By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
In 1996, the couple took their savings and traveled to southern Mexico, where they surfed and sunned for months.
Feith didn't entirely forget about clothes. The locals inspired him. "The women there, they had a way about themselves," he says of the mostly Indian population. "They were proud and very young. They always wore slinky dresses, and they were always colorful. I made a few things for Susan."
When the couple returned to New York in 1997, Feith needed cash badly. Grudgingly, he put a note card on his sewing machine that listed exactly how much they need to cover the rent and utilities each month. His plan was to sew for that amount and no more, but the phones began ringing. "People were like, 'Wow, you're selling your clothes again,'" Feith says.
Within six months, he had struck up an agreement with a trendy boutique chain with a shop in Nolita called Calypso Saint Barth. The store featured the beginnings of Feith's Raj line--colorful, slinky dresses like those worn by the women of southern Mexico.
It wasn't long before he drew the attention of fashion trendsetters, women who hadn't entirely forgotten Feith from his runway shows, where his clothes--if not his presentation--had been well received. Vanity Fair features about celebrities started mentioning parties where many of the women were dressed in Tracy Feith shifts. Buyers at key stores worldwide, including the much-vaunted Colette in Paris, began to place orders. Feith turned them down, his assistant Heidi Humes says, because they weren't willing to give his clothes enough space on their own.
Feith was surprised at how readily his work became popular, given how much more relaxed he was about the business this time out. "I was under the assumption that you work your ass off and that things will in equal measure come back to you through that," Feith says. "That's not always the way it works, and as you get older, you find that out."
Soon Browns in London and Barneys were calling. In the mid-'90s, the hip New York-based department-store chain had not paid Feith and other designers for the clothes they had ordered, and Humes says her boss was reluctant to sell to Barneys again. But Barneys had reorganized under bankruptcy, and the store's buyers wanted the Texan's designs. (Feith is one of only a handful of American designers sold at Barneys, store spokesman Suri Kim says.) Humes says the Barneys buyers asked Feith to raise his prices so that he wouldn't look so much lower than the pricey Europeans. Feith said no, and Barneys compromised.
In 1998, Feith decided to break with Calypso and open his own shop in Nolita. He had waited for the opening on Mulberry Street because he liked the openness and greenery of the park nearby. He also began taking his clothes to Paris, where he has trunk shows in a room at the Hotel de Crillon on the Place de la Concorde. (A trunk show is essentially a runway show without the fanfare. Typically, a designer has a few models show the samples to buyers in intimate groups.)
Europe is where Feith's dresses took off first, and some 70 percent of his sales are still international. In London, Browns' Burstein says his clothes are among the most popular she sells.
But Feith's popularity in the United States is growing too--so much so that he can even say no to Julia Roberts. Humes didn't hesitate to retell the story of how she recently slapped Roberts' well-manicured, grasping hand. For a Vanity Fair photo shoot, the movie star had borrowed one of Feith's high-priced jewel-toned silk dresses. When Roberts finished the shoot, the Pretty Woman had her assistant telephone Humes to ask whether Roberts could keep the Feith frock--for free, of course.
"I had to tell her no," Humes says. "It was a wholesale sample. We needed it to show buyers. I told her that we would have more inventory in the store soon and she could come down and buy it."
Roberts' publicist concedes that she might have asked Humes for a complimentary Feith dress, but that doesn't reflect badly on Roberts. With appalling regularity, considering their well-padded pocketbooks, celebrities seek--and usually get--free clothing. In exchange, designers such as Feith get stars such as Roberts bragging in In Style about her "super party dress."
But the anecdote is telling about the Texas maverick Feith. If Tracy the Ragged Skate-boy realizes his ambitions and becomes a brand name pitched at malls across America, he'll get there following his own path.
"The consumption of concept, that's what fashion is," he says. "I'm not knocking it. I guess I fit into it in some way. But I don't call myself a fashion designer. I design clothes and other things. I have a particular sensibility. I just want to make some nice things. I want my own name and my own company and to build my own thing.
"...I just do kind of what inspires me," Feith says. "I don't think what is in and what is out. I just don't do that."