The Making of a Designer 

Monah Li on creation, transformation,faith — and garmentos

Photos by Debra DiPaolo

I have heard with admiring submission the experience of the lady who declared that the sense of being well dressed gives a feeling of inward tranquillity, which religion is powerless to bestow.

—Ralph Waldo Emerson

I have always had more faith in fashion than in God. Let me explain. At 9 years old I began staying up all night making clothes. A typical 3 a.m. would find me, flashlight propped under blankets, feverishly knitting away at a shawl, say, or sewing an entire dress together.

I was driven by the incipient belief that the right garment could save me. Call it dress-as-redemption, fashion as platonic ideal. In a kind of style-based magical thinking I had yet to even articulate, let alone comprehend, I knew in my heart that there existed a garment that could transform me — the shame-crazed, prepubescent spawn of a father who had recently taken off with a 17-year-old sweetheart — into the shining, beautiful creature the world had conspired to render ugly.

Silk velvet and raw silk
pants trimmed with glass beads

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Somehow, if I just stopped eating, stayed up late and worked hard enough, I'd create the glorious item that would reveal my true identity. Somewhere in the universe were clothes in which the outcast could ascend to the admired.

I believed that the right clothes could make me perfect. I still do. And so does every woman who has ever slipped into a dressing room, held her breath, and felt that insane, life-affirming rush of hope before stepping in front of the mirror.

Unlike any other art form, in fashion you can create yourself. The journey from nothing into something transforms creator and created. Clothes can give you what the gods forgot. And reinventing yourself through wardrobe is so much more convenient than plastic surgery. What we select to cover our skin announces and idealizes who we want to be — which is, by default, almost always what we are not. Witness a generation of suburban white kids in baggy pants trying to look like gangbangers and convicts. Or there's the Beverly Hills older women who drop a bundle to dress like glitzy streetwalkers.

Rayon satin and knit dress
with lace and satin ribbon

We also dress to identify ourselves with the tribe we want to be a part of: Slip into a cropped baby T-shirt with a pair of lace-up leather pants and find your inner rock goddess, whether it be Christina Aguilera at 20 or Sheryl Crow for the over-40 woman. Chop off your bangs, put on a '50s poodle skirt and show that you belong to Silver Lake. And let's not even get into the people wearing sweatsuits, Juicy Couture or otherwise, who resemble aging infants.

Ideally, design should turn necessity into something that not only pleases the eye but the psyche.

Art produces ugly things which frequently become beautiful with time. Fashion on the other hand produces beautiful things which always become ugly with time.

—Jean Cocteau

Until about five years ago, L.A.'s reputation for fashion design barely existed, and was probably best known through the exquisitely tailored clothes of Richard Tyler, who left for New York in 1993. The city was synonymous with bikinis, shorts and mass-produced baby-doll dresses — fast, fun products that did nothing to advance design.

During the late '80s it was all about Melrose Avenue. Retailers such as Tiziana, Black Salad, Ecru and Neo Romance were more famous than the designers they sold. And stores such as Maxfield rarely carried L.A. lines, instead concentrating on European and Japanese designers. In 1989, I along with Elisabetta Rogiani, Rachel London and Maggie Berry came out with designs that weren't influenced by anything going on elsewhere: a sexy sailor dress for grown-ups, chic crepe tailored frocks, gardens of appliqué flowers, smooth club wear. It was a new look that tapped into a Southern California aesthetic: The fashion press hailed us as wildly original.

Since then designers such as Rick Owens, Eduardo Lucero, Josephine Loka, Alicia Lawhon, Cynthia Vincent and Anna Huling, to name a few, have put L.A. on the map of smart fashionistas. And might I modestly point out a cause I also helped. Nobody had ever looked to L.A. — as opposed to Hollywood, which has had a huge influence on fashion — as an inspiration for design, but all of a sudden L.A. ideas were taken up and copied everywhere. Mixed fabrics, which was a defining L.A. moment, got picked up by the high-end London house Voyage. The bright colors that infused L.A. wear had an influence on Versace. Alicia Lawhon and I founded CLAD (Coalition of L.A. Designers) in 1998, an organization that intended to make it easier for local designers to show their talent — although that hasn't been entirely successful.

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