Slacking in style

Sam Ortiz

At the time, Tracy Feith probably wouldn't have admitted to many people what he was doing more than a decade ago. Sneaking into a Dallas garment factory to sew shorts for your skateboarding pals is not exactly "sick" (this hour's thrasher term for what was once quaintly called "cool"). But time has a way of casting a rosy glow over humble beginnings-- especially when you look back at them from the top of the heap, which is where Feith, a Sherman-born and Dallas-bred fashion designer, sits. Today, anyway.

After years of stumbling, the 38-year-old Feith has risen from his seat at sewing machines in Dallas factories to a trendier address in Manhattan's Nolita district. His clothes no longer cover the bruised butts of Dallas skate-boys, but rather the tender flesh of celebrities. Actress Ellen Barkin recently shopped for four hours in his boutique. Julia Roberts, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Madonna regularly appear in paparazzi shots wearing his frocks. His silky, swishy, jewel-toned dresses are revealing enough to show any extra time spent in the gym or on the liposuction table, and they fly from the racks at premier fashion haunts worldwide: Stanley Korshak in Dallas, Barneys in New York, and Browns in London.

"He is one of our best sellers," says Caroline Burstein, the director at Browns. She estimates she sells $600,000 worth of Feith's garments annually.

So this is a Horatio Alger story, with a slacker in place of a ragged bootblack, and it begins--sort of--in the late 1980s, when Feith moved to Dallas from California by way of Denton. Feith, a surfer who had taken up skateboarding in drained swimming pools here, where surfing opportunities are limited, had dropped out of the University of North Texas. Jeff Newton, Dallas skateboard manufacturer and general subcultural impresario, needed somebody to keep night watch at Zorlac, the factory where his famed equipment was made. Feith needed a place to sleep.

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The move put Feith, who had taken some clothing-design courses at UNT, four blocks from the garment factory where he had lucked into a job as a pattern maker. He became friendly with the security guard at his workplace. Soon, as Feith recounted in a three-hour interview with the Dallas Observer, he began dropping by the factory at night, and the watchman would open the room with the sewing machines.

"I'd go over there and mess around," Feith says. He started sewing skateboard shorts for himself and his friends. "They had to be tough," he says of the pants, laughing at the memory. "I made these things that were like iron."

It's a long way from metal-tough skateboarding britches to the spaghetti-strapped dresses that Feith makes today. But the stamina, ingenuity, and offbeat sensibility of that surreptitious shorts-maker have helped Feith prevail in the fashion industry, and he has done it by breaking the rules.

For two years, he even dropped out of the business entirely, only to return to stronger sales and greater acclaim. He now refuses to produce runway shows, the elaborate sales pitches that are de rigueur for most high-end designers. Feith doesn't even give away his clothes for free to celebrities, a sign of independence in a star-driven fashion world.

"That shows character. Tracy is quite refreshing," says Burstein, whose 30-year-old store introduced such heavies as Calvin Klein and Donna Karan to Europe. "He's very spiritual. He has other agendas."

He has adopted Valley Boy mannerisms, using "likes" and "wows" to punctuate his sentences. But Feith can be quite articulate, and fellow designers say his mannerisms belie raw intelligence, creative genius, and broad ambition.

That ambition is becoming more apparent lately. There is no precise formula for success in the fashion business, but Donna Karan and Ralph Lauren stand out as role models. They parlayed high-end couture lines and a retail chain of boutiques into mass-market ubiquity, putting their names on everything from sheets to jogging outfits. Feith is starting with the chain of boutiques. In addition to his shop nestled among the trendy patisseries and cosmetics stores in the Nolita district, on Memorial Day weekend Feith began selling his clothes out of a refurbished barn in the resort town of East Hampton, New York. He's following a well-worn path. Karan, Lauren, and designer Cynthia Rowley all had or have East Hampton boutiques.

The new store, Feith says, might serve as a template for rollout of a Tracy Feith retail chain with a broader line of clothes for men and children. Feith, who has given up skateboarding but still surfs, also designs surfboards that sell for $1,100 each, and he has a Feith perfume in the pipeline.

"I'm interested in building a brand," Feith says.

But trend-bucking is the antithesis of fashion. Will Feith's approach lead him to his goal? Industry experts express skepticism. Feith's East Hampton store faces risks, says retail consultant Gordon Avard. Feith has leased shared space with a surfboard outfit on a side street. "He has to have a lot of confidence," Avard says. "People will have to look to go find him."  

Even Burstein, one of his biggest cheerleaders, has her doubts. "He's now, but now moves, and you have to move with it," she says. She doesn't know whether Feith, who contracts with outside companies to produce his perfume and surfboards and has about 20 employees working directly for him, has management skills to handle the growth. And she's not sure Feith, who frequently shuns press interviews, would want the fame and accompanying responsibility. "I think he values his anonymity," she says.

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.

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.

But after a year or so of drifting up and down the coast, Feith longed for home. He returned to Sherman with the idea of going to school. Back in Texas, however, Feith says he experienced reverse culture shock. "When I was in California, it was a really interesting time in terms of music and subcultural things. I was still really into that, and there weren't as many people around in Texas that were into that."

For a semester or two--Feith does not seem to have a precise recollection of time and space--the would-be designer attended UNT. Feith says he mostly played around at school and only accidentally stumbled into a clothing-design course. "They had this weird class called experimental clothing design," Feith recalls. "I took it, and I really enjoyed it."

The next semester, he took more formal design courses. Michael Faircloth, who now works for Lilly Dodson in Dallas and creates many of the clothes that Texas first lady Laura Bush wears, attended school with Feith.

"I was more conservative," Faircloth says. "He was very artistic and a little ethereal. He was very innovative. He definitely had talent." Faircloth also remembers that Feith was "smarter than he acts."

Jimmie Henslee, a stylist for store windows and decor in Dallas who attended school with Feith, recalls the fashion maker had "a very clean sense of design. It was very unusual for a student." Henslee says Feith seemed "hardworking and steady, but offbeat."

Feith, the devout skateboarder and surfer, still had "an All-American, milk-and-cookies look to him," according to Henslee, and didn't blend with the highly stylized, mostly gay crowd of design students.

"I stood out in class," Feith says. "This one guy said to me, 'You look like somebody who might drive a Duster.' But I took that as a compliment."

He started getting entry-level jobs at the garment factories that then peppered Stemmons Freeway. "Even though I knew very little, I was still able to get a job making patterns for at least long enough until they were on to me, and then I'd get another one, and then I began to know something," Feith says. Picking up a few technical courses at El Centro Community College, Feith expanded his education. At the garment factories, he would spend his lunch hour quizzing seamstresses. "I'd go over and say, 'How do you make a pair of pants?' And they'd show me," Feith says. "Something was exciting to me. I felt there was something for me."

Still living in Denton, Feith was spending more time in Dallas, running with a pack of young men who met weekly to skateboard. "He wasn't a very good skateboarder, but he was into the whole feeling," Roach recalls.

From there, Feith eventually found his way to a bed in Jeff Newton's Zorlac factory.

But it was not until months later that he bumped into a girl he knew from UNT and the idea of actually selling his clothes flashed before Feith. The young woman introduced him to two acquaintances. "Oh, this is Tracy; he's a clothing designer," she told her friends. Never one to open his mouth unnecessarily, Feith kept quiet as the two women explained that they were about to open a boutique, Sodade, on Lovers Lane. They asked Feith whether he would show them his work. "We're going to Europe to buy for the store, but when we get back we'd love to see what you do," they told him.  

Feith spent all his spare time for the next 10 nights in the garment factory, sewing 13 men's suits--"or my version of suits," he says. His first try at menswear featured torn pieces hanging off sleeves and lapels on what otherwise were traditional suit jackets and pants. He would show the samples and then reproduce the styles that buyers selected.

"When you're young and you're doing things, you think you know how to do things," he says. "Now that I know what I know, I know that I did not know. But you can make something interesting, and it can work." He worked hard. "Once I get going, I tend to keep going until I must stop. I'm kind of like a snowball."

The feverish pitch paid off. Sodade's owners returned from Europe and ordered $2,000 worth of his clothing. "I was amazed," Feith says. "I thought, 'Wow, this is great.'"

Feith used the money to buy a sewing machine. For the next few years, he continued making men's clothes in Dallas, selling to Sodade and other stores. Inspired by the example of his fellow Dallas designer Todd Oldham, he began taking his clothes to New York. For the first trip, he traveled with his dad. Father and son drove to New York, lugging his samples, and stayed at the Grammercy Park Hotel. "I'd call up Bergdorf's, and he'd drive me over there," Feith recalls. Although cold-calling, Feith managed to get a few small shops to buy some items. He was oblivious to any snobby New York reaction to a Texas homeboy.

"It was funny," he says. "I didn't feel it then. I must have seemed like a wildcat, but I didn't care. I have felt it more since."

At night, while his dad stayed at the hotel, Feith checked out the New York club scene, keeping his eye on the clothes.

Back in Dallas, business was improving, and he opened his own shop in Oak Cliff near Bishop Street. He had taken up with a new girlfriend, Jocelyn Munster, who designed store-window displays and was tight with the Todd Oldham crowd. Friends say she helped Feith break into certain professional circles. Feith says that she has "a good eye," but that it was always his and only his business. Munster didn't return messages seeking comment.

In the early '90s, Feith frequently visited New York to pitch his designs. With several assistants helping him with sewing and pattern-making, Feith created a women's line. Unlike today's designs, the clothes were darker, sleeker, and more structured. He had mini-skirts, hooded jackets, and hip-hugging pants. When he went to New York, Feith would sleep on friends' couches and carry his garments to stores. By 1993, he was invited to share space in a New York showroom where store buyers could come year-round and order from the samples hanging there. His women's line was selling better than the rest, and Feith and Munster decided it was time to move to Manhattan.

In the spring of 1993, Feith produced his first runway show at The Supper Club. The fashion equivalent of a Broadway play's opening night, runway shows cost at least $40,000 to produce but draw hordes of buyers and generate press attention--not all of it necessarily good.

The results of Feith's first show were decidedly mixed. The models appeared in slinky, scoop-necked dresses made out of fabric imprinted with newspaper headlines. (Feith says he saved newspapers for years to produce this line.) The clothes ultimately sold well, and the newspaper-print fabric ignited a trend. But much of the press coverage focused on the high-heeled footwear and newspaper-covered catwalks that had his models falling like so many dominoes.

"I'm sure Feith's clothes were just lovely, but I never really noticed," wrote Robin Givhan, a reviewer for Knight-Ridder. "I was too busy wincing every time the women tried to walk in those ridiculous shoes."

Feith laughs now when he recalls the episode. An established shoe designer had promised him that he would produce footwear for the show, but backed out at the last moment. A friend just starting in the business offered to help out, creating "huge, huge platforms," Feith recalls. "I remember The New York Times. They gave me a pretty good review, but they said I was a misogynist for putting all the women in those torturous shoes. I would have made shoes for the guys if I had the time."

Another disastrous show came in November 1994, when Feith made the controversial decision to show his collection in a Times Square strip joint. Some of his models quit at the last minute when he told them that they were expected to pole dance as well as strut on the catwalk.  

"What messages were the models sending who refused to pole dance in Tracy Feith's presentation in Show World's Big Top?" Times fashion reporter Amy Spindler asked. The reporter thought Feith's "shirtdresses in sparkly sheer patchwork fabric, satiny black short dresses tied at the waist, python printed bustiers and shells with jackets on top, and pretty clinging halter dresses" were appealing. But, she noted, "The sexiness of the clothes hardly needs to be underscored by models swinging above the audience on slick poles."

For Feith, the strip club was like setting his show in a John Cassavetes movie, he says. "It was a spectacle," he says, still sounding a little impressed by the whole affair.

Yet by the time of that show, Feith knew that he was leaving the fashion business. He is characteristically hazy about the timing and doesn't dwell on parting ways with Munster, but sometime after the show they broke up, and he quit making clothes. For old friends back in Dallas, the development wasn't surprising. Some suspected that she had helped fuel his ambitions.

Feith says only that he had tired of the pace of the business. "You always had to have something new," he says. "The ideas were important to me. I was getting disillusioned. It was getting so this wasn't so fun. I was, like, killing myself. I was making shows that were very personal. They were more than fashion shows. These ideas were so important to me...They weren't just disposable."

Whatever the reason, Feith wanted out of the fashion business for a while. "I just kind of stopped," he remembers. "People would call, and I would say, 'I'm not doing that anymore.'" He traveled, played, and took odd jobs when he needed money.

He stopped taking orders and started taking acting classes. He wrote a little. For money, he occasionally helped out with the styling on commercials or made clothes for films.

He began a relationship with Susan Wignet, his current girlfriend and business collaborator, a former dancer who has designed fashion shoots. "I've got all the energy. She is the organized one," Feith says of Wignet, who is expecting their first baby next month.

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."

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