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Eyes of the Needle

Photos by Larry Hirshowitz

THE DRESS WAS SILK TAFFETA, FITTED, OLIVE GREEN. AND IT WAS ON backward. The model was sauntering down the runway at the debut fashion show of the spring/summer 2003 collection by Coquille et Coquette downtown last November, and designers Janet Planet and Elena Allee were cringing inside. After the show, several people approached the duo and gushed that the green dress was their favorite in the collection. No one figured out that the flounce above the knee was supposed to be a bustle.

It's no mystery why a volunteer dresser backstage made the mistake — the Coquille et Coquette line looks just as good going as it does coming. In a fashion world cluttered with Potemkin Village clothing — all façade and no construction quality — this line holds up, both physically and visually. Some pieces are so distinctive, they should be sold with instructions. "When the models were trying them on, they were like, 'Which way does this go?'" says Allee. Vintage French silk chiffon and satin trim over a satin underdress.

Other garments are quite simple: There are baby-doll dresses, a floral-print gown with just the right amount of ruffle, a fitted beige pantsuit with a Peter Pan collar. But many of the getups veer into fantasy, like the hoop-skirted minidresses and a severely tailored suit with a cape built into the jacket. Most of the silhouettes are as retro as the vintage fabrics they are made of, but a few items, such as a floor-length coat or blouses with asymmetric straps, reference the bent futurism of Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto.

Coquille et Coquette is all over the map, an explosion of ideas. Its two creators have been in the fashion business long enough to remember bell bottoms the first time around. "I have to start at the top!" jokes Planet, who didn't want to begin her fashion career in the late 1980s as someone's sleeve-sewer. Instead, she went into styling after she earned her degree in fashion design, working on hundreds of commercials and music videos. Allee, whose background is in painting, had recently launched her own privately sold line of arty knits, called Coquille. She was considering taking the line to stores when Planet suggested they team up. Vintage cotton floral with silk velvet trim and bow

"Elena and I have such similar taste," says Planet. "It was the first time I found someone whose sense I really liked." Though they can look quite different stylewise — when interviewed in Planet's Silver Lake house, Allee was in hippie earth tones and Planet wore a low-cut, star-print minidress — they share a love of fashion that's seasoned. After more than a decade each in the rag trade, they have distilled their favorite things about vintage and modern clothing in Coquille et Coquette, which they explain in a shared run-on sentence.

"It's really feminine but has a masculine quality to it," says Planet.

"And there's a deconstructed element to it, too," says Allee. Silk gown with sash

"So it's diverse — you see things that look vintage . . ." ". . . but then there's an element that's very contemporary . . ." ". . . like this item, which looks Japanese . . ." ". . . the Japanese designers are a big influence . . ." ". . . We can't stick to one little place, but there's a thread that runs through it all . . ." ". . . like, we love color."

There's an unexpected lull in the performance. Allee looks like she wants to sum it all up: "We went to Fred Segal, and they said they wanted things in army green and gray. And I was like, 'Why?'"

 

MODEL: Marina/Who Model Management; HAIR & MAKEUP: Christine Martin