Hometown Boy

William Calvert, Baltimore native and Gilman alum, is making a name for himself in the world of high fashion.

April 25, 1999|By Tamara Ikenberg | Tamara Ikenberg,Sun Staff

At the Zone vintage store, William Calvert is struck by a sense of designer deja vu. Shopping in his native Baltimore, the designer plucks a sequined button-up sweater from the rack. Turn it into a skirt, and voila, Michael Kors. Metallic shorts elicit near drools from a customer. He offers this: Add a black overcoat to make them completely Commes des Garcons. And his favorite find -- a long, black eyelet dress -- smacks of Prada.

These trendy pieces have been reincarnated, given a second chance at glory. Calvert, however, is enjoying his first life as "in."

In, as in the pages of Vogue. In, as in the windows of Barney's. In, as in the Seventh Avenue spotlight.

Just how in? Geoffrey Beene wrote to praise a Calvert platinum silk crepe dress.

"It doesn't get much better than that," Calvert says. "I started screaming, and all of the ladies from the sample room came running in and were 'What's the matter? Did you hurt yourself?' "

Being indulged by an icon may swell the ego and shrink the integrity of some 29-year-old New York "It" boys. After all, last year Calvert won the Rising Star Award from the Fashion Group International.

Calvert hears the fashion world whispering -- he may be the Next-Big-Thing. And he's pumped by it. But more of his fashion fuel comes from his "We're not there yet" work ethic.

Mature, serene -- even Zen-like at times -- he simply wants to do what he's set out to do: create clothes with age-old couture techniques that are hip to his generation and haute to older ones -- and do it well.

"He has an understanding of the artisanry of fashion that no other designer his age has," says veteran fashion columnist Mary Lou Luther.

For Calvert, who started his line of sleek, classic women's evening wear two years ago, simplicity is more than just a fashion statement.

"Make one statement: Say, 'I do.' Say, 'I like.' Say, 'I don't.' Rather than, 'Aaah, I'm kind of thinking about this,' " he says, going from staccato passion to a wishy-washy whine. "For me, the one strong statement has more bravado."

But his bravado hasn't made him a member of the Blackwell-Rivers club of fashion trashing.

He's at the Gap, praising the savvy of this retail monster, even though his own creations can be found at such high-end meccas as Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus.

"It's amazing that they are able to translate a trend into something everyone can wear," he says, singling out items he admires. He spots a white camisole top with delicate faggoting, gray iridescent Capri pants and a white funnel-necked, zip-up jacket with a pope-meets-Ziggy-Stardust quality. The trio, he determines, holding them in front of him, would compose a stunning symphony.

Wait! That Gilligan-style orange hat on a nearby display would be the perfect coda.

"You have tough, cute and sweet all rolled into one," he says.

Calvert seems to have a sixth fashion sense.

"He has an eye. He has a way. He just knows," says Erin Gamse, 31. The Baltimore resident had a three-piece cashmere and silk outfit made for her engagement party. Now, he's working on her wedding dress.

About 50 percent of Calvert's business comes from private clients whom he fits in his Fifth Avenue showroom next to Bergdorf's.

Calvert's retail clothing goes from $1,000 to $6,000. (Special orders start at $6,000.)

One person who doesn't get treated to a custom-made Calvert is Calvert himself. (He made a turquoise and black shirt for himself when he was 16, but he won't get into that. "It was really ugly," he says. "Very rock star.")

It's a bit of a contrast to the charcoal-gray pea coat, black turtleneck sweater, khakis and shiny black Oxfords he's sporting today. He could have bought those at the Gap.

Calvert may shop in malls on occasion, but he's not about to eat in the food court.

In the sit-down, shoes-off room at Shogun on Charles Street, Calvert leans against the wall, with one leg hugged to his chest in a pose worthy of a Vanity Fair cover.

His wire-rimmed glasses and wavy, untamed hair render him both arty and conservative. (He's maybe a little less conservative when he's doing animal impersonations, one of his lesser-known talents. His repertoire includes a fish and a family of sheep.)

He orders sushi with New York authority, pronouncing the most obscure items on the menu with flair.

Chop-sticking a yellowtail roll, Calvert outlines his fashion future.

He'd like to find a backer within the year. He's working on putting up a Web site, which should be done in six months. He's moving toward opening his own store within the next two years. He's serious about starting a line of footwear. And he wants to expand his collection beyond evening wear.

"I don't want to be pigeonholed," he says.

But all silk and no social life makes William a dull boy, not to mention tired. He sleeps in his spare time ... what little he has of it.

"We have to work hard to get [the business] to go where it's going to go," he says with a shrug. "Either it'll work or it won't."

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