A movie about a 12-year-old prostitute in jazz-age New Orleans may seem like an unlikely inspiration for a new spring line of clothing, but when the pre-pubescent in question is Brooke Shields (Violet in 1978’s Pretty Baby), it makes perfect sense — remember what her nubile body did for Calvin Klein jeans? Maxine Dillon, the 24-year-old designer and creator of Figmint, was drawn to Louis Malle’s film because in Violet he captured innocence marked by burgeoning sexuality. Violet’s influence shows up in this season’s Figmint collection through lacy pantaloons, shimmery, jazzy dresses, and sweet cotton frocks worthy of a Southern belle.

Given Dillon’s own tender age, it’s no wonder she’s inspired by coming-of-age stories. Her story has yet to be written on her face — she has Brooke Shields–like eyebrows and sparkling blue eyes, big, fresh teeth and the dewy skin of a Noxzema model, not a trace of makeup. And she’s one of those rare examples of someone who knew what career she wanted at an early age and set out to do it right away.

Dillon was given a sewing machine back when she was a scuff-kneed tomboy roaming the wilds of Connecticut, and started out making sporty jackets and hoodies — ambitious first projects. Then, right after high school, she moved to Los Angeles to attend the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising (FIDM). The city had a profound and immediate effect on Dillon — for one, she started wearing dresses for the first time in her life, and she developed a style that fed off the vintage shops in Echo Park. She scored an internship with designer Alicia Lawhon, and after she graduated from FIDM, Lawhon hired her as an assistant designer. “It was the best first job,” Dillon says. “I learned so much — about patternmaking, cutting, fabric — and I made tons of contacts. I ran production there for two years.”

She eventually started Figmint out of her house in 2004. She began with simple jersey and chiffon T-shirts, working with a patternmaker and a sewer borrowed from her Lawhon contacts. Dillon’s T’s sold well at boutiques like Lily Simone and Scout, and for the next collection she added pants and vests, hand-dyeing the fabric in buckets filled with steeped tea. Her third, and newest, collection is a more complete wardrobe of blazers, shorts, skirts, lots of dresses and more dyed fabric. But she has yet to have a runway show, has no representation, and still makes her clothes out of her house — a small, blue fairy-tale cottage, with scalloped bookshelves and a lush garden, which she rents from a little old lady who doesn’t understand how to hook up the Internet, or even what it is.

“I’m broke,” says Dillon, who puts all of her money into buying materials. To support her fledgling line and pay her rent, she’s a shop girl at Aero & Co. on Third Street. But Aero & Co. is much more than a day job. Owner Alisa Loftin allowed Dillon to display samples of each item in her new Pretty Baby–themed collection on an experimental basis, and customers have flipped for them, pre-ordering and paying in advance for the pieces, in some cases without even trying them on. These orders gave her the cash to pay for the fabric, patternmaker and sewer she needed to produce her collection and start work on the next one, this time inspired by the 1995 movie Angela, written and directed by Rebecca Miller (Arthur Miller’s daughter), about a 10-year-old girl who convinces her 6-year-old sister that Satan is watching them all the time. “She’s a tomboy — leader of the pack,” says Dillon of the character Angela. “It’s her attitude that I want the clothes to convey.”

Meanwhile, Dillon is grateful she found Loftin. “She’s helped so many people get their start,” Dillon says. “I knew she’d be great to work for.” When asked if it’s weird to be a shop girl in the store that sells her designs, she says, “I don’t always tell people that I’m the designer; sometimes I just listen to their comments and take notes.”?

Figmint is available at Aero & Co., 8403 W. Third St., Los Angeles, (323) 653-4651.

LA Weekly