BY HER OWN DESIGN

THE BALTIMORE SUN

NEW YORK - Like many women in her native Haiti, Marie Claudinette Pierre sewed.

When her family moved to the United States, she still sewed but pushed aside dreams of designing clothes for a living and, instead, studied to become a doctor.

But the sewing was always there. She couldn't get away from it.

So she did the unthinkable for a daughter in a proud Haitian family. Going against her parents, she quietly changed her college major to fashion studies.

Several days ago, as Marie Claudinette Jean - now the wife of Grammy Award-winning musician Wyclef Jean - proudly walked the catwalk after unveiling her spring collection of exotic women's clothes during New York's Fashion Week, she was glad to be able to say she is not, and will never be, a doctor.

Under the famous fashion tents at Bryant Park, sharing space with such top industry names as Vera Wang, Oscar de la Renta and Carolina Herrera, the Pierres' oldest daughter is a fashion designer.

She sews for a living. Big time.

Jean's Fusha Designs was one of only two collections this season shown by a black woman under the elite tents. (Tracy Reese is the other.) Her clothes have been worn by such celebrities as Mary J. Blige, Kelly Price, Whitney Houston, Eve and Ja Rule.

After the unveiling of Jean's spring 2005 collection, actress Vivica A. Fox and Janice Combs, famous mom of hip-hop great Sean "P. Diddy" Combs, gushed about the lavender halter dresses, multicolored silk chiffon mini-dresses, and ocean-blue asymmetrical evening gowns with long slits. So much of the designs hark back to Jean's Caribbean roots.

Backstage, after the show, Combs, known for her own colorful style, said Jean's new collection is even better than last year's. (The line began in 2001.)

"The colors were very radiant," said Combs. "Very sexy and classy. That's what I like. I saw quite a few pieces ... for myself."

Combs, who is prone to over-the-top fashions, fit in well backstage, where the scene all night was high-energy, revved up in the way hip-hop concerts are. Women with big, wild hair roamed busily back and forth. Stylish assistants sipped gin and juice in carved-out orange halves.

Jean arrived in time to have long, acrylic nails applied to her fingers - and then inspected the Alice in Wonderland-like clothes that would soon be strutted down the runway, while rap music pounded, and other celebrity guests, such as Nicole Richie and Tyson Beckford, looked on.

Jean will continue to sell her clothes to her celebrity friends - many of whom she made through her husband - the same custom-order way she has for the last several years. But with this collection, she is hoping to sell her clothes commercially, and break in to a larger customer base.

She'll likely face some challenges.

Jean, who attended Montclair State University in New Jersey, says her designs are couture, meaning they are one-of-a-kind, made-to-order, extravagant and very expensive.

Other celebrity designers - including one of the most famous celebrity-designer wives, Kimora Lee Simmons of Baby Phat - launched their fashion careers with mainly casual wear. Sport shirts, sneakers and trendy skirts provide an easier, less-expensive entree into the designer business.

Jean intends to build up her dressier, formal-wear business, nurturing her love for hand-sewing beautiful clothes one item at a time.

"You don't find a lot of black designers doing all couture," said Jean, who's in her 30s. "But I love what I'm doing. It's like artwork to me."

Many of Jean's designs are like abstract art, with flamboyant shaping or details - suede paillettes, ruched backs, fringed hems, a jumpsuit with one sleeve.

"I know a lot of women, especially actors and actresses, even just regular people going to special events - weddings, the prom. Everybody wants something very different that no one else has," Jean said.

It was fortunate for Jean that her husband, Wyclef, could afford to back his wife's dream. But neither of them wanted to allow his fame to be a factor in her success. So, until recently, Wyclef avoided his wife's growing limelight.

"There's a whole lot of great black designers, but they don't make it to Bryant Park," said Wyclef, who came to fame as a member of the now-defunct group the Fugees, but now is a solo artist. "The money that you need to put a fashion show together, it's a whole lot of money. And what she's doing is something I've believed in for a long time. So I was happy to be able to help her. What we didn't want to do was capitalize on that [his fame]. So for her first two shows, I didn't even come out. I just funded it and let her do her [thing]. Now that she has the credibility on her own ... I can come out."

Before the spring show - Jean's fourth Fashion Week showing - Wyclef performed a solo on a yellow guitar. After the show, he walked with his wife down the runway, and picked her up in his arms when they reached the end.

The couple, who met at a New Jersey bus stop nearly 17 years ago - when Claudinette was in pre-med and Wyclef was singing in his father's church and performing in a rap-and-R&B; group called Exact Change - celebrated their 10-year anniversary last month at their home in New Jersey. Their love is "that high school, college, forever romance," Wyclef said. "To me, she's just my girl from high school."

That "forever love" inspired this season's collection, she said. She wants women who buy her clothes to feel romantic, sexy, in love.

"Every season, she gets better," Wyclef said. "I love the elegance. I love the fact she says no matter who you are, she's going to make you look good. And I love it that she's real. When you go in her showroom, she's there in the back. She's knitting. She's sewing."

Despite her husband's lavish praise, she says she is not one to get by on being his wife - even though many will say her buzz comes primarily from his fame and his money.

"The fact that she's Wyclef's wife definitely helps, but she does not want his help," said rapper Foxy Brown, who was at the show. "We have to beg her, 'Claudinette, can we perform for you? Can we help?' She always says 'no.' She wants to do this herself. She went to school and she studied. I just admire her tenacity."

Though she has a staff of mainly family members, Jean says she'll likely never get away from hand-sewing; it's a love that reminds her of and connects her to her mother and father's country.

Even the name of the collection is a tribute to her heritage. Her father, Eric D. Pierre, named his first daughter after a Haitian beauty queen - Claudinette Foushard, a woman who, Jean says, "was in a lot of fairy tales for men in Haiti."

From "Foushard," Jean derived the simpler "Fusha," which is reminiscent of the bright purplish hue fuchsia - a mind-association trick Jean doesn't mind, because her clothes are often eye-popping.

The name reminds her of her mother, aunts and uncles, whose hands grew rough with sewing.

"Here in America, it's a profession; but for us [in Haiti], it was necessary," she said.

Today, Jean's sewing, like her privileged life, is more about luxury. Her dresses are chiffon and silk-spun dreams. But necessity is still a part of why Jean does what she does for a living.

She needs to sew. She loves it.

"It does feel good being a black woman doing this," she said. "I remember when I was in school, and I was the only [black person] in my classes. But I wasn't intimidated. Even when I was a pre-med major, I was always doing the shows. I was always trying to be a model myself, which I was too short for. But I knew I was going to do this one day. I always knew I was going to make clothes."

Marie Claudinette Jean

Occupation: Fashion designer and founder of Fusha Designs

Age: "In my 30s"

Birthplace: Haiti

Resides: New Jersey

Spouse: Grammy Award-winning musician Wyclef Jean

Children: None

Spotted in her clothes: Mary J. Blige, Kelly Price, Whitney Houston, Eve, Ja Rule

Celebrity guests at her most recent fashion show: Foxy Brown, Vivica A. Fox, Janice Combs, Nicole Richie, Lizzie Grubman

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