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Learning As They Go Fashion: Founders of A People United don't have a world of experience in retail. But backroads Asian journeys and hard work have turned a good deed into a good deal more.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In the heart of Towson country, where they speak Gap and believe in J. Crew, two people are building a successful new American fashion house with the help of women working looms and needles in remote villages in India and Nepal.

A People United started out as a project to employ women of developing countries, became a retail operation and is now a growing clothing line with sales reps in major American apparel markets.

Robert Gruber and Marie Payzant are still spinning from their success with fashion.

There has been A People United shop downtown selling richly patterned and quilted Nepalese jackets, sari silk separates, ornate tribal jewelry and ornamental curios for the home at Charles and Hamilton streets since 1993.

A few months ago they opened up a leaner and more streamlined suburban branch at Towson Commons. This store is well-located and welcoming, with a more refined line of clothes hung in color families and accents of opulent rugs and hangings.

The business of keeping shop and producing and designing seasonal lines, for their own stores and others around the country, tests the couple's energies.

"It may have been mad to start a collection built on ethnic skills just when ethnic dressing was just about over," says Marie Payzant, but she goes her own way with design, taking indigenous techniques and crafts and making them modern.

She speaks of a black-and-white polka-dot line for fall -- a pattern more often associated with European frocks than Eastern draperies. "That's the fun part, going to a development group and helping them modify and change their formula so that their products appear more western and can be marketed in Europe or America."

That's the key to A People United's success. The clothes are spare, of simple cut and restrained ornamentation, a far cry from the costumey, earth-mother, Indian prints of the flower child generation or the glut of razzle-dazzle ethnic wear in today's street stalls.

The street, however, is where it all started after Robert Gruber decided to give up 15 years of lawyering in Wisconsin and go wandering.

"In the early '80s, I took a trip to India, Nepal and China, and that started me in the process of leaving law," he says. He came to Baltimore in 1988.

"I studied public health policy at Johns Hopkins and there learned that when women are able to earn even a small income, nutrition for themselves and their children improves dramatically. I decided to import and market clothing produced by women's cooperatives and collectives in the Third World."

It was hit-and-miss for a while.

He did street fairs and craft bazaars and sold wholesale. Even though he was importing in volume, the inconsistencies in quality and sizing and unpredictable shipments made for a nervous business schedule.

"There's real time and Indian time," he says.

He set up shop at Howard near Read street in 1993, moved on to the Charles Street location in 1994 and added the Towson store in November.

Meanwhile, there are buying and contracting trips to Asia, where a working relationship with cooperatives and small factories has solved many early production problems.

His partnership and marriage last year to Marie Payzant has also been good for business.

He's 48, the enthusiast and business brains; she's 38, the sophisticate and designer.

Both have had careers that are all over the map, but those roads eventually led to fashion.

"I worked as a photographer," she says, "and I've free-lanced in trade magazines on health and beauty, real estate. I was a senior editor for Design and Architecture magazine in California. It was the [House and Garden] to the trade -- artists and architects -- but it folded. I even had a hand in editing something on municipal solid-waste management."

Not the usual training ground for a designing diva, but good experience.

"As an editor, I was able to illustrate stories, shoot cover art. I had a good head-shot business, which grew out of a friend's acting group. He sent me his people to shoot, and I pretty much learned on my own. I wasn't making much, but figured if my ZTC photography supported my equipment expenses, I would be all right," she says.

She moved to Baltimore in 1993 hoping to connect with an editing job in Washington.

Somewhere in that mixed resume was a gifted eye and a sense of timing.

"I sold clothing and have always loved textiles. I'm not the most gifted or original designer -- a small bump on the surface of fashion. But I thought there was a need for simple and comfortable clothing, and I filled it. What I do is very basic, and it has been successful."

She isn't resting, however. There are classes in interior design, three computer graphics courses and frequent travel.

"My periods of underemployment put me in place to have time to be creative, got me going as an artist," she says. "I've had a lot of "job-ettes" just to keep me going -- substitute teaching, volunteering, waitressing."

She met Robert when she was framing and matting for a photo show in 1994. He tapped her for ideas on framing and raved about her photos. She wound up pitching in and helping him to open the Charles Street store.

They now travel to Asia two or three months a year shopping fabrics and finding artisans and setting schedules. Home is in the Roland Park area.

The success of their wholesale line with boutiques across America cuts into the time they devote to their own stores. They have showroom sales reps in Miami, Atlanta, Dallas, Chicago and New York and are looking to expand to Los Angeles, but are still learning from their Baltimore customers.

"Not everybody is a size 8, so I initially designed a very wide variety of shapes and lengths. However, now that I'm more confident I plan to streamline the line," she says.

That's the editor editing her own work. The spring line is strong on brights and citrus shades in hop-sack weaves and knits. Fall will be strong in black, midnight blues and tangerine accents. They have their own rayon ladybug and star prints with a hint of retro.

It's going well. A People United may not yet have the global name recognition of The United Colors of Benetton, but their world view is just as far-reaching.

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