NEW YORK -- The Jhane Barnes revolution began the spring of '69 in the hallways of Cockeysville Junior High School.
The ninth-grader who would grow up to be one of America's leading menswear designers was a rebellious teen then, with a penchant for skin-tight shorts and a burning annoyance over the school policy barring girls from wearing pants. She stormed through the school, urging students to join her in protest, gave impassioned speeches at student council meetings and mailed letters to parents.
"I just felt that women should be able to wear anything they want," Barnes, now 46, says matter-of-factly from her chic, 20th-floor headquarters that overlook midtown Manhattan.
She won that first battle -- the school principal eventually changed the policy -- and some say Barnes hasn't stopped trying to revolutionize the fashion world ever since.
Today, Jhane Barnes -- who grew up "Jane" in Phoenix but added an "h" to her name in 1976 to make it seem less feminine -- heads a fashion, textiles and furniture empire that reeled in $104 million last year. Celebrities Magic Johnson, Dennis Miller and Billy Joel are among her fans, and her line is carried in such high-end stores as Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus. She currently has four stores in California, Arizona and Nevada and plans to have 20 throughout the country by 2004.
"I've known since I was a kid that I would be successful," says Barnes, whose dirty blond hair is in a sharp page-boy cut. "It's just not an option for me to fail."
While many admire the clean cuts of her suits and jackets, she's really made her mark with fabrics -- rich, multi-hued and textured patterns with wild zigzags, repeated blocks of color or artistic angular lines on ties, jackets and pants. Close up, Jhane Barnes' fabrics sometimes look like mesmerizing optical illusions. She often wears specially made shirts cut from her own fabrics. This time, she's topping a pair of black pants with a blouse featuring a pattern of maroon, brown and black bricks.
What's even more unusual is how she goes about creating these patterns. Although many designers sit with a sketchpad, Barnes' tool of choice is a Macintosh computer, on which she uses innovative software to apply complex mathematical equations in plotting her designs.
With help from a mathematician and physicist who created the software and act as consultants, she plays with numbers and equations to vary the wefts and weaves of her looms and clicks on her mouse to alter the colors. On a good day, she comes up with four or five new patterns and then e-mails them to those who work her looms. The designs are more complex than when she started out in 1979 and used graph paper to do her work.
"A lot of my inspiration comes from playing around on my computer," says Barnes, turning to her Macintosh to give a demonstration. "I sit down and go, 'Let's see, I wonder what this button means, I wonder what that button does.' There are all these combinations of how those threads interlock. There are hundreds of possibilities."
Barnes first got into fashion design because of her rebellious streak. Her father Richard was a banker and her mother Muriel was an elementary school teacher who made her daughter's clothes. Barnes loathed the patterns her mother picked so when she hit 6th grade, frustration drove her to take matters into her own hands.
"It was embarrassing," Barnes says, laughing. "I said to myself, 'I'd better learn how to sew. I started out with altering the patterns my mother made, and then I made a lot of hot pants. ... My father was fine with me wearing hot pants. He thought that wearing hot pants was better than wearing short skirts because you could bend over."
From there, she went on to bigger things. Barnes designed and made uniforms for her high school jazz dance band, using $500 from the principal to create 25 blue and black jumpsuits in two weeks. They were a hit at Dulaney Senior High School, and Barnes started her own small business after school, designing and making clothes for friends. At around the same time, she began taking "clothing" classes, which were part of girls' home economics curriculum at the time.
But even then, Barnes didn't consider a career in fashion design.
"I didn't even like clothing class," Barnes says, wrinkling her nose. "The girls would just sit around and talk about getting married and having babies."
Almost 30 years have passed since Ruth Robinette taught Barnes' clothing class, but the memories of her ace student remain vivid.
"Oh, she was difficult," Robinette says almost proudly. "We had certain projects we had to do but she always wanted to do something above and beyond that. She was very creative. She just had all these ideas, and she would learn to make them work."
Then Robinette dragged Barnes to Europe for a summer camp. They toured fashion houses Pucci, Yves St. Laurent and Pierre Cardin. By the end of the trip, Barnes had decided on a career in fashion and Robinette set about persuading her parents to enroll her in the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York after she graduated in 1972.
"We wanted her to have a good, general education," says her mother Muriel Berry, who remarried after her husband died and now lives in Gaithersburg. "We didn't want her to go to FIT. When you go to an institute of fashion, you have a lot of odd-looking people. That's just how creative people are. ... Fortunately, we were smart enough not to impose our will on her."
At FIT, she was already garnering praise and landing small orders for pants. But it was serendipity that gave Barnes her first big break.
A buyer for major retail stores in Manhattan spotted a friend of Barnes wearing a pair of her pants. They were light-green, made of pin-striped wool, with extra coin pockets in the front but no pockets in the back. ("It made your rear-end look nice," Barnes says. "I want to see a great butt. It's the best part!")
The buyer asked Barnes' friend to have her in his office the next morning so he could place an order for 100, and her ascent officially began.
In 1980, she was the youngest designer and first woman ever to win the American Fashion Critics' Coty Award for Menswear. These were the first of many fashion awards she would win over the next 20 years.
Her clothing today isn't inexpensive -- ties begin at $75 and jackets can go up to $650--- but many fans keep coming back.
Brian Boye, fashion director for the Daily News Record, the definitive menswear trade publication, says men like Barnes' clothes because she has a "very distinct look."
"There's a lot of sameness in men's fashion," Boye says. "There are a lot of people who look like other people but Jhane Barnes has always gone on her own path."
Richard Cohn, owner of Brooks Oliver, an upscale menswear store in Columbia Mall, began carrying Jhane Barnes about seven years ago.
"There's a Jhane Barnes customer that really understands the look of her clothes," Cohn says. "That's the guy that really comes in here and buys everything. Whatever she puts out, they look out for. He's a sophisticated dresser, one that really likes clothes and looks for better quality, better fabric and designs that you don't see elsewhere."
Fans of her clothing sometimes say they think it's cool that math figures into her designs -- which has made her an unlikely poster girl for mathematics. In a new textbook by Ohio Mathworks, a program aimed at helping ninth-graders see how they can use math in life, an entire chapter is devoted to Barnes, outlining how she uses equations to create her signature fabrics.
Barnes helped craft the 94-page lesson plan that accompanies her chapter, and she even speaks of mathematical equations with an unsettling passion.
In an e-mail about a carpet design she recently created, Barnes wrote about trying to find the exact angle she should rotate a pattern to achieve a certain look. She asked physicist Dana Cartwright whether he could help her alter the mathematical equation so she could solve it faster than she could by punching in different numbers and guessing.
"He couldn't see a mathematical way of accomplishing my task faster," she wrote. "It was an intuitive process that even the most accomplished mathematician couldn't have solved faster than me ... So wow, it was a cool revelation that sometimes we have to FEEL and SEE the math...not calculate it."
Barnes often speaks as effusively and openly about the other passions in her life, whether it's yoga, homeopathic medicine, her beloved dogs Genki, Aiko and Saki (who recently passed on) or her husband of 13 years, Katsuhiko Kawasaki.
Barnes and Kawasaki, 41, met on a 1983 trip she made to Japan, where his family-owned textile company were helping her develop fabrics. After her divorce from Howard Feinberg, who now remains chief operating officer of Jhane Barnes Inc., Barnes and Kawasaki began dating and married a year and a half later.
When Barnes lived in New York City, she would escape to Maryland on weekends to sleep and relax. She sought a similar retreat in New York when she remarried and settled an hour north of Manhattan in upscale, scenic Westchester County because it reminded her of her Maryland home. In Pound Ridge, where she and Kawasaki own a sprawling, wooded property, the couple likes to while away hours sipping Chardonnay or Sake by their large pond. Or they'll take their floating deck out on the water, throw some fish on the grill and talk.
In these quiet moments, Barnes sometimes gets impatient about doing "something good for the planet," like maybe start a homeopathic medicine or environmental science company. But for now, she's got new stores to open and production for her Spring 2001 collection to coordinate.
"Sometimes I get down on what I'm doing, and I think all I'm doing is making clothes," Barnes says. "Is that changing the world? Maybe in my next lifetime, I'm going to do that. I've got to make sure I remember."
Jhane Barnes' tips for men this fall:
* Buy a new suit.
"You know how boring suits have been? There's been such a shakeup in the suit industry. I just did so many cool suits this season that even my husband wants one, and he doesn't wear suits. And there are some very casual suits out there this fall. Women's wear has had more casual suits for a long time but men's wear really hasn't. Now men can go, 'Gee, I can buy this suit and wear it together or break it up and wear the jacket with another pair of pants.' "
* Check out sweater jackets.
They look just like sports coats except that they're made of a fine, knitted fabric.
"I think that's going to be a must-have. You can wear it on so many different occasions. It's dressy enough to go a restaurant. It won't wrinkle. That's one of the challenges of design today -- making items of clothing that will span all occasions."
* Try the versatile shirt cum jacket.
"Shirts are not just strictly shirts any more. There these stretch shirts that may look like a shirt and they have a shirt collar and button all the way but ... the fabric's a little bit thicker. You can wear it on top of a silk T-shirt or wear it open. It looks like you're wearing a jacket. That's the perfect thing for when you're working on Friday. It's certainly casual enough for a computer company or any company today and then after that you're ready to go to the movies."
-- Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan