In a city where grown women walk around in broad daylight with pink hearts and jaunty little mottoes stenciled across the backseat of their sweat pants, the designer Corey Lynn Calter is a beacon of hope and tailoring. Los Angeles Fashion Week continues to be something of an oxymoron, with labels like “2 B Free” and “Single” romping nonsensically through Culver City, but Ms. Calter’s April 1 show fairly glowed with ingenuity, sense, professionalism : snappy wool checkered trousers, corduroy pencil skirts, double-breasted jackets-clothes one could actually feel O.K. about plunking down money for, eagerly surveyed by an audience that included the fetish model Dita Von Teese.
The day before her T.S. Eliot–, Pablo Neruda– and Federico Garcia-Lorca–inspired presentation, entitled “Only You and I Hear It,” Ms. Calter, 35, calmly nursed a large iced decaf near her downtown showroom, wearing gold Capezio-type jazz oxfords, black pinstriped trousers, a black cardigan and an incongruous-seeming black skull around her neck. It turned out there was darkness behind the skirts of the flowery flocks she’s been churning out for the past four years: a “way-too-punk-rock, way-too-screwed-up” Philadelphia childhood and a best friend who died of a heroin overdose when they were living in New York City in the early 1990′s. Ms. Calter said her own drug use was limited to a little youthful pot and speed.
“I’m not a needle kind of girl, a junkie girl,” she said. “I’m happy. I’m really happy. I’m not tragically screwed up.”
Her father owned an insurance company; her mother was an interior decorator and used to pull her out of school for furniture-shopping expeditions in Manhattan. Enkindled by her maternal grandfather, an Italian clothier who worked on military uniforms, Corey matriculated at the Fashion Institute of Technology. “It was like, ‘Where’s the football team? Where are the cheerleaders?’” she said. “But that wasn’t really gonna be me anyway, with my pink dreadlocks.” (Her hair is now straight and brown, and she has a charming little mole over her lip.) She tended bar at the Spiral, was guest-list girl at the Ritz, sold fabrics at a store on 39th Street (“All we did was play poker, all day long,” she said) and toiled for two rag-trade grande dames of Gotham, Norma Kamali and Betsey Johnson, who were not quite the role models she’d hoped for.
“Betsey Johnson was a very unpleasant experience for me,” she said. “There were horribly nasty, catty girls that worked there.” (An assistant for Ms. Johnson said the older designer “wasn’t familiar” with Ms. Calter.)
She had better luck at a costume company whose accounts included the Joffrey Ballet and gaudy musicals like Phantom of the Opera and Starlight Express. “I was really interested in that, because I was building things. It wasn’t just clothes -more construction and function and form,” Ms. Calter said. “Because, frankly, the fashion industry’s boring. It’s a really boring, very superficial, stupid industry. If all you’re about is making dresses, then you’re a completely shallow, horrible person, and that’s just not what I want.”
As the interview progressed, more and more tattoos seemed to emerge on Ms. Calter’s person, like crawling vines; she estimated having “11 or 12.” After her friend died, she fled to San Francisco to live with her then-boyfriend, a tattoo artist, landing a gig with the San Francisco Opera company.
“Big ol’ ladies,” she said. “I loved it.” Still restless, she started a corset company, Milk Made, out of her kitchen, making them in linen, gingham and embroidered silk instead of vinyl and brocade. Patricia Field sold them.
But San Fran, Ms. Calter said, was “not my town.” She moved to an L.A. neighborhood oft-chosen by freshly transplanted New Yorkers: near Cantor’s deli on Fairfax, encountering reasonable rents for the first time in her adult life.
“Two thousand square feet for $1,000-I thought it was a mansion!” she said. She met her current boyfriend, a sculptor named Glenn Kaino, who is showing in the Whitney Biennial, at an art opening, and he helped her launch her eponymous brand in his big loft downtown (the two now live in Silver Lake and plan to marry in late August, after two postponements).
“I didn’t even have time to pee, it was that bad,” Ms. Calter said of her start-up days. Their life now is calm. “I don’t even go to the movies ,” she said. “I don’t care about being the coolest kid in school anymore. I kind of already was. I don’t care what any of these people”-meaning fashion-industry hangers-on-”think of me.”
Her work has attracted unlikely celebrity bedfellows: indie-film darling Zooey Deschanel, who arrived an hour late for the show in a gamine pink coat, and Newlyweds star Jessica Simpson, who has favored a peppy rainbow-striped strapless dress that has been endlessly knocked off. The dress and its variations are still a huge seller for Corey Lynn Calter. “Those damned stripes,” she growled. “Thank God for those stripes.”
The line now sells at Fred Segal and Lisa Kline in L.A., Intermix and Cantaloupe in New York, as well as Nordstrom and Macy’s.
“It’s something that I’m a little freaked out about,” Ms. Calter said of the foray into department stores. “There’s a whole thing in L.A. where it’s like, ‘I’m struggling, I am a small designer, blah blah blah, I only want to be this very elitist kind of artist thing.’ Which is fine . But you know what? At some point, everybody has to sell to somebody. I have employees. I have employees that have kids . So I sort of started taking accounts that maybe I wouldn’t have taken if I hadn’t had those responsibilities.”
A homeless woman wearing a bright blue knit cap and a Southwestern-printed shawl wandered over to the table and asked for some change. “Not today,” Ms. Calter said, and then with perfect sincerity: “See, she knows how to dress. Love her. She always has awesome stuff on.”
She also admires the style of Moschino (“intentionally corny in a fantastic way”), Dries Van Noten (“so ethereal and incredible”) and the French separates sensation Paul & Joe (“cute!”). She longs for the couturier days of, say, Charles James, when women ordered garments to order.
“It’s one and then it’s gone-I love that,” she said. “Why do we need to have 5,000 T-shirts? Where are they going to be, in some big giant T-shirt landfill somewhere? It’s just horrible.”