Ask longtime designer Claudia Gräu, one of the most successful doyennes of Melrose Avenue in its 1980s heyday, how she got into the business — a standard question for which you’d assume she has a fairly standard answer — and she appears stumped. She purses her lips, searches the ceiling of her tiny but vibrantly colored shop on Sunset Boulevard, and then laughs. It’s an “a-ha” laugh of discovery and delight at finding something new where she least expected it, a laugh that captures her carpe-diem philosophy of life and brilliant, frankly ad hoc career. “When I was a sophomore in college in the ’70s, all my friends were getting married and becoming P.E. teachers,” she says, wrinkling her nose at the memory. “I said, ‘That’s it! I don’t want to become a P.E. teacher. I’m going to be a designer!’”

And that, as they say, was that. Gräu opened her eponymous store on Melrose in 1979 at the ridiculously young age of 21 and quickly earned a reputation for edgy fashions that were in the spirit of punk and new wave, but were more accessible and not quite as trend-conscious. The store and its owner got big — at one point Gräu was supplying some 300 clients, including Neiman’s and Saks — before closing in 1994. Then it resurfaced in 1996 at a much more subdued location on Sunset Boulevard, just east of Las Palmas. The back of the space is turned over to Gräu’s sewing studio, a high-ceilinged visual orgy of stripes, brocades, cottons and crinkled silks. (She admits to being a “fabric-holic.”) The front is a by-appointment-only shop, its walls lined with familiar treasures: hand-dyed, one-of-a-kind separates in wearable cotton and silk, raw-edged and trimmed with velvet, rickrack and whatever else struck Gräu’s fancy. Her spring collection featured ombre-dyed sweaters in shimmery aqua blues and greens. She also makes the accessories, from dramatic feathers strung on leather cords to chunky beaded necklaces, to long, delicate gold-link ropes trimmed in tiny stones. Most everything is between $40 and $200, with regular sales.

The overall look of Gräu — both the store and the woman — is best described in current fashion parlance as boho chic, though that’s far too limited a phrase for what Gräu is all about. After the frenetic success of the ’80s, the designer says she’s much happier now running a small store on her own terms (and her own hours), working in the backroom studio and doing interior design for famous clients (she won’t name names). “When I was successful, I was so miserable,” says Gräu with another laugh, this time one of relief. “Now I’m charting my own road map, and it’s great.”

Part of that map is eschewing fashion altogether and focusing on style. “There’s so much fabulous shit out there in the stores these days, but after a while all that stuff on 2,000 women looks the same — same jeans, same tops,” she says. “With my stuff, you have to want to look like yourself.”

Gräu, 6679 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood, (323) 461-4462. By appointment

LA Weekly