The Southern belle sashays back

Fashion: Tuleh's two designers love to put the lovely in clothes dripping with glamour and decadence.

May 14, 2000|By Tamara Ikenberg | Tamara Ikenberg,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK -- The Upper West Side studio resembles a mad fashion tea party. Antique candy dishes and gilded vintage furniture fill the space. Seamstresses buzz and sew in a back room, and the clothes hanging everywhere are the ultimate in designer decadence: sequins, lame, chinchilla cuffs.

The scene looks sumptuous. But to fashion designer Bryan Brantley who just walked in, it smells even better.

"Ohmigod, you got McDonald's," he says, spying the cheese danish and hamburger co-designer Josh Patner has saved for him.

"And wine," Patner adds, brandishing a bottle of red.

A feast of fast food and noon wine is a rare break for the partners in both life and business. They're so immersed in their two-year old clothing line, Tuleh, that they rarely have time to eat, confides intern Lissa Levine, 23. And Patner regrets that the gym has faded into the past as well.

"We used to have nice bodies, but we don't anymore," he says with resignation.

Instead of sweating it out on a Stairmaster, they've been channeling their eccentric energy into fashioning a business based on designing modern, sassy Southern belle styles for the city girl. Ruffles, flowers and fur are Tuleh trademarks. Patner and Brantley apply whimsical prints and extravagant fabrics to evening gowns, tea dresses, sexy skirts and more, offering a coquettish contrast to the bland black of high fashion.

Last year, they won a Perry Ellis Award for new talent in women's wear.

They appear to have won over the fickle fashion press, for the moment at least. Harper's Bazaar labelled the line "feminine and sultry." And the New York Times calls their style "deliciously arcane."

The inspiration behind the clothes was far more practical than the clothes themselves.

"You want me to say, `Oh, I watched a lot of Audrey Hepburn movies' or `My aunt was a really crazy Auntie Mame,'" Patner says, diving into some french fries laid out on a delicate porcelain plate. The two dreamed up Tuleh, named for a fashion muse they made up, "at a certain time in New York when people were making very uniform, monastic, industrial, urban-Zenny kind of clothes, and we just thought that it was really dreary. Everybody looked like they were getting ready for Armageddon."

They may still use a rotary phone, be tragically understaffed and be oblivious to the Internet, but with a devotion to crafting pretty clothes and a manic work ethic, Tuleh is taking off.

The company has snatched up 35 domestic and international accounts and is sold in such high-end havens as Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman, as well as a bunch of boutiques, including Ruth Shaw in Cross Keys. Tuleh also has a hold on Hollywood. Cameron Diaz has been known to stop by the studio to sample new styles, and sweet, skimpy pieces often appear on the size 2 bod of Sarah Jessica Parker on HBO's "Sex and the City." They also cater to socialites galore.

"This happens to be a very feminine season, and they do that kind of thing the right way," says Stephen Tancibok, a buyer at Ruth Shaw. "They've been doing this from the get-go."

When Patricia Field, "Sex and the City" fashion director, was introduced to the duo's creations, she saw a perfect fit for the show.

"They have a lot of detail that is very good for (Parker's) character," says Field, who has been working with Patner and Brantley since the show premiered in 1998. "It's not really a style I would call trendy. They have their own signature."

The clothes they design may be flashy, but Patner and Brantley's own apparel is strictly functional. Don't expect them to dress like dandies or drag queens. Patner says primping and preening are divine in women, deplorable in men. "You want a boyfriend who's looking at himself in the mirror all the time? That's gross."

"We are not women," says Patner, 39. "These are not our fantasies of what we would wear if we were women."

Today, Patner's dressed all in black; Brantley, 33, wears jeans and a blue Izod shirt. They look comfortably schlumpy. But under the nondescript clothes lurk personalities as vivacious as their designs.

Patner, a former women's fashion coordinator at Bergdorf Goodman and magazine stylist, is a charming fashion brat. He looks and sounds slightly peeved. But that may just be the nasal voice and the tortoise-shell beatnik glasses. In design, he tends more toward the extravagant. If something's raging with ruffles and sparkle, Patner was probably behind it.

Brantley, whose pre-Tuleh jobs included working as a design assistant at Calvin Klein, is just a tad more tweedy in his taste. The entire line, in fact, has taken a turn for the more conservative. That's Tuleh conservative, however, which could mean magenta tweed.

Brantley, with his goatee and gentle eyes, is the picture of patience. Sitting peacefully on the floor, he seems accustomed to Patner taking the public lead since the two met through mutual friends in 1997.

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