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Retail Revolutionaries 

Wednesday, Sep 18 2002

“I try to make what is not there”: Orchid Velasquez‘s red satin halter blouse with black lace back and crepe-and-satin skirt with embroidery; lavendEr sheer stretch polyester dress with burned-out velvet insets and tulle trim; knit cotton top with inset panels and decorative stitching, and denim skirt with upholstery fabric insets and lace detail

“You never know what you are going to get”: Araceli Silva’s red cotton one-shoulder ruffle dress with black stripes; patchwork blouse made from vintage fabrics; vintage polyester striped halter blouse and denim wrap skirt with safety-pin fastener

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It starts with a fist pushing upward from a black hole. A drop of blood, sweat -- or is it nectar? -- flowing from beneath the wrist. This is the logo for LaborFruit, a fledgling cooperative of local Echo Park artists started by four people: Aaron Kuehn, Araceli Silva, Orchid Velasquez and Alex Safonov. The seed for the idea came two and a half years ago: Orchid Velasquez, newly graduated from the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising, was working as a design assistant for a mass-market clothing company. Disgusted at the way garment-factory workers were treated and at the commodification of creative work, she decided to branch out on her own. At a cafe, she met and fell in love with graphic designer Aaron Kuehn, and the couple tapped into friends and friends of friends to join them in a kind of craftsmen‘s collective.

The idea was to bring together artists trapped in unfulfilling jobs who would pool resources, time and skills to be able to create art while making money. Though many responded, only designer Araceli Silva came onboard. Along with Alex Safonov, a tilemaker whom Kuehn had met slipping in and out of one university program after another, the quartet formed LaborFruit. It is an elusive concept -- part artists’ refuge, part open marketplace, part retail entity, part town-hall circle. For LaborFruit, there were no “95 Theses” nailed to the wall, no single defining moment of inception, only a hazy, gradual coalescing.

It wasn‘t until this summer that LaborFruit got going in earnest, when Frank Sosa and his bookshop 33 13 moved into the adjacent store. LaborFruit had struggled for some time at its Echo Park location to define itself: an art store, a gallery, a punk rock performance area. At one point, the space was painted green and everything inside was arranged to form an altar -- customers were confused, pissed off. Especially when Kuehn, ever the smart-ass, wouldn’t give a straight answer about what LaborFruit was. Partly the struggle was about marrying a socialist ideology with the need for cold hard cash, about the dichotomy of fostering the independent by means of a collective. And partly it was about timing. This June, when Sosa moved in, LaborFruit redesigned the interior -- lemony walls, pale-blue ceilings, a central counter shaped like a hexagon -- and re-conceptualized as a retail space. With one-of-a-kind artist-made clothes, hats, purses, jewelry and furniture for sale on one side, zines and political books on the other, the 1200 Alvarado Street location is brewing into a retail revolution.

Araceli Silva, poised and elegant as an Aztec goddess, stands behind the counter, stringing beads into a bracelet. Alex Safonov, the group‘s quiet tech man, is laying tile onto a hand-welded coffee table in the back workroom while Lola, the shop cat, looks on. Frank Sosa -- the hustler, the organizer -- fields calls on his cell phone, percolating a some half a dozen shows about to roll in to 33 13. A girl comes in with her dad and picks out a slinky black jersey column with a long slit cut down the side, which she tries on as a skirt. “Actually, I made that as a top,” Silva says, joining her in front of the mirror. She indicates that the piece is worn with the long cutaway section exposing the lower back. “Oh wow,” the girl purrs, twisting in the mirror. Long tinsel-y threads dangle from the material’s edges. “It‘s interesting the way people interpret the pieces.”

Silva and Velasquez design most of the clothes. The pieces have the experimental, playful feel of couture, like Commes des Garcons mated with the outfits your kid sister might make for a Barbie doll. They are the products of happy, creative minds. The style is edgy, pretty, avant-garde. There are asymmetrical, geometric skirts secured with safety pins. Aprons that double as sashes or wraps. Back-baring halter tops and stretchy lace camisoles in lavenders, indigos and pinks, ruched up the sides with exposed contrast stitching. A sleeveless shirt with a streak of miniature ruffles zigzagging across the chest. Pieces suggest deeper narratives, in the way that only well-thought-out, handmade garments can. A wrap skirt made by Velasquez of blood-red satin embroidered with black flowers evokes geishas; her glittery cowl-neck top in creamy rayon brings to mind the era of disco divas. Silva’s sheer salmon-colored shell edged in sea-green velvet suggests a Renaissance lady in waiting. Asked about her inspirations, her methods, she sighs, “Oh, God,” smiling, and props her elbow up on the counter. She‘ll drape a length of material over a mannequin and cut away until she arrives at an interesting shape. Or she’ll sew together fabrics of different textures into one big sheet -- body-skimming vs. stiff and moldable, see-through vs. opaque -- and only then trace out a larger pattern. Seams and hemlines wind up in interesting places: “You never know what you are going to get.” This conversation about why the artist does what she does is something that could never happen at the mall.

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