Fashion takes a fancy to old and new buttons

January 14, 1993|By Rose-Marie Turk | Rose-Marie Turk,Los Angeles Times

As he flew to Malcolm Forbes' 1989 birthday bash in Morocco, New York interior designer Mario Buatta did what his tailor didn't have time to do. He sewed antique brass buttons on his new Ralph Lauren blazer.

For Buatta and millions of American consumers buttons count. They are the detail that can turn almost any garment into a gem, miniature sculptures that give signals about the wearer and the designer. What's more, in these tight economic times, buttons have new significance. Consumers are using them to revive old clothes or customize ho-hum new purchases. And designers in every price bracket are using buttons to embellish.

In fact, the use of buttons is increasing so much that owners of fabric stores and trim companies say they have escaped the recession. "Our business has grown beyond my expectations," says David Scharf, co-owner of Two Lads, a new Los Angeles button manufacturer. Sales of the jewelry-quality ornaments topped $500,000 in nine months. The reason? Designers are putting "more buttons on a garment than anything else."

Barbara Barbara, whose BB Collections, a line of special-occasion dresses that retail from $160 to $250, says: "We buy affordable fabrics and put the money into trims, such as buttons. The customer feels she's getting a little more for her money. The trim makes her say, 'Wow! That's a great dress.' "

The button selection available to designers and consumers ranges from antiques and expensive European imports to mass-manufactured buttons from Asia and the United States. Some artisans, such as Sharon McGovern of Los Angeles, make and sell collectibles, called studio buttons, to fellow collectors.

For these collectors, the 18th and 19th Centuries were the glory days of buttons. After the introduction of plastic which at first was turned into striking colors and designs buttons rolled downhill. Due to a combination of factors including mass production, the high cost of hand work and the limited use of exotic natural materials buttons lost much of their fashion appeal by 1960.

Most people credit the late Patrick Kelly with reviving the jewelry status of buttons. The designer's 1985 button-smothered collection turned colorful, basic four-hole buttons into objects of desire. They spawned a demand by designers for bigger and better functional ornaments that range from the opulence of Christian Lacroix and Zang Toi to the whimsy of Todd Oldham and the romantic nostalgia favored by designers such as Carole Little.

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