She dresses for the occasion

December 12, 2003|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,SUN STAFF

There are certain comforts in life that most of us take for granted, but that April Cornell can ill afford.

Such as taking out the garbage in her housecoat and slippers, her face streaked with last night's mascara. Or working in her garden in shapeless sweats.

Or looking, at any moment of her life when she conceivably could be seen by a customer of one of the 105 stores bearing her name that she owns in the United States and Canada, any way other than perfectly pulled together from her earrings to her shoes. Preferably in earrings, ensemble and shoes that she designed herself, all made from her signature fabrics.

April Cornell never has the luxury of not caring how she looks. "Let me tell you," she says in a throaty chuckle, "that can be very hard."

It's a good thing the clothes she designs are as comfortable as they are pretty. Women snap them up in droves, and Cornell was in Baltimore yesterday in her Harborplace store to meet customers, sign her new book, April Cornell At Home (157 pages, $39.95, published by Glitterati Inc.), and sip tea. Naturally, it was served in cups that she also designed.

Mostly, what Cornell does is to create silk-screened prints in vibrant colors that meld influences from India, Victorian England and rural America. There is a line of clothing for her core customers (professional women ages 35 to 55), a line of children's wear and a housewares collection that includes table linens, bedding and pottery.

Now, Cameron Cornell, 27, the oldest of her three sons, is launching his own line of clothes for a younger generation of women.

For the book signing, Cornell, 52, is wearing an outfit displayed in the store: a dress with a pink floral print, and a sheer black ruffle at the hem and sleeves. The dress goes under a green velvet coat, and over fishnet stockings, and a pair of beaded red shoes.

Then, it hits you: The ruby slippers! Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz!

Cornell smiles a little. "I just realized that myself," she says.

And, in a way, Dorothy's magical journey could be her own. Cornell, the Canadian-born daughter of a telephone worker and a homemaker, mostly is a self-taught artist. She has been drawing since she was 4 years old.

"In those days, you sent your shirts out to get dry-cleaned," she says. "The shirts would come back folded over a piece of cardboard, and my mother would save it for me."

She met her husband, Chris, when she was 18 and studying fine art at Dawson College in Montreal. The two decided to start a resale business of jewelry and textiles that they brought back from the exotic locales they visited.

After a 1974 trip to Afghanistan, they opened a kiosk for the Christmas season. "People loved all these vintage dresses, but they were collector's items and not necessarily wearable," Cornell says. "We decided to take that style, make it our own, and sell it for a reasonable price."

Since 1992, Cornell Trading Ltd. has been based in Burlington, Vt. The company has manufacturing plants in India and China. And everywhere she goes, Cornell brings her tins of watercolors and sketches whatever she sees.

Two more books are on the docket. In the future, perhaps in-store cafes, which would allow her to expand her pottery line.

"I never run out of ideas," she says.

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