IN 1994, MAIA SARMANIAN GOT A nod from Vogue in an article touting the "new crop of talent" in L.A. She was selling vintage pieces that she'd reshaped into more modern silhouettes at the now-defunct Joywear, an ultrahip boutique on Third Street, and at Patricia Field in New York. It would seem that she was well on her way, but Sarmanian was struggling between her two great passions: To make clothes or to paint? "I was leery of spending all of my time in fashion," she says. "It's so fickle."
Instead, she worked as a stylist on photo shoots, a set decorator on videos, and ended up as the art director on a movie, The Fallen Bride. Then Sarmanian, who is 36 and grew up in Palos Verdes, had a baby and stopped everything.
"I got a little frustrated because it was hard back then for people to market my work, because no one was really doing what I was doing, and now it's totally in style -- look at Imitation of Christ. I was like, 'Hey, wait a minute, I was doing that a long time ago. I should take advantage of that again.'"
So she did, reviving her eponymous line over a year ago. She still works with vintage garments, recutting and adding lace insets to a plain '50s top, for instance, turning it into a sleekly contemporary blouse. There's a certain romantic quality to her designs: A dress flows from a fitted bodice into a deceptively full skirt that is gathered and folded at the back, almost like a bustle, ending in a fishtail hemline edged with fringe. She's also started to cut her own blouses, flirty peekaboos inset with antique lace or tulle that she designs on a dressmaker's dummy.
Completely self-taught, Sarmanian doesn't use patterns. No two pieces are alike, so if a store orders 30 of a certain style of blouse, say, she will deliver it in variation. "I like to keep the uniqueness -- no one else will be wearing that." But keeping that uniqueness is time-consuming, and she's reaching the point where she needs an assistant; it can take two days to make a piece, and in a good week she'll finish perhaps seven. Plus, she does her own billing and delivers the orders.
Dancing queen: Vintage-fabric dress
Sarmanian, who graduated from Otis College of Art and Design with a degree in art, still paints, doing commissions and selling to collectors (her work can be seen at her Web site). Her struggle now, she says, is to make a cohesive collection. In fact, she hadn't thought of her work in terms of a collection, but as a "batch." "I'm trying to make things that go together, which is hard for me," Sarmanian says. "Because I feel like once I've done something, I want to do something completely different. But you need pieces that make sense to the buyer."
Fashion heroes: "I'm a little obsessed with Chloe, and I admire Issey Miyake. I love the Japanese designers -- the whole aesthetic is beautiful."
Sweatshop politics: "I don't think so -- it's just not my vibe."
Who's buying: Tori Spelling, the girls from Charmed.
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Rebel, rebel: "If anything, I'm rebelling against not being able to buy couture."
Maia Sarmanian is available at Aero & Co. in Los Feliz and Tracy Ross at the Sunset Plaza.
MODEL: Pilar Calandra