Joan Vass is not your typical designer. In past lives she's been an art historian, a columnist for Art in America, an editor at art book publisher Harry Abrams and an assistant curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Something she's always been, though, is a humanitarian. In fact, it was the knitting concern she set up as a charitable cottage industry in 1973 that led to her success today. In 1976 a friend suggested she bring some of the unusual, one-of-a-kind hats and mufflers created by her and her band of homemaker-student knitters to Henri Bendel, the toniest of tony New York department stores. The delighted boutique snatched them up.

Her designs are simple, spare, virtually genderless and loaded with imagination and movement. Fran Hess, a buyer for the Store Ltd. in the Village of Cross Keys, one of the most substantial resources for her designs in Baltimore, is a longtime admirer. Her work "borders on dance land," she says. A free-standing Vass boutique will open in Chevy Chase March 1.

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