Frank Ford, one-half of the German design duo Loyandford, was talking recently about his newest favorite client, a Catholic schoolgirl who wandered into their Chung King Road boutique looking for a prom dress — in turquoise. Before landing in California, Ford and his partner, Stefan Loy, raised a sensation in their homeland with clothes inspired by the Baader-Meinhof gang, the early-1970s Marxist brigands. When their Chinatown store opened last fall, cognoscenti ransacked the place for Loyandford’s “machine gun” print, a Russian Kalashnikov stenciled onto sheer dresses and stockings — amusing, but not the kind of wardrobe to inspire inquiries from a teenager hoping to find a dress to match the promise of a night perfumed with the velvet aroma of gardenias.
Vocal, impressionistic, Ford brushes aside the highbrow irony; he is interested only in the surface of things. “The machine gun can really be elegant,” he says, deploying his Alexanderplatz accent to make “elegant” sound suave. When the high school girl walked in, here is what he saw: “She looked like deep winter. Scottish. I was seeing her with her father — I don‘t know where her mother was — in this, like, Craftsman house, all painted in white. I said, ’Girl, you come back in a week, and I‘ll make a dress in turquoise for you.’ It will be Catholic Girl, with a little bit of this Carrie thing,” he pronounces, pointing to a diaphanous lace number with spaghetti straps that he‘s somehow going to transform into the demure dress Carrie wore to her prom. “Deconstructed Catholic Girl, nothing showing — no tits showing on that stage,” he says, waving his hand at the end of an outstretched arm.
Ford, whose real name is Frank Schuette — he changed it to Ford because in German, fort means leaving, “I am gone,” he says, and Schuette “sounds bad in English” — is talking rat-a-tat-tat while Loy is gliding silently about the store, like a dancer on a walk-through. Along with their assistants, Liz and Henri, they are arranging the clothes and fiddling with the lighting for a preview, to be held the following night, of their fall 2001 collection.
The ground floor of the store is empty, except for a two-tier platform — a pair of stepped white Formica cubes, one draped in faux mink — that will become the pedestal for the models. Ford rehearses the setup. He breaks into stride with all of the calculated insouciance of Gisele Bundchen, and casts that lacerating look of contempt that dominates the runways nowadays. The difference is, when he drops the pose, Ford swoons in laughter.
About this time, roughly 24 hours before the show, pandemonium rightly ought to prevail. Loy seems unaffected. When Ford, suddenly alarmed, asks, “Where is my dog?” and, upon spotting “Officer,” a black terrier foundling, blurts out, “Oh, cool,” Loy drifts further outside the ambit of Ford’s self-induced commotion. The plaintive anxiety showing in his eyes is enlarged by the gogglelike, black-rimmed glasses he is wearing — hiding his face while magnifying his introspection. Whatever is on his mind, he is keeping mum.
Stefan Loy, 36, grew up in Munich, in the shadow of the ruthless idealism that propelled Baader-Meinhof — “the only time,” says Ford, 35, who was raised in Berlin during the same era, “that something was going on that would change the whole mentality of all Germany.” A decade and a half later, Loy graduated from the design academy in Munich with a less than rosy view of the erstwhile revolutionaries. “I found out they were rich kids. It is easy to fight for the poor if you are rich and always have money,” he says in a soft voice.
By 1993, he‘d teamed up with Ford, a veteran of the retail vintage-clothing business and a consultant to fashion magazines. Their first collection, Label 3000, which emerged from the European rave scene, exploded. They took old clothes — “horrible neon sweaters, so bright, so terrible,” Ford declares — and patched them together into new items. The line made them famous, and dragged them down. “When we started,” Loy says, “it was one-of-a-kind. But the demand was so big, we couldn’t support it. It lost its handwriting.” They chucked the business and went their separate ways — Ford to New York, Loy to Japan.
At their Los Angeles boutique, tucked into a quiet pedestrian lane at the northernmost end of Chinatown, they‘ve renewed their collaboration. By convincing the building’s owner that they would use the built-in birch cabinetry with pebble-glass shelving, reminiscent of a 1950s haberdashery, they were able to sign a lease. On the rack are some of the “deconstructionist” pieces that are Loyandford‘s trademark — sheer tulle vests with crewel embroidery, T-shirts with sweater sleeves or ball-gown ruffles, black fiberfill ski jackets with the sleeves hacked off and left unfinished, the Christmas-window batting exposed at the edges. a
Loy and Ford seem to come at their clothes design from two places, the intellect and the id. When they worked apart, Ford says, “in my clothes, the straight line was missing, in his, the craziness.”
Loy sees the work this way: “Mostly, it starts with the fabric. I don’t do sketches. We are trying to find new ways of defining a new shape or a new color, or a way of how pieces are sewn together. We like pieces that are wrong in a way, that something in the piece is wrong. The concept is to rework how clothes were made in the past. It‘s about craftsmanship. For the past 10, 20 years, everyone tries to be very pure, minimalist. I don’t think our work is ‘pure.’ It‘s honest, but it’s not ‘pure.’ But it still has to fit, and it still has to look right.”
Ford, who often sits on the studio floor with a bolt of fabric and just starts cutting, says of his approach to design: “I‘m not even designing clothes — I’m using myself as a model to look at shapes and how you can change things. The dots I have tattooed on my eyes, above my eyebrows, it makes my eyes look more open. My eyes are much too small — now when I attached the dots, my eyes look more open. If I will do a design for the head, or a face piece to wear, I was testing it on myself. If I will make a lace face cover, I will go with the patterns I already have branded on myself. Some people like working on computer, others on a model, others on a mannequin. I use myself to learn.”
Showtime, 10 o‘clock on a recent Saturday night. A recording of Iggy Pop provides an anthem as six women and one young man, wearing as blank an expression as is possible, model the fall line. The women’s peau de soie shoes — bridesmaid‘s issue, dye-to-match white pumps — are partially covered by a strip of nude stocking, inverting the usual relationship of shoe to sock. Their hair, which is piled high above the crowns of their heads, is smeared with an ash-colored a powder and dabbed with an oleaginous gel, which heightens their almost sepulchral look. It is an attempt to say, “You don’t have to be young and beautiful to wear this.”
Still, the clothes are sleek and sexy. An “Overlong Shirt” is made of a subtle diagonally striped polyester in front and a glazed black cotton in back, with chiffon, floor-length sleeves completely hiding the model‘s hands, making her appear to float across the black concrete floor. The “Black and White Wool Sweater With Black Silk Skirt” is a conservative, A-line skirt and checked top, but when you look closer, the sweater appears to have been torn to pieces by a pit bull. The mannish, bespoke pinstripe wool suit jacket, made for a woman and dubbed “Office Uniform,” when viewed from the front might be just that, but from the rear, it has been snipped apart by Edward Scissorhands, a jagged gash where the back should be, its delicate silk and Lycra lining dangling out the back, like a tattered waistcoat. By now, the music has changed to the Carpenters’ “Top of the World.” Out comes a vintage ‘70s fabric “Lace Dress” — a flurry of dangling strands of white yarn dyed a pale gray, then stitched into a simple minidress — that has the ladylike sophistication of an evening gown Audrey Hepburn might have worn, if she’d been willing to appear to be naked underneath.
Thirty pieces, and it‘s over. The word that comes to mind, oddly, is tailored. The clothes have a concise, pleasing, almost traditional line. They look comfortable. But lurking barely within sight — in the mock torn or unfinished or marred bodices, gauntlets and hemlines, and in the deliberate if seemingly random ruching — is a strain of that ’70s rebellion against what Friedrich Nietzsche called “the ultramodern unassuming moral milksop who no longer bites.” In the “deconstructed” clothes of Loyandford, you can be dressed and undressed at once, which in neo-neo-con America is a statement all by itself.