Photos by Julie Pavlowski
Model: Camille Waldorf
(M Models)

“My clothes have no hanger appeal,” proclaims designer Nathalie Saphier. Her silk tops and dresses hang limp and wrinkled, and that’s just the way she likes it. “I have an aversion to newness, so everything looks like it’s been worn before — like you found it in Grandma’s attic.” That is, if Granny had been a flapper.

To that end, Saphier soaks white mesh fabric in tea and attaches rhinestones in a pattern with pieces obviously missing. Her Spring 2003 collection looks like it was picked up off Clara Bow’s dressing-room floor after a dance marathon.

But for all the streamline moderne shapes and geometric rhinestone patterns, this isn’t a sartorial approximation of the Roaring ’20s. An Asian-influenced silhouette here, a backless blouse there or an unexpected flash of tomato or coral with earthier tones jets the look into the present, like a DJ scratching a Charleston song with deep house.

Nathalie Saphier, right, wears
a cutout jersey tank dress with
a viscose knotted scarf; Camille
is in a silk crêpe de Chine
halter dress.

“I want a feeling of a nod to the ’20s, not a full-on revival,” Saphier says. She draws as much from the late ’60s and early ’70s infatuation with art deco as she does from the original movement. When hippies, drag queens and glam rockers blazed a trail into thrift shops with a style agenda, “It was the first time people took an interest in what happened before in fashion.”

That Biba/Bowie fashion moment was Saphier’s original love when she entered Otis Parsons School of Design as a fashion major in the ’80s. But Otis emphasized practicality and job placement, concepts that cramp the style of budding fashion artistes.

Plus, there wasn’t much going on fashionwise in L.A. in 1988, she notes. She left for Paris, where Otis had a campus. “When I got there I was this total Valley Girl in white boots,” she laughs. But she quickly acclimated; her mother is French and she grew up speaking the language. In fact, she blended in so much — getting job offers, writing for a seminal French house-music zine — that she never finished school.

As she rose from fashion forecasting to designing real clothes for respected ready-to-wear companies, Saphier grew tired of translating other people’s ideas. Her inner Iggy still screamed to cut loose. She also discovered a label-obsessed snobbery in the French fashion industry that trapped her under a glass ceiling. “I thought there was a food chain in fashion where you start at the bottom and work your way to the top. But after 10 years in the field, I wondered, ‘Did I get it all wrong? Maybe I should have started as an intern at Gaultier.’”

Rhinestone silk crêpe de
Chine blouson
with jersey
cutout skirt

When the couture houses turned her away, she resigned herself to freelancing. With one dress and a handful of sketches, she landed one of the top sales showrooms in Paris — the same one repping Alexander McQueen. Now she was finally on her way. Happiness at last? Well, no. “In Paris I thought I had to be avant-garde and I had to have four sleeves on a shirt for it to be interesting. I always felt like they thought I was this impostor American chick.”

The clouds parted when she took a trip back to L.A. “I saw this new energy that wasn’t here before.” Her friends and former classmates — designers Cynthia Vincent and Eduardo Lucero and Aero & Co. retailer Alisa Loftin — were defining a new L.A. style. “I felt encouragement that I never felt in France. The attitude was more welcoming.”

The Valley Girl came full circle, moving back to L.A. a year and a half ago. But in place of the white boots is a new appreciation for the dowdy city she fled. “L.A. is a new frontier and the land of opportunity and every sort of immigrant cliché you can think of,” says Saphier. “But it’s so true!”

LA Weekly