NEW YORK -- In designer Gary Graham's world, women are urban warriors with a feminine twist.
They march out of the house in cast-iron corsets paired with flouncy, organza skirts. They wear quilted "armor" vests with circulation-stopping hot pants. Their trousers, blouses and cocktail dresses come in Orwellian shades of dirty green, off-white and a pale, dingy gray, and the fabrics look angrily shredded and ripped, with cords dangling askew and raw seams everywhere.
It's a look trendsetter Britney Spears liked so much she wore a Graham ensemble on the cover of her latest album, Britney. And when actor-director John Cameron Mitchell, of Hedwig and the Angry Inch fame, wanted a little dazzle for the Golden Globes, he turned to Graham for a deep red tuxedo that he cheekily told the night's fashion police helped him "blend into the carpet."
Having a buzz among celebs is one thing -- selling to the masses, quite another. And so, Graham joined several other fledgling designers in taking the first step toward reaching a national audience: He presented a collection at the fall 2002 fashion shows last month in Manhattan.
"It's not that I get a lot of press," said Graham, 32, who attended the Maryland Institute College of Art in the late 1980s. "When you have a show, it's like, 'OK, this is it.' I want to really display my clothes and show a solid piece of what my aesthetic is. I want people to associate the name with the product and know what the product is.
"It's really exciting for me," added the unshaven Graham, periodically running his hands through his shaggy Beatle cut as he paced about the backroom of Shack Inc., a Tribeca boutique that has been his unofficial headquarters for about three seasons. "But it's also really scary."
First show since Sept. 11
The fall 2002 collections shown in New York were noteworthy for many reasons. They marked the first Fashion Week since Sept. 11, which abruptly halted last season's presentations. Designers saw the February shows as a time to pique Americans' interest again. And, surprisingly, there was a surge of designers staging shows for the first time.
Among the newcomers was Graham, an edgy former stage costume designer with a decidedly different vision for American womenswear that had inspired some to dub him the "poor woman's John Galliano." With his bleak palette and frayed warriorwear, Graham instantly stood out in a season when most designers were playing it safe and wooing customers with a simple and conservative chic.
"He brings a European sensibility and style to America -- the rough-edged couture, that extra-special styling," gushed Hollywood stylist Phillip Bloch, who is dressing Halle Berry and Jim Carrey for the Academy Awards. "He's very stylized as a designer, compared to the simplicity of most American designers. It isn't necessarily the average woman's clothing, but I definitely think he's a name to watch."
Just days before his show, Graham was nervous, wondering how his vision would be received among the new audience he wanted to reach: buyers seeking threads for the masses. The designer's clothes currently are available in 10 boutiques across the country. A Graham shirt costs about $140, a dressy jacket is priced at about $500, pants are $250 and coats or dresses are about $1,300 to $1,800.
Graham's passion is creating unusual, textured fabrics -- taking something ordinary like muslin or a dense, heavy cotton and slashing, pleating, quilting or fraying it and then dyeing it an extraordinary hue.
"I like fabric techniques," said Graham, clad in faded jeans, black boots and a ratty beige T-shirt as he took a break in between fitting models two days before his show.
"Like, in this collection, we did some smocking," he said, referring to the technique of tightly gathering a panel of material and holding it together with decorative stitches. "It was big in the '70s but we tried it out here, just grabbing parts of a skirt or a dress and smocking it."
And the final product ends up being memorably eye-catching: An off-white organza dress has a jagged, asymmetrical hem thanks to the panel of smocking at the chest. And a low-rise pale-green organza skirt flares out at unpredictable angles because of patches that have been bunched up and stitched.
Graham and those close to him claim to always have known that he would end up doing something creative in life. Growing up in Newark, Del., Graham always was dabbling in the artistic.
"At first he played the piano, then he got into drawing and photography," said his sister, Amelia Pritchard, a human resources manager in Middletown, Del., who made a trip to New York to check out her brother's show.
The hobbies led to Graham's decision to study painting at the Maryland Institute College of Art, a time that he remembers fondly.