Alice Roi loves to mix haute couture with Wal-Mart

Clothing designer takes fashion cues from the street -- not Wall Street

April 06, 2003|By Tina Cassidy | Tina Cassidy,THE BOSTON GLOBE

Alice Roi's personal taste ranges from long underwear from Wal-Mart to togs from Chanel.

That yawning gap between the mundane and the fabulous, and the street and the runway, is where 27-year-old Roi, one of a handful of fresh-faced New York-based designers catapulting into the fashion business, seems most comfortable, having grown up in a city where poverty and wealth coexist on a grand scale. And the clothes she creates -- as well as the ones she wears -- have the same quirky split personality that is spurring celebrities and major retailers to embrace her collections.

Her spring line includes such disparate elements as cotton tops with simple, childlike renderings of turtles and sophisticated tropical wool dresses cinched at the waist with a cast-nickel horseshoe-crab buckle. The common denominator: Both feature creatures with crusty shells.

"We had a whole underwater theme going on," she says, looking at a display of her collection recently. She used colors that evoked coral, sea foam and sand.

Her collection is filled with skirts and dresses meant to be worn over pants or leggings. Roi turns to her own outfit.

"I'm doing it the annoying way today. ... I wasn't supposed to wear them, but it's so cold," she says, looking down on her Wolford stirrups under a Natori nightgown. Beneath that, she wears a Hanes T-shirt, a sweater from her spring collection, Michel Perry pumps with golden letters on the toes and a coral horn -- matching her lacquered fingernails -- wedged in her tanned cleavage. (Fresh back from Florida, she was.)

As a designer, she says, it's up to her to take cues from the street; this is what they're wearing -- at least in her own Lower East Side neighborhood. But her job is also to bring something new to the market. And right now, she notices, most new clothing looks old, as if it has been worn before or washed many times.

"That's very much the trend right now," Roi says. "But I'm not like that, I don't feel I need it. I see it all the time. I try to do the opposite of what everyone else is doing." Designers, she says, should use vintage looks as a "springboard, not a map. People took it too far. It's almost impossible to tell the difference."

Her own collection evokes the way a child might have dressed her favorite Barbie over the years, employing and mixing every outfit amassed from Christmases and birthdays.

"I'm definitely not a precious person," she says. "I don't think that's something I strive for, but there should be attention or embellishment in your clothing that gives you a sense of power."

Immediately she thinks of the military looks that have been popular in recent seasons, from cargo pants to jackets with epaulets.

"My ideas come from a less aggressive place," she adds, later noting that she studied at a tiny Quaker school for 15 years. "But they are aggressive clothes."

Roi attended Bryn Mawr briefly, before realizing it was not her scene. She graduated as an art major concentrating in painting from New York University and worked at Elle magazine in college. She's been designing for four years and has a staff of three.

One can easily see the way art has influenced her fashion. She explains how the lines in a painting draw the eye to certain places; pulling a pair of her pants from the rack, she demonstrates the same optical technique, tracing a seam from the waist to the pocket to the hem. Her fall collection is inspired by the near-mythical art patron Peggy Guggenheim. And she has long skirts for next season that recall Rothko's color field paintings with black, blue, brown and cream strips of fabric stacked as horizontal bands and stitched together.

Then she laughs loudly, realizing she was lapsing into details that may be lost on the average consumer: "Probably everyone wants a Juicy [Couture] sweat shirt at the end of the day!"

Even if they don't understand what they're seeing, Roi believes consumers buy things to which they feel connected. "They might be like, 'Oh yeah, didn't we have drapes like this in our country house?' '' she says, pointing to a white T-shirt trimmed in red.

As for prices, she says customers complain less about expense if the piece is truly outstanding.

"I either want dirt-cheap stuff or I want to splurge and spend $1,800 and wear it forever," she says.

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