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Secrets in the Seams

Jasmin Shokrian's quiet designs speak volumes.

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I felt lightheaded last Thursday at the Wicker Park boutique Hejfina, and it wasn't from the Sofia Mini--champagne in a can--I was sipping through its attached pink bendy straw. What got me giddy was the rack of new clothes unveiled for Jasmin Shokrian's trunk show.

Shokrian, who lives in Los Angeles, makes artistic, almost cinematic clothing. Trained in sculpture, filmmaking, and painting at the School of the Art Institute, she evokes shadows and light by layering thin silk or wool crepe, letting wisps of fabric peek through the folds. In her fall/winter 2005-'06 collection, called "Passing Secrets," fabric on shirts is doubled up to form swaying gulfs, and collars drape back into capelets or tumble down into exaggerated cowls.

Shokrian's pencil skirts are puzzles: precise interlocking panels with round seams and a slight balloon at the hem. A bold diagonal seam on a thin top is let loose in some places, coming together again a few inches later, like two people walking together briefly separated by a passerby. It's all in a muted palette of brown, navy, olive, mushroom, and black wool, cotton, and silk. "My fabric is always really quiet," she says. "It's more about shape."

Shokrian is pretty tight-lipped herself about certain things. We've been acquaintances for some time, bumping into each other at art shows and parties, yet she's always been guarded about her personal life and her family. "Image-wise I've been really specific about how I'm perceived," she says. She does volunteer that her mother, an "expert tailor" with a "very couture hand" who made Shokrian's clothes when she was a kid, has helped her make patterns for each of her six collections over the past three years.

At the Art Institute in the late 90s Shokrian and some friends--a sculptor, a painter, a filmmaker, and a writer--met in her studio and made clothing together, not to sell or show but just to wear themselves.

A few years after she graduated she made some clothes for a photo shoot for a local magazine--she doesn't want to say which one--and the positive response she got from stylists and readers persuaded her to shop some of her stuff around to boutiques. She took some hand-dyed shirts with gauze overlays to New York and LA, bringing back orders from three shops: Maxfield's and Aero in LA and Takashimaya in New York, stores that she describes as focused on design with "a very strong architectural edge."

That's when she moved back to LA, "because my mother started helping me and I needed to get production done. I had to beg my mom to help me finish everything," she says.

Her spring/summer 2004 collection was inspired by a voice-mail message "from a man saying he'd just arrived from another country," she says--probably somewhere in Africa, guessing from his accent--who'd called her number by mistake. "Basically, he was so, so happy," she says. "He was at LAX calling from a pay phone." He said he'd finally made it and couldn't wait to see her. "I didn't know what to do with the information," she says. "I couldn't erase it."

That message led her to explore "taking something that belongs to you even if it's not necessarily meant for you, like taking your boyfriend's jacket and pulling it tight around your body," she says. The collection was snapped up by Barneys.

Last year "I wanted to go another step and involve people I didn't know," she says. Through a personal ad in the LA Weekly and a bulletin on Friendster she encouraged people to leave anonymous messages "inspired by chance happenings" on a voice-mail line. A couple months later, she dumped her "enormous compilation" into a sound program on her Mac and printed out the waveforms in large scale. From there she devised patterns for tops, skirts, and dresses, using the lines to determine cuts and seams. "I liked that part of what these people were saying would end up in a shoulder seam," she says. "I loved that idea that something they were saying was in the clothes, like a secret the wearer carries on themselves."

The resulting collection, called "Accidental Voices" and currently available at Hejfina, includes sleeveless silk tops with loose pleats on one side that resemble gills, a straight spaghetti-strapped dress with bunches near the waist and hips, and a nubby linen skirt that hangs in panels.

I bought a semi-open-knit oatmeal-colored top with a long, fluttery collar. My boyfriend said it made me look like a grandma, but he doesn't like anything in my closet except for the ratty black Converse high-tops I found in a Dumpster four years ago.

I wore the shirt the next day to the School of the Art Institute, where I helped judge the juniors' final fashion projects to decide which students would get what scholarships and grants. I sweated all over my new purchase deliberating with people far more knowledgeable and sophisticated than me over whose days we were about to make and whose hearts we were about to break.

At the school's fashion show the previous week, I had gotten to view all the same designs from a distance under dim lights, where it was much easier to raise eyebrows and talk out the side of my mouth. "Everyone's clapping for the most hideous, outlandish things!" I stage-whispered to my friend. After witnessing the polite golf claps given to soft layers, meticulous hand-dyes, and evidence of quiet artistry, I was frustrated by the mounds of applause barfed all over a mesh-paneled collection of futuristic hoop skirts with color blocks and thick black lines reminiscent of L'Oreal's Studio Line packaging from the 90s. "Why are they encouraging them?" I hissed. There was sculptural clothing that all but incapacitated the wearer based on furniture from the room the designer waited in for her grandmother to die, cartoony salmon and algae-green dresses inspired by sushi but more reminiscent of The Snorks, a silk shantung dress with goldfish-orange sequins designed for a little girl, a jacket made of human hair. All these things got wild applause.

In the end, the audience favorites overlapped with the scholarship winners in only one case: Iris Bainum-Houle, who showed three fairy-tale-inspired looks that incorporated capes, preserved rose petals, and a freaky feather mask. The clothes were at once dramatic and juvenile, like a child's temper tantrum. The stuff made by the rest of the winners was far more restrained: Sophie Lennox-King's delicately hand-tattered dress, a leather jacket whose hood was lined by Melissa Serpico with intricate raised stitching, Matthew Lanci's wool coat decorated with drops of resin. When clothing is this subtle, you need to get close to appreciate it. That's what Shokrian seems to know. It's intimate, like a secret.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Andrea Bauer.

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