I Beg You, Don’t Sew Your Own! In the Mood for a Cheongsam

Are you a stitch bitch? Do you crave French-whipped seams? Are you losing yourself in a netherworld of prick-stitching and pie-shaped godets? In lieu of hanging out at Lotus and Lot 61, are you holed up in your apartment, obsessing over your inverted gussets? You’re not the only one.

A growing number of deranged New Yorkers would appear to have decided that the answer to their woes–fashion and otherwise–is, improbably, home-dressmaking. Why dressmaking? Why now? Girls used to make their own clothes because they couldn’t afford to buy retail. So why, when a girl can buy an entire outfit from H&M for $20, would she elect to spend her evenings basting her bust-darts?

Here’s a possible explanation from an acupuncturist of my acquaintance, Dr. T.N. Chan (call 661-6888 and get yourself a five-session tune-up for $330). He once told me that, according to ancient Chinese medical lore, “good health comes when you cook your own food.” The basic idea is that, after years of cooking your own food, you instinctively gather and prepare exactly what your body needs. Is the new generation of stitch-bitches unconsciously channeling this principle (i.e., the only way to give your body exactly what it needs–fashion-wise–is to make your own clothes)?

Here are four other mundane but infinitely more feasible explanations as to why you may have decided to make your own clothes:

1. For some bizarre reason, you prefer your clothes to look amateurish and poorly constructed.

2. You are a trendy chick who is into the deconstructed look, and you have wisely opted not to pay Imitation of Christ prices for chopped-up frocks–so you’re chopping them up yourself. Bravo!

3. You actually enjoy the process (i.e., you’re insane).

4. You’re totally radical and irate: You’ve had it with the confusing tsunami of self-referential fashion marketing and coverage (except this column) that no longer addresses the consumer (except this column), and you’re opting out.

If you must make your own clothes, then at least take a class. My advice: Go for an owner-operated school with a wildly eccentric proprietor:

1. Archly French, 71-year-old Alice Sapho rules Maison Sapho with an iron fist: “I discourage chatter. Zis iz not a social club!” Mademoiselle Sapho has been teaching since 1952. “I learn from my muzzer. She ran a dressmaking school in Paris from 1919 to 1939. She did dresses for queens.” Alice cannot remember exactly which queens–so what! It matters not, because Alice, whose favorite designers are Jacques Fath and Madame Grès, is the only person in New York who teaches real French haute-couture techniques. “We don’t work from paper patterns. C’est la vraie couture : finishing, detail, making a hem without stitches. It’s not for everybody–I want discriminating people who love crr-rraft .”

The Sapphic route (there is no affiliation with the lesbian community) is the one to take if you are in for the long haul. A 10-month course–three hours twice a week, plus masses of homework–will set you back $4,035 (312 West 83rd Street, 873-9183).

2. If you want less rigor and more bubbly Joan Rivers-ish badinage, Sew Fast Sew Easy is the place for you. Elissa (“Oodles of Personality”) Meyrich teaches garment-industry techniques to home sewers–not to be confused with sewers. Time Out reviewed Sew Fast Sew Easy and unfairly accused Elissa of engaging in excessive “nonsensical chatter.” But I say any girl who can be chatty and upbeat about making a buttonhole is a special kind of lady. Non ? Start with her Rx class: It’s two and a half hours long and costs $55, supplies included (147 West 57th Street, 582-5889; there are also details on www.sewfastseweasy.com).

3. If you hate people and would rather figure it all out for yourself, get a copy of The Vogue Sewing Book by Patricia Perry, 1970 edition, published by Vogue Patterns New York. Apart from all the basics, there is a fantastic chapter on making your own fringe, pompons and tassels. On the subject of gussets, Ms. Perry is understanding and supportive: “Just the mere mention of the word gussets can cause panic if you aren’t accustomed to sewing them” ($12 to $20 at www.bibliofind.com).

Get yourself a skin-tight cheongsam. If you know not the frock of which I speak, then go see the Chinese movie In the Mood for Love , directed by Wong Kar-Wai (City Cinemas Village East, Second Avenue and 12th Street). Set in early 1960’s Hong Kong, this almost-plotless movie is made totally compelling by the spectacular, beehived Maggie Cheung–or rather, her fabulous wardrobe of cheongsams. I’m talking about those skin-tight, mandarin-necked numbers with the side slits. Each of Maggie’s cheongsams is rendered in a different vintage fabric, none of which–and this is the important part–are very Chinese.

Don’t bother trying to make your own. Let Susan Din, owner of the inappropriately named New Age Designer Inc. store, pour you into one of her custom-made, glove-tight concoctions. For about $400, you get a piped cheongsam in traditional Chinese silk; bring your own fabric and the price drops to $240. My advice: Bring your own non-Chinese fabric–but first, pick up swatches from the staggering selection of 70’s yardage at S&H Fabric Incorporated (34 Avenue A, 254-2235). Since not all fabrics make good cheongsams, bring the swatches to Ms. Din for her approval before buying the whole lot (38 Mott Street, 349-0818). Styling tip: no chopsticks in the hair.

Nobody’s reading your e-mails. Start writing notes: slap your sound bites on fancy note cards from Mrs. John L. Strong, the stationer to all the famous society broads. Note cards with embossed motifs are the house specialty, and the engraved pig is the best: choose from dining pig or marketing pig (25 pre-engraved pig cards cost $155).

For even greater impact, choose the cards with the red trompe l’oeil wax seal (10 for $95)–very Cardinal Richelieu! (699 Madison, fifth floor, 838-3775; also available at Barneys.)

You will need good foundation garments under your fitted cheong-sam, and stitching your own doesn’t make a helluva lot of sense when you can buy one of the new “flawless” bras from the Gap for $34. I spent last weekend forcing reluctant house guests to road-test this brassiere. Here are the results, both pro and con, of my in-depth survey:

Pro: The graduated pad and underwire makes the most of your bristols (Cockney rhyming slang: Bristol city = titty).

Con: The front of the bra tends to curve out, making two crescent-shaped impressions in whatever garment you are wearing. If you have extra-large bristols, this will probably not happen. (Available at GapBody and select Gaps now.)

Talking of gussets, Raymond Dragon makes this season’s best gusseted swimsuit for men. This navy-blue Lycra sport short has a Wedgwood blue gusset, costs $64 and will rearrange your assets so as to make you the talk of the beach. It’s a Tab Hunter-ish, 1950’s square-cut garment, cunningly cut to dip slightly at the front and accentuate your torso, or what’s left of it. You can get it at www.raymonddragon.com or at the Raymond Dragon store, 130 Seventh Avenue at 18th Street. If you don’t have a torso (i.e., you’re fat), then bag the sport short and distract your audience with a vividly printed Vilebrequin boxer for $108. (Available at Barneys and the Vilebrequin store, 436 West Broadway.)

P.S.: Here’s a wildly logical, bulimic-ish love-handle-reducing tip from Andy Warhol: The 20th century’s most inspiring artist loved to eat chocolate but, wisely, he didn’t swallow. He would chew his Teuschers briefly and spit the result into a paper towel. If you choose to adopt this sensible habit, be careful who you tell: People will get all worked up and denounce you as an eating-disordered freak. I Beg You, Don’t Sew Your Own! In the Mood for a Cheongsam