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A Looming Talent

Photos by Larry Hirshowitz

"MY MOTHER COULD NOT DRESS ME — NEVER, NOT ever," says Venice-based designer Coryn Madley, sounding like a character from a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta. "I grew up in a log cabin without electricity, but I insisted on having white patent-leather shoes," explains the petite redhead, who knows exactly what she wants — and what she doesn't.

As a girl in the aptly named but sparsely populated Northern California town of Happy Camp, Madley entertained herself by playing "faerie games" in the forest. Her parents, former stage performers, encouraged her creativity by giving her a trunk of old costumes. Today the young designer has a strong theatrical bent, using Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream as one of her touchstones. Elfquest, a series of girl-powered graphic novels, is another. With her first collection, Madley is "making clothes for the imaginary people" who lived in the moss houses she once built under the redwoods. The charm of her line is its uniqueness — she makes wearable art with dramatic appeal. "Faerie" is a word used frequently by the elfin designer. But "wood nymph" also comes to mind after one views her environmentally conscious couture. A sequined, hand-crocheted coat of handspun yarn mimics the growth rings of a sequoia. A silk-screened skirt incorporates aerial representations of trees drawn for architectural plans. Many of her ultragirly fabric collages have a woodland feel, but manmade materials such as nylon combined with a natural fiber such as silk enhance the glamour: "I don't want to be restricted by the fabric I see in fabric stores."


On Coryn: cotton hand-dyed wool-
and-leather blouse with wool-
silk sequin flower On the
model: Cotton poly knit blouse
and skirt with kick pleats


Density and transparency are key concepts behind a quilted see-through poncho with hand-stitched silk layers. Billowy sleeves, however, remain Madley's signature. Soon she will be coming out with a line of Shakespeare-inspired felted wool and mohair collars. The more versatile Louis XIV royal collars made of hand-stitched silk can also be worn as a tube top, according to Madley, an alum of the Rhode Island School of Design.

Graduating almost didn't happen, however. "I was the evil red-headed stepchild," she sighs. "I don't make patterns, which perplexed some teachers and infuriated others. I was majoring in textile design and resistant to transferring to apparel, where instructors kept trying to push me." But a semester abroad at Central St. Martins in London provided Madley with the knitting courses she craved — and a direction to take it in. She learned how to work with knitwear — the machines, the draping — and she gained a more international attitude about fashion, which in part led her to set up shop in L.A. earlier this year while all her RISD classmates headed for New York. It proved a smart move: Madley aggressively marketed herself as an L.A. designer — she's already in an impressive number of stores here — and got her line picked up by Henri Bendel, which was looking to carry more Angeleno talent.

Many of her designs put a new spin on vintage attire. "All clothing is a type of costume," she says, describing her creations as "Grandma's closet meets punk rock." She recycles damaged vintage sweaters, masking unraveling beads and cigarette burns with sequins, leather and fur. "I want to use the unusable and wear the unwearable," she says. Although she does hand-crochet some pieces, and creates others on a knitting machine, restyled vintage wear is turning out to be an important part of her inaugural line — a garment made on the knitting machine requires 16 to 20 hours of labor.


Ruffle cotton-knit skirt with
kick pleats and couture blouse
made with hand-stitched raw,
printed and chiffon silk


Madley started designing jewelry when she was still in high school, and is continuing to make pieces that will complement her clothing line. She cites cellular structure as an inspiration; the swirling double helix of DNA can clearly be seen in her earring designs. Her color combinations are slightly eccentric: One piece combines rubies, coral and amethysts. Delicate organic materials such as carved bone, freshwater pearls and tiny shells are juxtaposed against brand-new oversize rhinestone clasps.

Like her designs, her creative process is organic: "Designs can evolve — what I produce is often more interesting than what I originally had in my head." Felting, the process of boiling wool and shrinking it, results in many "happy accidents." Although she doesn't make patterns, she does draw superbly. She describes her own illustrations as "Raggedy Ann paper dolls dressed as rock stars." She once considered becoming a children's-book illustrator.

"I don't believe in complete originality, but I believe in original combinations. My clothes reinterpret classic silhouettes," Madley says. "Clothing should be fun to wear. I always dress up. Even when I'm by myself at home, I wear high heels," notes the woman who once wore white patent-leather shoes in a log cabin.

Coryn Madley clothing and jewelry is available at Fred Segal Flair and Fred Segal Tiara, 500 Broadway, Santa Monica, (310) 451-7178 or (310) 394-8186; Jennifer Kaufman in the Beverly Center, (310) 854-1058; Diavolina, 334 S. La Brea Ave., (323) 936-5444; Madison Malibu, 3835 Cross Creek Road, Malibu, (310) 317-9170; or www.madley.com.