The Southern belle sashays back; Fashion: Tuleh's two designers love to put the lovely in clothes dripping with glamour and decadence.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

NEW YORK -- The Upper West Side studio resembles a mad fashion tea party. Antique candy dishes and gilded vintage furniture fill the space. Seamstresses buzz and sew in a back room, and the clothes hanging everywhere are the ultimate in designer decadence: sequins, lame, chinchilla cuffs.

The scene looks sumptuous. But to fashion designer Bryan Brantley who just walked in, it smells even better.

"Ohmigod, you got McDonald's," he says, spying the cheese danish and hamburger co-designer Josh Patner has saved for him.

"And wine," Patner adds, brandishing a bottle of red.

A feast of fast food and noon wine is a rare break for the partners in both life and business. They're so immersed in their two-year old clothing line, Tuleh, that they rarely have time to eat, confides intern Lissa Levine, 23. And Patner regrets that the gym has faded into the past as well.

"We used to have nice bodies, but we don't anymore," he says with resignation.

Instead of sweating it out on a Stairmaster, they've been channeling their eccentric energy into fashioning a business based on designing modern, sassy Southern belle styles for the city girl. Ruffles, flowers and fur are Tuleh trademarks. Patner and Brantley apply whimsical prints and extravagant fabrics to evening gowns, tea dresses, sexy skirts and more, offering a coquettish contrast to the bland black of high fashion.

Last year, they won a Perry Ellis Award for new talent in women's wear.

They appear to have won over the fickle fashion press, for the moment at least. Harper's Bazaar labelled the line "feminine and sultry." And the New York Times calls their style "deliciously arcane."

The inspiration behind the clothes was far more practical than the clothes themselves.

"You want me to say, 'Oh, I watched a lot of Audrey Hepburn movies' or 'My aunt was a really crazy Auntie Mame,'" Patner says, diving into some french fries laid out on a delicate porcelain plate. The two dreamed up Tuleh, named for a fashion muse they made up, "at a certain time in New York when people were making very uniform, monastic, industrial, urban-Zenny kind of clothes, and we just thought that it was really dreary. Everybody looked like they were getting ready for Armageddon."

They may still use a rotary phone, be tragically understaffed and be oblivious to the Internet, but with a devotion to crafting pretty clothes and a manic work ethic, Tuleh is taking off.

The company has snatched up 35 domestic and international accounts and is sold in such high-end havens as Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman, as well as a bunch of boutiques, including Ruth Shaw in Cross Keys. Tuleh also has a hold on Hollywood. Cameron Diaz has been known to stop by the studio to sample new styles, and sweet, skimpy pieces often appear on the size 2 bod of Sarah Jessica Parker on HBO's "Sex and the City." They also cater to socialites galore.

"This happens to be a very feminine season, and they do that kind of thing the right way," says Stephen Tancibok, a buyer at Ruth Shaw. "They've been doing this from the get-go."

When Patricia Field, "Sex and the City" fashion director, was introduced to the duo's creations, she saw a perfect fit for the show.

"They have a lot of detail that is very good for (Parker's) character," says Field, who has been working with Patner and Brantley since the show premiered in 1998. "It's not really a style I would call trendy. They have their own signature."

The clothes they design may be flashy, but Patner and Brantley's own apparel is strictly functional. Don't expect them to dress like dandies or drag queens. Patner says primping and preening are divine in women, deplorable in men. "You want a boyfriend who's looking at himself in the mirror all the time? That's gross."

"We are not women," says Patner, 39. "These are not our fantasies of what we would wear if we were women."

Today, Patner's dressed all in black; Brantley, 33, wears jeans and a blue Izod shirt. They look comfortably schlumpy. But under the nondescript clothes lurk personalities as vivacious as their designs.

Patner, a former women's fashion coordinator at Bergdorf Goodman and magazine stylist, is a charming fashion brat. He looks and sounds slightly peeved. But that may just be the nasal voice and the tortoise-shell beatnik glasses. In design, he tends more toward the extravagant. If something's raging with ruffles and sparkle, Patner was probably behind it.

Brantley, whose pre-Tuleh jobs included working as a design assistant at Calvin Klein, is just a tad more tweedy in his taste. The entire line, in fact, has taken a turn for the more conservative. That's Tuleh conservative, however, which could mean magenta tweed.

Brantley, with his goatee and gentle eyes, is the picture of patience. Sitting peacefully on the floor, he seems accustomed to Patner taking the public lead since the two met through mutual friends in 1997.

But Brantley is at no loss for words when praising Baltimore. The designers have a friend who lives near Mount Washington and have visited the city several times. "The whole city of Baltimore is such a tragic beauty," Brantley says. "We're totally fascinated with Baltimore."

Fascinated enough with the city's "faded gentility" -- essential to the Tuleh aesthetic -- to base a former season's collection on it. There are Wallis Warfield Simpson-inspired pieces, with lobster print and white silk chiffon. And a skirt called "Baltimore," white with blue checks, inspired by a piece they found in a Hampden thrift store.

The skirt may be thrift store inspired, but Tuleh doesn't have thrift store prices. The lowest prices hover around $300 for a top. Fork over up to $5000, and possibly more, for ball gowns, beaded pieces or fur coats.

From a rack near the kitchen, Brantley plucks a bright beaded skirt that would retail for at least $4,000. "I love this skirt," he says. "It's outrageously expensive and it's all hand done."

Patner bristles at his partner's description. "Is that outrageously expensive?" he asks defensively. "That's a lot of money," Brantley counters. "A down-payment on a car," Patner reasons. "I'd much rather have that skirt than have a car. You could go farther in that skirt."

If the outrageous little skirt were a car, it would be a flaming red Mustang Convertible. The fabrics are fine, the details painstaking, so Patner has little patience for complaints.

"There's a difference between clothes, fashion and style. They fill different places in a women's life," he says. "Everything's not supposed to be accessible. Banana Republic is brilliant and so is Old Navy, and that's a very different thing."

The studio has seen better days, particularly the kitchen, where Levine has been sent to update the Tuleh calendar. Dishes are stacked in the sink, rust has taken up permanent residence, and the ceiling features one big, funky hole.

"This happened on the day of spring 2000 show. I walked in here and it was totally flooded. Isn't that charming?" Levine says. "One day I swear we're going to come in here and Josh is going to be dead because the roof is going to fall."

Brantley used to live in this high-ceilinged space. He and Patner now share a Greenwich Village apartment.

Same studio, same apartment. Patner and Brantley don't get a whole lot of time apart from each other. Disagreements happen ... often.

But when their differences are in the professional rather than the personal arena, the clash of ideas can result in clothes that are just the right amount of Patner tempered with just the right amount of Brantley.

When there's a couture conflict, they assemble a mini jury of their most trusted, tasteful female friends -- editors, stylists, fashionistas -- for the tiebreaker. "Sometimes one of us has to admit that we're wrong," Brantley says. "It's painful," Patner groans.

When it's just the two of them doing the review, they become an instant Siskel and Ebert of style. They give two thumbs up to the lush, scarved beige number they've created, now hanging near the studio entrance. "It's such a blond girl look. It's sexy, it's rich looking," Brantley says.

"It's ridiculous," Patner says.

"It's ridiculous," Brantley concludes.

The Tuleh philosophy is, ridiculous isn't so ridiculous. Why not glam it up? Not just at night, but at work, too. Tuleh encourages women to enjoy the post-shoulder pad era. Take time getting ready, dress for different times of the day, the two suggest. "Women see these clothes and you can see the craving in their eyes," Patner says, "like a hunger for something feminine and pretty and delicious."

It's not oppressive, Patner says. It's a well-deserved throwback to a time when women -- whether prom-age or eighty -- could fuss over themselves without being labelled anti-feminist.

"It's all about being a connoisseur," Patner says. "We have a client who catalogs her wardrobe. It's on a Rolodex."

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