Slacking in style

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.

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."

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Miriam Rozen
Contact: Miriam Rozen