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August 27th, 2003 Elizabeth Dye | Fashion
 

Homegrown Haute Couture

Adam Arnold has designs on Portland.

     
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With last Friday's fashion show in his brand-new atelier, it appears that Adam Arnold has finally arrived.

But truth is, Adam actually arrived in Portland a year and a half ago. That's when he quietly infiltrated chic Portland boutiques like Seaplane and Mimi & Lena with his exquisite, austerely modern men's and women's designs (think Courrèges meets Prada with just a dash of Jedi knight). Moving into his Southeast storefront studio (727 SE Morrison St., 284-1376, by appointment) earlier this summer--a space he shares with Sindi Scheinberg of the line Marvin & Maurice--Arnold's business has taken on the kind of professional polish befitting a design legend in the making. Yes, I said legend.

Trust me, all the essential ingredients are there.

His story is equally as mythic. According to Adam, his mother ingested sewing-machine oil while pregnant with him. Following that "accident," Arnold became obsessed with drawing and embroidery at the wee age of 3. By the time he was 8, his grandmother had already taught him to operate a sewing machine. And from ages 12 to 19, he spent most of his summer days working for an aunt, a display designer for an upscale retailer's visual merchandising department.

His aunt would return from a concept meeting waving her hands and shouting, "They want Shaker Christmas!" Adam would dutifully head to the library to research the topic, then draft drawings and stitch costume samples. Add to that his high-school job at an "old lady fabric store," and you have a childhood precisely calibrated to produce a designer with focus and dedication.

"I'm an idealist," Adam says. "When I decided to go into the fashion business for myself, I wanted to create my own world." But with his degree in fashion design and a string of costuming jobs from San Francisco to Seattle, this Vancouver, Wash., native could've set up shop anywhere. So why did he choose Portland?

Like many like-minded locals, he found that Portland's support of independent fashion--and creativity generally--suits his sense of possibilities.

"When Portland receives national press, magazines always include a disclaimer, as if it's an accident when something fresh and exciting happens here," he says. "But look around. How many people do you really see wearing Birkenstocks?"

Arnold also views PDX's relative isolation as a boon. "It's possible here to craft whole new ways of dressing and thinking about clothes--the way they're designed, constructed and sold--because no one is looking at Portland."

Arnold does all his own sewing production--70 or more garments per season--and relishes every last aspect of the tedious process.

"Sewing production is very meditative. I like that selfless, egoless state, where I'm just part of a big machine called 'ready to wear.'" On the other hand, frequent custom projects--including the occasional customer who wanders into his studio--keep him in touch with the people who ultimately wear his work.

With his fall line, Arnold displayed the classic polish and sophistication that have marked his designs from the beginning. The exciting force emerging now, however, is an off-center flair that shows the young designer is gaining confidence above and apart from his fine tailoring skills. This was evident in several pieces: a men's herringbone wool flight suit, a felted "skeleton jacket" with shearlinglike, inside-out seams. In this piece, Arnold draws once again on the rich family resources that gave him his start, especially his aunt, a feltmaker in Centralia, Wash. "She basically invented this fabric that feels like the underside of an animal pelt," he explains. "She calls it lisere, but I call it 'felt pelt.'"

Though many of Arnold's fall pieces stuck to cool, professional neutrals--ecru, putty, chocolate brown--the occasional pencil skirt in screaming geranium pink should remind the fickle, easily bored eye of fashion to stay fixed on this local luminary. Once pink worms its way in, could Versace lime green be far behind?

 
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