stylishly DRIVEN

Innovative menswear has brought success to a rebellious former Marylander.

September 10, 2000|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,Sun Staff

NEW YORK -- The Jhane Barnes revolution began the spring of '69 in the hallways of Cockeysville Junior High School.

The ninth-grader who would grow up to be one of America's leading menswear designers was a rebellious teen then, with a penchant for skin-tight shorts and a burning annoyance over the school policy barring girls from wearing pants. She stormed through the school, urging students to join her in protest, gave impassioned speeches at student council meetings and mailed letters to parents.

"I just felt that women should be able to wear anything they want," Barnes, now 46, says matter-of-factly from her chic, 20th-floor headquarters that overlook midtown Manhattan.

She won that first battle -- the school principal eventually changed the policy -- and some say Barnes hasn't stopped trying to revolutionize the fashion world ever since.

Today, Jhane Barnes -- who grew up "Jane" in Phoenix but added an "h" to her name in 1976 to make it seem less feminine -- heads a fashion, textiles and furniture empire that reeled in $104 million last year. Celebrities Magic Johnson, Dennis Miller and Billy Joel are among her fans, and her line is carried in such high-end stores as Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus. She currently has four stores in California, Arizona and Nevada and plans to have 20 throughout the country by 2004.

"I've known since I was a kid that I would be successful," says Barnes, whose dirty blond hair is in a sharp page-boy cut. "It's just not an option for me to fail."

While many admire the clean cuts of her suits and jackets, she's really made her mark with fabrics -- rich, multi-hued and textured patterns with wild zigzags, repeated blocks of color or artistic angular lines on ties, jackets and pants. Close up, Jhane Barnes' fabrics sometimes look like mesmerizing optical illusions. She often wears specially made shirts cut from her own fabrics. This time, she's topping a pair of black pants with a blouse featuring a pattern of maroon, brown and black bricks.

What's even more unusual is how she goes about creating these patterns. Although many designers sit with a sketchpad, Barnes' tool of choice is a Macintosh computer, on which she uses innovative software to apply complex mathematical equations in plotting her designs.

With help from a mathematician and physicist who created the software and act as consultants, she plays with numbers and equations to vary the wefts and weaves of her looms and clicks on her mouse to alter the colors. On a good day, she comes up with four or five new patterns and then e-mails them to those who work her looms. The designs are more complex than when she started out in 1979 and used graph paper to do her work.

"A lot of my inspiration comes from playing around on my computer," says Barnes, turning to her Macintosh to give a demonstration. "I sit down and go, 'Let's see, I wonder what this button means, I wonder what that button does.' There are all these combinations of how those threads interlock. There are hundreds of possibilities."

Barnes first got into fashion design because of her rebellious streak. Her father Richard was a banker and her mother Muriel was an elementary school teacher who made her daughter's clothes. Barnes loathed the patterns her mother picked so when she hit 6th grade, frustration drove her to take matters into her own hands.

"It was embarrassing," Barnes says, laughing. "I said to myself, 'I'd better learn how to sew. I started out with altering the patterns my mother made, and then I made a lot of hot pants. ... My father was fine with me wearing hot pants. He thought that wearing hot pants was better than wearing short skirts because you could bend over."

From there, she went on to bigger things. Barnes designed and made uniforms for her high school jazz dance band, using $500 from the principal to create 25 blue and black jumpsuits in two weeks. They were a hit at Dulaney Senior High School, and Barnes started her own small business after school, designing and making clothes for friends. At around the same time, she began taking "clothing" classes, which were part of girls' home economics curriculum at the time.

But even then, Barnes didn't consider a career in fashion design.

"I didn't even like clothing class," Barnes says, wrinkling her nose. "The girls would just sit around and talk about getting married and having babies."

Almost 30 years have passed since Ruth Robinette taught Barnes' clothing class, but the memories of her ace student remain vivid.

"Oh, she was difficult," Robinette says almost proudly. "We had certain projects we had to do but she always wanted to do something above and beyond that. She was very creative. She just had all these ideas, and she would learn to make them work."

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