Spy in the House of Fashion

Photo by Jeanne RicePress releases don't always lie as much as they almost always obscure the truth—which is crazy, because they're supposed to promote, if not the truth, then some version of it.

So it is with Carilyn Vaile's Fall 2004 line, promoted in purple prose as matching "the kaleidoscope of the California landscapes and seascapes by encompassing versatility, convenience and diversity with a commanding presence."

Gaaack! Don't we have The O.C. for that? It's only when I meet Vaile and discover she can not only form a complete sentence but also has a whole lot of fashion sense that I realize there's a there there.

Vaile's pink-streaked hair; Hello Kitty necklace; and crisp, no-nonsense, strapless white top and pants are Newport Beach alternative: new Newport. Young Newport.

And she has a sense of style you can only earn by living to the age of 36—keeping up your tan, getting a tattoo, getting married, having a baby, living your friggin' life. Never mind that she was raised in Palos Verdes, that she now lives in Newport Beach, that her husband owns—OWNS—a couple of Paul Frank stores.

Vaile is as stylish, as sturdy and as real as her clothes, which retail for around $75 for a top and up to $225 for some dresses and jackets.

At 36, she hasn't quite figured out what women want—my wife is adamant, for instance, that women don't want pants with ruched legs—but she has learned firsthand what they need. Women need camouflage to hide that pregnancy, that peach cobbler, that short torso. And her seven-year-old line has camo woven into every piece.

"I've been using the same fabric the seven years in my business, and I've really educated myself on what it can do," Vaile says, when I meet her and three-year-old daughter, Remy, for lunch at Plum's, a tony little caf on 17th Street. Remy has pink streaks in her hair that match her mother's, and she carries an extra T-shirt—her favorite—which she couldn't stand to leave at home.

It's all cotton, of course—which is almost as liberating as the fabric Vaile uses in her collection. From day one, she's worked exclusively in a lightly ribbed cloth that's 94 percent chamoni nylon and 6 percent Lycra. It's synthetic, but it feels soft like your favorite wispy knit sweater, and it doesn't need ironing.

The new fall line flirts with disaster—'80s fedoras, Hollywood-waisted pants that scream Cherry Poppin' Daddies—but offers both casual dressiness and youthful maturity. This is the "immaculate sense of style" that earned her $2.5 million in sales last year, a figure expected to double for 2004.

"You can do supercasual and very dressy. I've had women get married in our dresses," she says, leafing through her own Look Book. "One woman had all her bridesmaids in these dresses," she continues, pointing to a tank dress from her summer line.

It's obvious that she needs easy-care clothes as much as some of her fans when Remy finally baptizes her with vanilla cappuccino. Vaile dabs at it with water, and the brown starts to disappear. Miracle fabric makes Vaile sell big down here, retailers say.

"No. 1 is the fabric. Everybody, all they ever comment about is how wonderful the fabric is," says Claire Lemke, manager of Newport Beach boutique Bella Mare, which has stocked Vaile's line virtually since it began.

Color is another big reason it sells, Lemke says. They may be the very soul of practicality, but shades like pink lemonade, breeze (azure) and Sunkist (copyright infringement) apparently appeal to the Orange County woman's spirit of fun.

It's the same spirit Vaile first showed back in the early '90s, when she was still a costume supervisor for film—turning a pair of tighty-whitey Calvin Klein briefs into a junior's top with a few strategic cuts. Klein loved it, she said; the cease-and-desist came later.

Carilyn Vaile clothing is found at select Nordstrom locations; Bella Mare, 1280 Bison Ave., Newport Beach, (949) 644-4477; and through her website, carilynvaile.com.


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