you still see him in cowboy hats," says Laurie McLendon, the owner of Shí, a high-end home-furnishings store in Nolita.

Today he's hatless, but Feith does have a quiet, Western swagger to his manner that runs counter to the rushed, hyper world of New York City. A wiry figure with boyish, angular features and shoulder-length light brown hair parted in the middle, Feith has never had trouble attracting women, his male acquaintances say.

"Every time I was with my girlfriend and Tracy was there, I knew it," says Jeffrey Liles, a Web-site designer by day and spoken-word artist in his spare time who led a rap band that Feith played in a decade ago.

Part of Feith's mystique is that he tends to keep his own counsel. "He is like a cat that doesn't trust you," says Mark Roach, who skateboarded with Feith in Dallas. "But for being so quiet, there is something very magnetic in his manner."

Nothing in his family background would have led anyone to predict that the boy born in Sherman in 1962 would end up as fashion's man of the moment. "I was a totally normal kid who was into motorcycles," Feith says. "My mom would take me to Sears to buy clothes for school.

"I thought it was middle-class. Now I look where I grew up, and I think of it as lower middle-class."

His father was a retired Air Force major who started a real estate brokerage business. His parents divorced by the time he was 13, and Feith and his sister moved in with their dad.

As a boy, Feith didn't harbor any artistic ambitions. "I wanted to be a pro baseball player, and when I was real young, I wanted to be an Indian," he recalls.

Shortly after graduating from high school in Sherman, Feith moved to Huntington Beach, California, following a girlfriend. The relationship quickly fell apart, but the ocean and the California life seduced Feith. "I worked road construction or as a busboy, only when I had to, and then surfed during the day," Feith says. In California, he encountered the hip-hop culture for the first time. He was enchanted.

"It was really an interesting time," Feith says. Then a clean-cut boy with short-cropped hair, Feith began to take notice of the mix of personal styles around him.

"That was the first inclination that I had that it was fun to mess up your clothes," Feith says. "You could customize yourself. It was the first time that I knew you could change your style." He and his friends would tear their T-shirts and pants in strategic locations to achieve a look. It wasn't much, but it was a beginning.

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