We’re Not Dressing Britney!

You know how pop star Britney Spears has been bopping around New York and L.A. lately looking, well, not so spiffy? That “Page Six Six Six” T-shirt worn Flashdance -style with pubic-bone-bearing skirt and jaunty trilby? That sausage casing of a Norma Kamali swimsuit in the big, sticky pages of the August W ? “That’s not us,” said Joey Tierney, one half of the erstwhile Spears styling team Joey and T. “Please believe that’s not us. Whatever she’s been putting on lately, we are not responsible.”

Her anxiety was understandable: Joey and T is currently trying to pole-vault itself from the generally anonymous scrum of stylists-people who run around shopping for and “tweaking” garments on celebrities-into the more prestigious league of legitimate clothing designers, such as Zac Posen or the team Proenza Schouler: people who are actually allowed near Anna Wintour with scissors. Like D.J.’s demanding their “props” as musicians, this is an increasingly common scenario in the image industry.

And the logistics are delicate: To break out as a designer, it helps to have glommed onto a pre-existing celebrity image, whether you are a celebrity yourself (P. Diddy, J. Lo); one’s special friend (Shoshanna Lonstein, Monica Lewinsky); or have personally dressed one (to use the most oft-trotted-out example, who knew from Narciso Rodriguez before he created the late Carolyn Bessette Kennedy’s slip-like wedding gown?). But what happens when that association becomes a liability and it’s abruptly time to tear off the Velcro? Ms. Tierney and her business partner, Tanya Tamburin, both 28, face that conundrum in a particularly naked way as their début line, a small collection of naughty skirts retailing for an average $250, ships to Saks Fifth Avenue and several other stores this month: The entity most responsible for their thundering success at Los Angeles Fashion Week-namely Ms. Spears, who helped with preparations for their show, then caused a press frenzy by actually attending-looks like an absolute shoo-in candidate for the Worst-Dressed List of 2003.

The blond, skinny, dryad-like Ms. Tierney was astride a flowered chaise longue on her verdant Studio City patio the other morning. Ms. Tamburin lives two miles away in the Valley; the two also maintain a one-bedroom crash pad on St. Mark’s Place in Manhattan. “Everyone thinks we are lesbians,” Ms. Tierney said. “Let me repeat myself: We are not lesbians.”

She was replenishing herself with the city’s unofficial life essence, a vanilla latte from the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, and considering the Britney issue. “I’m sure she’ll wear our stuff,” she said. “But she’s just a friend, you know? She does her own thing.”

Unable to rend herself from the business of total image management-the stylist’s calling card, after all-she couldn’t resist bringing up her friend’s recent disclosure in W that teen heartthrob Justin Timberlake has been Ms. Spears’ only lover. “Meanwhile, back at the ranch …. ” Ms. Tierney said with insiderly sarcasm. She rolled pale blue eyes surrounded by a light dusting of glitter-remnants of a prior maquillage . Nearby, her housemate’s two pet pigs, Baby and Lucille, were snaffling noisily at their kibble, which Ms. Tierney had garnished with the remainder of her own breakfast, a single banana. “I just can’t wait till she’s strong enough to be like, ‘Can everyone just step out of my fucking business?'” she said of her former employer, “It’s like, ‘Look, I’ll sleep with whoever I want.’ I want her to have the power, like, ‘I’m 21 years old-get out of my face!’ You put these restrictions on people and it makes them buck wild.”

It looked as though the neophyte designer had had a bit of a wild night herself, judging from her hastily thrown-together ensemble: white Dickies undershirt, dusty brown old Adidas and an inside-out yellow half-slip with the Joey and T label showing (along with the inevitable protruding thong strap). She said regular visits to the Sunset Marquis Whiskey Bar are part of the job. Banish the thought that being a fashion designer in the year 2003 means long hours in some dusty atelier sticking pins into fit models. “We have back-to-back meetings all day long,” Ms. Tierney said. “And then-then, you know, we go out sometimes. In a weird sense, part of our success is being connected.” Despite her dishabille, she was projecting cold beams of professional calm. Japanese Vogue is planning a six-page layout of the company’s clothes featuring the socialite Paris Hilton, she said-“They’re freaking out!”-and she and Ms. Tamburin had just settled on a new logo (all-important for global brand domination): their two initials blended together, drawn by a graffiti artist named Cartoon. “It’s so dope,” she said. “It’s going to be everywhere.”

The Pop Life

On a cool Thursday evening, after missing their initial appointment with The Observer (as one stand-up comic put it, “Dude-I flaked!” is an entirely acceptable excuse in these parts), the dynamic duo rolled up in a leased silver Mercedes E320 for dinner at Pace, a Mediterranean restaurant on a shadowy stretch of Laurel Canyon. Ms. Tierney, by all accounts the visionary of the pair, was sort of Snow White–ish and pale and fragile-looking in jeans and a Chrome Hearts tank top, a cold glass of Pinot Grigio materializing quickly at her elbow. Ms. Tamburin, reputedly the more earthbound one, was a robust, rocker Rose Red with her long dark hair, pierced tongue and Merlot. She was wearing a vintage Judas Priest shirt, denim cutoffs worn with tube socks, a diamond cross from Tiffany and rhinestone-hoop earrings. “We’re both white-trash girls,” she said proudly.

This, it turned out, was just a pit stop on their way to a Glamour party at Shakey’s Pizza Restaurant. “We have to go straight from here,” Ms. Tierney said. “To this, to that. There are so many quote-unquote events that we’re supposed to be at. We are so tired .”

“Back in the day, we would’ve prepped all day to go to these parties,” Ms. Tamburin said. “Now we’re going from work looking all gross and it’s like, who cares?” She was raised in Boonton, N.J., the daughter of a restaurateur and a pastry chef, got an associate’s degree in merchandising at F.I.T. (“I hated it,” she said), then came west, following the metal band Korn, now a frequent client of the girls. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, I love California!'” she said, carving into a piece of grilled chicken. “It’s just like living in a resort!”

Meanwhile, Ms. Tierney had a rather more forlorn childhood, growing up Jennifer at the Olive Crest Children’s Home in Orange County, Calif. Her absentee mother worked as a nurse in Arkansas (“She draws blood, stuff like that,” Ms. Tamburin whispered later), and she’s not in touch with her father. She confided that when she was 12, she lived for a while in an open field. “I would pray,” she said. “I remember just laying in the field and saying, ‘Please, God.” When she came of age, she decided to be an actress, registering with the Screen Actors Guild under her brother’s first name. “I decided there were way too many Jennifers and Jens,” she said.

The two women met four and a half years ago at the Hollywood Palladium, during a performance by the Deadlights. It was love at first sight. “I hated the girls in L.A.,” Ms. Tamburin said. “I felt that all of them were stupid and fake and everything else. But when I met her, for some reason, I was like, ‘This is the only girl that lives in L.A. that I think is cool and kind of real and gets it.”

She invited Ms. Tierney, then festering as a receptionist in a post-production house and “auditioning like a jackass,” to work on a video she was doing for the pop star Christina Milian in Orlando, Fla. And something clicked. “It was just like, whoa!” is how Ms. Tamburin described their styling chemistry. “It’s like one person puts this on and then the other one goes, ‘Wait, it could be tweaked this way!’ Hand in hand.”

“We had so much fun working together,” Ms. Tierney said, “and then we got paid to have so much fun together? Whaaaat ?”

Ms. Tamburin had already gotten a job on the road with Britney Spears once, through an F.I.T. connection, and when she was invited back for the “Dream Within a Dream” tour, she asked her new soulmate to join her. It wasn’t that the two were big Britney fans or anything-Joey said her taste is more “indie,” and T-Bird (as Joey affectionately refers to her) said, “If I could be reborn, I’d be reborn in the body of Metallica”-but they readily grasped the value of worshipping at the plasticine Pecunia’s altar. “It turned out to be perfect,” Ms. Tamburin said. “Better than going on tour with a rock band. Rock ‘n’ roll is party, party, party all the time. Going on tour with a pop star is less disorienting than rock ‘n’ roll. It’s more about business.”

The pair became apprentices of sorts to Ms. Spears’ “main” stylists, a male team named Kurt and Bart who have since fallen out of favor with Britney. “She fired Kurt and Bart; she totally got rid of Kurt and Bart,” Ms. Tierney said. “Apparently she’s hired this older stylist out of New York, Gloria something, I don’t know.” (A representative for the pop star said “Gloria” was actually a woman named Lori Goldstein, that Ms. Spears was “moving her style in a different direction,” and that “it’s not correct to say that Kurt and Bart were fired,” though “she’s not working with them very much any more.” Though “she loves Joey and T,” according to the rep, Ms. Spears also passed on the opportunity to comment for this article.)

The tour was “a ton of work-slaving and crying and crying and slaving some more,” Ms. Tierney said. Ms. Tamburin was essentially Britney’s personal bitch, while Ms. Tierney tended to the eight back-up dancers. With 13 costume changes per show, there were over a thousand pieces of clothing to be accounted for, and lots of shopping to be done. Sometimes, when the star wanted an outfit, it was easier for the two just to whip it up on the spot with a sewing machine. Then one day, Ms. Spears swished her fairy-godmother wand. “She was like, ‘Y’all should open up your own store, y’all should do your own line,” Ms. Tamburin said. “And we said, ‘Let’s do it!'”

‘Little Geniuses!’

But in this tough retail climate, producing an entire line from scratch, even with a celebrity in your camp, is a daunting prospect. The traditional model of fashion success-the one employed by Mr. Posen-involves hours logged in penitent black at Central St. Martin’s in London or the Antwerp Fashion Academy, miles of rolling racks amid the grimy garmentos. The new paradigm-and it’s a very L.A. paradigm, predicated on the notion of the quick, colorful, clean and mass-replicated-involves a fashion entrepreneur beginning small, simple and atomized, perfecting one category and only extending herself after her particular specialty becomes a hit. Witness the Juicy Couture ladies, with their phenomenally successful luxury sweatsuits-“definitely inspiring,” Ms. Tierney said-or Kate Spade and her boxy handbags; or the ultra-low-rise jeans of Frankie B.

Joey and T knew that producing a complete wardrobe would require more resources and patience than they could possibly muster-but what niche was left, what body part still uncovered?

They were sitting at Nobu with Joie Jeans’ Sean (Cargo Pants) Barron when revelation struck. “He’s like, ‘You guys need to be the skirt girls,'” Ms. Tierney said. “And it was just like the light went-” She made a scintillating noise. “Well, duh .”

“I don’t think there’s anywhere that girls can go to to find really cool skirts,” Ms. Tamburin said.

A few months and $30,000 later, 61 Joey and T creations (many of them decidedly falling into the world-is-your-gynecologist category) paraded down a runway at the Downtown Standard hotel, some appended to the bony forms of the Hilton sisters, whom Joey and T met out and about “on the scene,” others to the somewhat billowier body of Aimee Osbourne, the celebrity most notable for refusing to go in front of MTV’s cameras with her parents and siblings. “We’re not so into the modelly girls,” Ms. Tamburin said. “We need some fire under the skin-and personality,” Ms. Tierney said.

The skirts were all named for women that Joey and T admire, like Corrina, their seamstress, and Janet, Ms. Tamburin’s financially and emotionally supportive mother, whom they jokingly refer to as “Ja-NAY.” A few were emblazoned with slogans like “Fierce Bitch” and “Twisted Sista.” “We have pieces that any age group could rock,” Ms. Tierney said.

“I think it’s very energetic-and very creative!” said Mama Tamburin, calling from a vacation in her husband’s native Croatia. (She said she is “a little too big” to wear the clothes, however.)

“I think they kind of take on that whole pop-culture look, like the mixture of the 80’s and the 90’s, a kind of retro, interesting combination of the last 30 years,” said Ms. Osbourne, who is 19, in a phone interview. Asked what was unique about the girls’ designs, Ms. Osbourne said, “I wouldn’t say there’s anything particularly unique. I think what it is, is that it’s just really fun-anyone can wear it. So many designers try to be complicated, try to make a statement. And they’re just really laid-back; they just want girls to look cute and have fun.”

“They’re little geniuses,” Ms. Spears proclaimed to E! television.

From Skirts to … Pants!

In the current environment-when the idea for a new line and the concept of how to market a line are born practically simultaneously, when celebrity endorsement can be a de facto substitute for sartorial chops or innovation-it may seem downright churlish to inquire about the wearability of the merch. But Tia Browsh, who owns an appointment-only boutique called Jack Henry on South King’s Road in West Hollywood, said she got lots of compliments after wearing a bright green and denim Joey and T ultra-mini to the actor Adrien Brody’s birthday party at the Mondrian’s Sky Bar. “It got an amazing reaction,” she said. (Then again, she is 5-foot-1 and 90 pounds.) Colleen Sherin, a fashion-market director at Saks, raved about a black leather, wide-waistbanded, buttock-revealing number with a flared hem that will sell in the “contemporary” area on the fifth floor. Would she wear it? “Um, yeah! In the appropriate place,” she said, emitting a high giggle. “It’s a bit more novelty. Really fast fashion.”

Yet though they admit tailoring is not their strong suit-“It’s ghetto sewing, sort of,” Ms. Tierney said of their approach to the pattern-making process-Joey and T have no intention of being only a novelty act. Now that they have mastered skirts, they’re plowing ahead with more complicated projects. “Pants,” Ms. Tierney said.

“Dresses, blouses, vests-you know. Shorts, and bodysuits, and jumpsuits. Oh, it’s only going to get bigger.”

They’re not looking to get hemmed in by a boutique. “We’re not trying to Romy and Michelle it,” Ms. Tierney said with a snort (their idols are, rather, Dolce & Gabbana). “We don’t want to be sitting behind the register every day,” Ms. Tamburin added. They’ve rented 1,400 square feet of office space on Spring Street in downtown L.A., hired a staff of three (two assistants and a production manager, formerly of BCBG), and understand that they may not be taken 100 percent seriously until they show under the tents at Seventh on Sixth. “But it’s like $100,000,” Ms. Tierney said. “So it’s like, ‘O.K., do you want to do a spring line, or do you want to show in New York?”

These days, they may have to style their friends in Korn for an occasional Tomb Raider II video to keep Joey and T afloat, but at least it’s sayonara to Ms. Spears and her style snafus. “We’re not going to go on tour again,” Ms. Tierney said firmly. “It would be taking a hundred steps backward. And anyways, I don’t want to. I’ve been everywhere I need to go.” We’re Not Dressing Britney!