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Divine Stitches

The Kartik: From a Hindu season representing the conquest of light over darkness (Photos by Jeaneen Lund)

I think of Joanna Newsom maybe. Or Tori Amos crossed with a young Sophia Loren. There is something sprightly yet sultry in the clothes of Trasteverine. Something otherworldly and fragile, but also grounded and tough. I recently sat down with Trasteverine designers Brian Frank and Michalyn Andrews at a downtown coffee hang, and in between drags of their cigarettes, they tried to help me figure out this puzzling Trasteverine girl. Who is she?

“She inevitably winds up being a mystic, but she has style. She’s a revolutionary and an intellectual,” Frank says, and then laughs. Andrews mulls over the question and finally tells me, “Our girl is pretty, but she has something to say and doesn’t fit into a box.”

Their label’s name, Trasteverine, is slang for a girl who comes from Rome’s Trastevere quarter. Andrews, who studied film there, says the area has a very “opulent, natural feeling, an opulent organicness.”

It’s that innate glamour, not forced elegance, that comes through in the clothes, which are modest yet sexy in that Grace Kelly kind of way.

“There’s something far more sensual about having mystery,” says Andrews.

The lyrical movement to the clothes and the cinematic drama to the lines seem to come from Andrews’ own experience making experimental films in Rome. Maybe that’s why Trasteverine designs conjure images of a young Sophia Loren, or Anita Ekberg in the Trevi fountain.

But there is also a dignity and self-respect in the designs. Dresses with draping and details worthy of Aphrodite make sense when you learn that Frank, a.k.a. Bhagavan Dasa, was a Hare Krishna monk at the age of 17, and his job was to dress the temple deities (statues of Krishna that range from a few inches to 8 feet tall) two to three times a day at his San Diego ashram. It was part of the ritual known as shringar. Frank scrolls through his digital camera, looking for images to show me examples of shringar from his time in India — he lived there from age 19 to 23 and still visits. He is so excited that his hands shake a little as he advances the photos. He finds one, a picture of a temple, where it takes 16 priests to dress 10 Krishnas — and they do it in 45 minutes. The statues are robed in green silk dresses with heavy beadwork made into pink and gold flowers and darker green vines that shimmer their way up and down the fabric; fresh flower garlands hang around their necks. This is the level of opulence and the level of respect Frank and Andrews filter into their designs. Dressing a woman for them is like dressing a god. “We use materials — pure fibers, wool and silk — you know,” smiles Frank, “things that would be nice for Krishna.”

The meeting of the two designers seemed almost like divine intervention itself. They both found themselves in San Diego. Andrews had made her way from Rome to pursue a clothing line, and Frank had left the ashram in India to start a career in fashion. One fateful evening, at the urging of mutual friends, Andrews went to meet Frank so they could share fashion resources. She brought him a cup of coffee, and it was partnership at first sight. They stayed up all night making patterns and working together. And they began to uncover a series of uncanny parallels in their lives.

“We have the same color eyes,” laughs Andrews. “It was trippy. We just felt like we had known each other.”

I compare their irises — yep, the same golden-honey color.

“We found out our ancestors are from the same small village in Italy,” adds Frank. But it wasn’t until they charted their astrological signs and discovered almost an exact match that they formally began a partnership. They went to work on a business plan, designing clothes for Andrews’ downtown San Diego storefront, before eventually moving to Los Angeles. Screenwriter Harmony Korine, who used to hang out and skateboard with Frank back in Nashville before his time as a monk in San Diego, helped the pair out by shooting some of Trasteverine’s look books.

The L.A. move was only six months ago, and so far the label is making huge waves, winning over the fashion elite at Gen Art this year. That Fashion Week collection was done in two weeks, inspired by some German experimental ambient music they had been listening to. Andrews started making collages out of landscapes, and from there, they pulled together a collection.

“I’ll hallucinate an item or I’ll have a dream,” says Andrews.

“Then we sit down and share what we’ve each been working on, and things start to come together. Sometimes it changes, it wants to be something else and . . .” Frank trails off.

“And it grows into its own thing,” Andrews finishes.

Right now, the line is sold mostly in Los Angeles, but they plan to add showrooms in New York, Tokyo and cities all over Europe in the next year. Another big goal for the future involves fixing up an old abandoned temple in India called Lalita-Kund. “In Vrindivan, India, there are temples to the bathing gods,” says Frank. “They’ve become dumps. We want to clean up Lalita-Kund and restore it. It’s one of our main goals, it’s always been.”

Krishna is never far from Frank, who still dresses a miniature deity, and eventually, when he’s “an old man,” he wants to go back to dressing him. Andrews too imagines going back to her original art form; sometime in her 40s she thinks she’ll return to lyrical cinema. But for now, we can all live in the fantasy worlds they create and dress like mystics and goddesses.

Trasteverine is available at Kate, 515 S. Fairfax Ave., L.A., (323) 938-7311, and Impulse Moda, 110 E. Ninth St., No. 578, dwntwn., (213) 629-5666 or www.trasteverine.com.


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