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“For Her Alone” ~ The Philadelphia Inquirer, Fall 2002

The Philadelphia Inquirer
Posted on Saturday, September 14, 2002

“For Her Alone” by Denise Cowie

Two artists created the jacket and a third will wear it, secure in the knowledge that she will never see its like on anyone else.

The search for clothes that are interesting and different has taken Barbara Mungall to secondhand shops and vintage-clothing stores.

It has led her to a high-end design studio overlooking Main Street in Manayunk. She wants a new jacket that’s really special, something she can wear almost any time of year. She’s opted to have it custom-made and hand-painted at Janice Martin Designs, though she knows that for what it will cost, she could buy a wardrobe of jackets from a department store.

“I’d rather have one special thing than many ordinary things,” Mungall says. “And this way I get to pick the fabric and the style and everything about it, rather than thinking, ‘Oh, that would be nice if it were in a different pattern,’ or, ‘That would be great if the style were different.'”

It’s not the first time she has patronized the studio. In winter a couple of years ago, she had an unusual suit made in brown Italian tweed that was similar to one she’d seen at a social event on designer Janice Martin herself.

“Janice wears a lot of the things she makes, and it’s exciting to see them on her,” Mungall says. “It’s her unique flair, I guess — you become aware of the possibilities.”

But the new jacket is something else again. Not only is it an original design decided on by Mungall and Martin — its princess lines, slightly flared in back, are vaguely reminiscent of an Edwardian riding jacket — but it also will be custom-made in a white imported silk fabric so that Mount Airy fabric artist Kathy Robinson can use it as a blank canvas, painting stylized flowers on it in colors she will mix by hand.

At first glance, Mungall seems an unlikely client. The women who stare out from elegant portraits on the mantel over the fireplace in Martin’s studio are mostly upper-crust brides. Mungall is an artist and the mother of Marian, who’s just graduated from college, and Winslow, who’s just starting.

She is dark-haired, slender and quietly self-possessed, a representational painter who became a full-time teacher about 10 years ago “because it’s hard work to be self-employed.” Now, she is head of the art department at the Baldwin School in Bryn Mawr, where she has worked since moving here from Albany, N.Y., four years ago.

At work, where she spends her days among students flinging paint around, she wears simple pants and tops that she might pick up at the Gap. “I can’t be worrying about my clothes,” she says. But she attends a lot of art-show openings, and this jacket, teamed with slacks or a skirt, will take her to the best of them.

Besides, she likes the idea of supporting other artists.

So here she stands, wearing a basic muslin pattern while Martin sketches in a princess seam here and an armhole there, using Mungall’s body as a template so that the pattern will take into account every physical quirk.

“Barbara has one shoulder a little higher than the other,” Martin says, deftly allowing for a little extra padding on the right shoulder to compensate, “and her right arm is two inches longer than the left.”

It’s the kind of thing that makes shopping in stores frustrating, Mungall says. But for Martin, it’s just a tweak of the pattern.

“There are so many things you can do at this stage of the garment,” Martin says. “You can disguise flaws such as a bowed spine, or change the lines to make a design more attractive on someone who wouldn’t usually be able to wear that style.”

That’s what custom fitting is all about. But it is a complex process. On a big cutting table in her third-floor workroom, upstairs from the salon that clients see, Martin cuts the basic muslin into pieces and traces it onto paper, marking it up in what look like indecipherable scribbles that only she understands, allowing for seams, overlaps, and the flare Mungall wants. This is the real pattern, more accurate than muslin.

“Paper is stable,” Martin explains. “Fabric changes — it stretches, it shrinks, it does weird things.”

From the paper pattern she cuts another muslin garment she calls a “fit pattern,” because it will be tried on Mungall to see if the paper pattern is a good fit. This is the real beginning of the jacket.

Mungall looks at herself in the mirror. “Is it a little too full at the hips?” she asks tentatively. “And too flared at the back?” Martin pins in the sides, and marks a kick pleat over the rear. Then she makes these adjustments on the paper pattern.

“There are not that many people who do this anymore,” Martin says as she cuts. It’s similar to what a production pattern-maker would do — usually fitting a size 8 model who’s a stand-in for the female population — except that such a pattern would be used to produce thousands of garments in a variety of sizes.

Mungall’s pattern is hers alone. And from her adjusted paper pattern Martin will, finally, cut out the actual jacket in the white, linen-weave silk called silk dupione.

For most of her nearly two decades in the custom-clothing business, Martin’s focus has been bridal gowns and evening wear. Not only does she create new gowns — often from 20 yards or more of imported fabric — but she has earned a reputation for restoring antique gowns and veils, too, so that family keepsakes can be worn by today’s brides. When Philadelphia’s Museum of Art mounted a major costume exhibit, “Best Dressed: 250 Years of Style,” nearly five years ago, it was Martin who reconstructed the veil once worn by Princess Grace of Monaco for a royal-wedding scene that was a highlight of the show.

A few years ago, Martin began branching out, making suits and separates for businesswomen and offering a handful of upscale accessories. And more recently she teamed with Robinson — who uses an ancient batik process to make her own line of wearable art pieces featuring her signature florals — to produce custom-made, hand-painted silk suits and jackets. These cost $1,200 to $1,500 for jackets and $1,800 to $2,200 for suits, or maybe more, depending on the work involved.

Their affiliation began the season that gray wasthe fashion color. Martin wanted a jacket in gray silk decorated with big pink peonies, but the only way to get what she wanted was to design it herself and have it hand-painted.

“I wore it like a uniform, almost, for a while,” she says. “I just loved it.”

She wasn’t the only one. On a trip to Chicago in June two years ago, Martin wore her jacket into a ritzy antiques store on Armitage Street.

“The owner said, ‘I love that jacket,’ and my husband, John, said, ‘She’s a designer, she made it.’ Well, one thing led to another and the woman said, ‘Can I try it on? Can I order one?’ ” And she did.

It was reminiscent of how Martin got into the clothing business in the first place. Although she has been sewing “since I was a kid,” she didn’t do it professionally when she moved to Philadelphia from North Carolina more than 20 years ago. An arts lover, she came here to work on the Luciano Pavarotti voice competition, then switched to public relations for Altman’s stores, both of which meant attending many black-tie events.

Women would ask where she got her gowns, which she made herself, and before long a lawyer called and asked her to make a wedding dress.

“So I thought I’d do this until I got another real job,” she recalls. Then one day, she saw a mention of her work in a newspaper story on fashion. “That’s when I realized I was in business.”

But what is that business, exactly? Martin still finds it hard to define.

“If I say I am a dressmaker, there is this sense that what I do can’t be sophisticated,” she says. “There is part of me that says, yes, I make dresses, this is not brain surgery. On the other hand, if I want to keep my clientele walking in the door, I’m a designer, because the public’s perception of a dressmaker is not what we are — it’s grandmom who made their dresses for the prom.”

She finds it frustrating when potential customers first shop the stores for what they think they want, then ask her to make it for less.

“Why do they think it will cost less?” she asks. “And why be tunnel-visioned on what is in the stores when you can have whatever you want, whatever will do the most for you?”

By Webster’s Dictionary definition, Martin and others like her could be called couturiers — designers of women’s fashions who make and sell the clothes. But couture has an exalted history in places like Paris, and a mystique that defies mere definition.

Emil De John, a designer himself and for years chairman of the fashion-design department at Moore College of Art and Design, believes that there are no more than a handful of designers in the world who should get that title — and very few customers who can afford the lofty prices for the painstakingly detailed, hand-stitched and decorated garments they produce.

Studios such as Martin’s, he says, are more like the ateliers that blossomed in Paris in the early part of the 20th century, “where a rich French woman could have one dress made specifically for her.”

When she has visited designers’ workrooms in Europe, Martin says, she has found that what they do is very similar to what her seamstresses do here.

“I walked into Christian Lacroix’s studio a few years ago, and there in his workroom was the same lace we were working with in Philadelphia,” says Martin, who buys her fabrics — some of which cost up to $500 a yard — from the same small specialty mills that sell to Ungaro, Chloe, and Armani. She has seen, but resisted, laces that cost $1,500 a yard.

Which is about the same as the price of one of her custom-made, hand-painted jackets.

“It’s very low-tech, kind of primitive, the process,” Kathy Robinson says as she gets ready to start painting with wax on the blank canvas that is Mungall’s jacket. “But ever since I started working with batik, I’ve loved it. There’s a flow to it, the wax.”

She has already dyed the jacket — and all the spare scraps of the same fabric, just in case — a unique teal under-color by mixing green and blue dyes, and stuffed it with wax paper so nothing can bleed through. Now, she fills an ancient Indonesian tool called a tjanting with liquid wax and starts sketching with it directly onto the material.

“You work quickly with the tjanting because it drips — you learn to work in your mistakes if you have them.”

The wax with which she refills the tjanting‘s tiny reservoir stays hot and fluid in a coffee can set in a saucepan of bubbling water on an old electric hot plate.

“I’m known for my florals, a kind of stylized floral,” says Robinson, who majored in fashion design at Drexel University and was also a painter of watercolors. Her hand-painted, unstructured tops and scarves are sold in galleries nationally, including Artisans on the Avenue in Chestnut Hill. But for Mungall’s jacket, she’s doing something a little more abstract — the body will be crosshatched in a bamboo pattern, with stylized flowers toward the top. Although she’s had input from Martin and Mungall, the artistic interpretation is hers.

The process Robinson uses to paint the jacket is a combination of the wax-resist method of batik and watercolor. Where she draws on the fabric with wax, the original teal under-color will be retained. Next, she mixes her own silk paints, so all the colors are unique, and paints the rest of the design like a watercolor. Cherry red and golden yellow mixed together, for instance, give her the tangerine she wants for the flower petals at the neckline.

“You need something bright to stand out, because the background color is dark,” she says. Then she paints over those colors with wax, to hold them.

The wax is smooth, locally grown beeswax that comes in big blocks she breaks with a hammer, then mixes with paraffin to get more “crackle” — actual cracks in the wax that allow color to seep into other parts of the design, to get more of what Robinson calls “over-dyeing.”

Then the jacket, stiff with wax, is dyed in a custom-mixed blend of silk acid dyes to get the final background color, a steely blue that cannot be replicated. Only the fabric not covered by wax will absorb the color.

“Mixing the colors is a bit like cooking . . . or dyeing Easter eggs,” says Robinson, as she dons a mask and rubber gloves to mix a teaspoon of this color, a pinch of that. When she’s through, all the bits and pieces of fabric are sent to a commercial dry cleaner to get out the last of the wax.

“Oh, that really is beautiful!” Mungall exclaims, as if she hadn’t been quite sure what it would look like until now, when Martin produces the finished jacket with a flourish.

“I’m just so tickled,” says Martin, obviously delighted with how it has turned out. “Where will you wear it?”

“I’d love to wear it a lot, but I’m not sure what that means,” Mungall says. “Out to dinner or things like that.”

She turns this way and that, admiring the jacket’s lines in the mirror, and decides she needs a skirt to go with it.

So there’s more one-of-a-kind clothing on the agenda?

Mungall smiles.

“One of a kind, once in a while,” she says.

Janice Martin Designs is at 41 Cricket Avenue, Ardmore, PA 19003, (610) 645-4540 or .Kathy Robinson can be reached at Artisans on the Avenue, 8428 Germantown Ave., Chestnut Hill, 215-381-0582.


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41 Cricket Avenue
Ardmore, PA 19003