If clothes can tell a story, the mix of dresses, jewelry, boots, buttons, lace and beading at the West Hollywood boutique Clothespin add up to a novel of epic proportions.
First, there are the never-worn vintage fabrics from the 1940s, cut in 18 different styles of flattering bias cut dresses, skirts with roomy pockets and gamine blouses. Then, there are the custom garments made from more than 200 fabrics in the charming shop, where Lilly, a Pembroke Welsh corgi, greets customers. Each piece is one-of-a-kind and they vary from pretty pastel florals to vibrant and abstract geometrics. Adornments include French vintage buttons, antique lace and hand beading. Then, in addition to Clothespin's house line, there are tough-looking boots, beat up leather belts, vintage sweaters and slips and colorful vintage jewelry scooped up in Africa, Mexico and Morocco, and all informed by the sensibilities of proprietor Gale Parker.
Who better to create and mix this fashion pot-au-feu than Parker, a former model, editor, designer and muse who has rubbed elbows with some of the most important figures in modern couture, art and design? Her story is as captivating as her store.
Born in Manhattan's Upper East Side, Parker grew up in the building where legendary Vogue editor Diana Vreeland lived. "She would eye me in the elevator and watched me grow up over the years," said Parker, then a student at the prestigious private school Spence. "As my style became more sophisticated, she finally asked, 'Who are you?'" Vreeland later put Parker in the magazine's pages.
After graduating from high school in 1970, Parker moved to Paris, attending the Sorbonne for only three days before she started modeling and running with a group that she had known from her days sneaking out to downtown clubs like Max's Kansas City when she was just 15. "I was a debutante on acid," said Parker, now 57, who hung with the likes of Mick Jagger and Andy Warhol. "It was those times."
Her lawyer father and interior decorator mother did not approve when Parker married her first husband, who was heavily involved in Parisian café society, at 18. (Diane von Furstenberg was her matron of honor.) But the teen was quickly becoming a sensation in Paris, thanks to her singular personal style. "It was always a mix of eclectic vintage and was rough with refinement," she said. "I would always layer things, and my hair was really wild."
She'd find vintage Chinese kimonos at Paris flea markets, wear individual fake lashes with four layers of mascara and don custom over-the-knee gold boots. Yves Saint Laurent hired Parker to work on accessories and act as a muse, as did Valentino, who had her fly to Rome to pick out anything she liked and wear his designs to parties. While she loved the access, the couture houses weren't foreign to Parker, who had visited Dior and Madame Grès each year with her mother from the age of 5.
"The early '70s were an incredible time style-wise," Parker explained. "Everybody had amazing, unique style and you would just be inspired by everybody you saw."
At age 21, Parker returned to New York and filed for divorce, with a baby in tow and no money because her parents had cut her off. So Parker's best friend, photographer Berry Berenson, introduced her to Halston. Although she had no experience, she became a design assistant, working with the legendary Stephen Sprouse. In late 1978, Parker became the youngest editor at Vogue, under Grace Mirabella. During this time, Warhol did eight portraits of Parker and she landed on the cover of Interview, where she was later a contributing editor.
"Andy would take Polaroids for about an hour and then you were done," she said of the portraits, which were later exhibited at the Whitney Museum and are still published in art books. A copy of one of the glamorous portraits looms over the Clothespin boutique along with photos from her modeling days.
After working with designers and in the publishing world, Parker and her young daughter moved to Kenya with her second husband, a pilot who ran a safari business. "The travel that you do influences your eye, and I think it's hard for L.A. designers who have not traveled because the exposure is so limiting," said Parker, who stayed in Africa for more than a year. "You're in your car here. From a designer point of view, it's easier to come from Europe or New York because you're exposed to so much just on the street and in the subway."
Up next was Los Angeles, where her son was born. Movie director Joel Schumacher, a friend of Parker's, suggested that she take a stab at costume designing. "He said, 'What you know nobody can teach,'" she explained. She did a flurry of films, including 1986's "Slow Burn" and "Cop" in 1988, but eventually divorced and moved back to New York.
After she scored a meeting with Ralph Lauren, he created a job for her working on the runway collection. "I got in the elevator and everyone was in double-breasted navy blazers and there I was with my crazy hair and bright green Belgian loafers," she said.
She eventually became a design director, and her edgier designs were featured on covers of Women's Wear Daily and W. She left after eight years to "dress America" as the vice president of design for Limited and landed in Northern California to be creative director of ZoZa, a new label from the original founders of Banana Republic. After the label failed, Parker took a house in Stinson Beach, where all she did for one year was hike, read poetry and relax. She fell in love with and married the acclaimed sustainable architect Sim Van der Ryn after being on her own for 15 years, and then discovered that she had stage three non- Hodgkin's lymphoma. After surgery, chemo and radiation, Parker was inspired to start a line of her own, with the environment in mind.
And though she and Van der Ryn are no longer together, Parker remains committed to going green. Besides using vintage fabrics and decorations, she uses organic yarns and repurposes. For instance, for summer Parker has a collection called Dirty Whites, made from Belgian sheets. She lives just two blocks from the shop, sees her grandchildren who live nearby and enjoys sharing stories of the past with her clients. "I feel I'm resurrecting forgotten treasures and I am so thankful to be in L.A. at this time," said Parker. "Mothers and daughters come in and shop together — it doesn't get better than that."
8654 Melrose Ave. in West Hollywood. Store hours are 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday.