Not long ago, singer-songwriter Hanna Rochelle Schmieder — known simply as Hanna to most people — began writing lyrics on her jeans during a break from recording. “It suddenly dawned on me,” she says, “no one had ever marketed lyrics on clothes before.”

Fueled by the idea, she set out to acquire usage rights to some of her favorite songs and, to her surprise, found it relatively easy to cut through the red tape at major labels and get signed contracts in hand. Even the music execs were kind of surprised no one had ever thought to put lyrics on anything but concert T-shirts before.

“It was important,” says Hanna, “to do it right, as an art form. I didn’t want to just do concert merch.”

Certainly there was a daunting precedent set by Vivienne Westwood, fashion’s most effective designer at marrying punk rock phrases with high couture. Hanna doesn’t aim quite that high with her Lyric Culture label, but her pieces are much more than interpretive scribbles on T-shirts. With a staff of 10, including graphic artists, sketchers, patternmakers and sewers, she works in a hip studio converted from an old mansion on the Sunset Strip. The team members dissect each song — deciding what it smells like, what it feels like and what color it is — before they try to translate the aural to the visual.

America’s “Horse With No Name” becomes a Pocahontas-style tan suede lace-up halter and miniskirt. Bowie’s “Rebel Rebel” jeans have a Ziggy Stardust–inspired Swarovski crystal star on the leg, and are lined with pink snakeskin tuxedo stripes. Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” T-shirt shows the Earth exploding.

{mosimage}“Look at the lyrics in 1971,” says Hanna. “Way before it was cool to drive a Prius and Al Gore made An Inconvenient Truth, Gaye touched on global warming and pollution. This song really spoke out to me.”

To show how she transforms a melody into clothing, Hanna uses the example of “Let It Be” by the Beatles, her favorite band. She starts by choosing the lyrics: “When I find myself in times of trouble/mother Mary comes to me/speaking words of wisdom/Let it be.” Then she tries to discern the words’ original meaning.

“A lot of people don’t know what the song is about,” she says. “Some think it’s about the Virgin Mary. We did lots of research. It’s about Paul McCartney losing his mother, Mary, and the acceptance of her death. So we made the shirt blue, we put 14 rays of light [on it] — for the 14 years he had with his mother — and there is an eye with a peace sign in the pupil, all signifying calm acceptance.”

You’ll find lots of Beatles songs in the collection. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was the first record she was given as a child, and she wore it out on her Fisher-Price player. Her most recent album was produced by Jack Douglas, the last friend to see John Lennon alive (Lennon was on his way home from Douglas’ studio when he was shot). She even titled the debut collection Revolution, a nod to the lads from Liverpool, but also to the turbulent times of the ’60s and ’70s. Archetypes from those eras make appearances in the line — the bohemian “California Dreamin’?” of the Mamas and the Papas, the rebellious androgyny of David Bowie, the leather-and-chains motorcycle culture of Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild.”

Hanna also hopes her line introduces a new generation to the classic songs that have long inspired her. Each piece comes with the song’s history printed on old concert tickets, and the care labels read, “Wear It Like You Wrote It.”

“I’m approaching this line like a musician and lyricist,” Hanna says. “I’ve been given a tremendous opportunity and responsibility in bringing the words of the greatest songwriters to life visually. Each word is precious to me, and I do everything in my power to do it justice.”

She’s also looking out for the singer-songwriter. “We can’t make money selling an album anymore; most of us make our real money selling merchandise.”

Which is why every songwriter gets royalties for each piece of Lyric Culture sold. “You can’t download clothes,” says Hanna. “People can’t steal these lyrics.”

Lyric Culture is available at Lisa Kline, 136 S. Robertson Blvd., L.A., (310) 246-0907; Diane Merrick, 7407 Beverly Blvd., L.A., (323) 930-0400; Upstairs, 8111 Melrose Ave., L.A., (323) 655-9511; Saks Fifth Avenue, 9600 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 275-4211; and online at www.lyricculture.com.

“Love Child” scarf
(Photo by Patrik Andersson)

LA Weekly