Intelligent Design

Tattoos and couture collide in the work of these fashion designers. Some are upand- coming and some have already come up, but they all stay true to their art with designs that are irreverent, witty, and anything but ordinary.

Matt Booth – Room 101
Matt Booth, a Los Angeles-based jewelry designer and former Marine, twice deployed to the Far East, now finds his muse in the Japanese theater. His masculine line Room 101 is heavy on thick chains, locks, gargoyles, and faces from Japanese theater. And tattoos of Fu temple guards watch over his body as they do the Great Buddha back in Japan.

Booth’s jewelry has its roots in what he calls “The L.A. silver soap opera,” a name he coined for a cliquey small group of local jewelry designers. “When I first moved to Hollywood, I was working at the Whiskey as a sound engineer. I was meeting designers, and I became obsessed with the idea, so I began making my own [jewelry].” Combining his Far East influence and love for music into his designs, Booth’s work has been spotted on everyone from Chuck Liddell to members of Cypress Hill and Coal Chamber. Room 101 is sold online, but Booth also has showrooms in L.A. and Japan. “I go back to Japan a lot, and there’s this massive movement of silver freaks who will literally stand in line so I can engrave their pieces. They really get it over there.”

“My roots are in the L.A. silver world, but … there’s a cap with silver, and I’m already doing so much more,” he explains. These days, Booth favors pricier materials and crafts his still-masculine pieces with platinum, rose, white, and green gold, and lots of stonework.
“When people limit their influence, they limit their output,” says Booth. “The more well rounded you are, the more you can produce.” As he continues to shift his style, the tattooed guards on his body will also expand. Jack Rudy did his sleeve while he was in the service, and Robert Atkinson did a Fu guard on his forearm. “Next, I’m going to do my entire carcass,” he says.

Agatha Blois – New York City Custom Leather
Dubbed the “First Lady of Leather,” Agatha Blois has custom-fit her garb to every punk, rock, and pop god under the sun, from Slash to Billy Idol to the Shakira and J. Lo set. And this designer got her start early. “I’ve always said I started designing when I was 19, but recently I remembered that when I was 9, I used to make my grandma trace me on the floor, like I was a pattern,” Blois says. “I never wore clothes I bought, except for this one pair of Levi’s, which I wore until my grandma made me throw them away. So I guess I’ve been at it since then.”

Lately, she’s feeling a bit more introspective about her career. “Every day I’m thinking, ‘Aren’t I really an artist? Can’t I just make art? But when I think of art I don’t think of just paintings … I dream of doing interiors and furniture as well as clothing.”

She’s already branched out with a fragrance called Carnival Wax, whose mascot, “Ol’ Rudy,” is a skeleton man donning a top hat. The packaging is gothic French Quarter. And the smell itself? When asked to describe it, rather than rattling off top notes, she reads a poem written by her dear friend Blackie Pagano: “Ol’ Rudy drove the carriage … the smell of greasepaint, wild beasts, sugary treats, western saddles, and burning gypsy witch candles, old damp canvas, through Spanish moss and Southern groves of orange and peach, on dirt, on asphalt, on an African priestess in Brooklyn in 1965, her black leather panties in his liquored hand … If I could only bottle these bright beauties and blinding evils.” Sounds intoxicating.

J Smith – Esquire Millinery

Justin Smith creates hairstyles, but he’d rather be covering them up. The hair stylist turned hat designer received a master of arts degree from the Royal College of Art in London in 2007. Before that, he’d spent six years cutting hair for Toni & Guy, dabbling in hats on the side. “For me, millinery was really a hobby that spiraled out of control.”

Smith’s debut collection, “Dance with Me,” was an homage to ballroom scenes of the ’20s and ’30s. The vibe of his runway show was all sepia tones, feathers, and literary ephemera—basically, dashingdudes in suspenders and dandy pants who looked like they’d leapt out of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel. The designs grow from the raw materials he uses, like rabbit fur, felt, calfskin, and gold leather,and it’s all served up with vintage trimmings that make his work cohesive.

His most recent showpiece, “Creatures,” which will debut in Japan, features five animals. “It’s space age … sort of tribal in reference,” he explains. He’s used a coyote jawbone, a baby alligator, an ibis skull, as well as some peacock wing feathers. But don’t banish Smith to the taxidermy museum just yet. His work can be quite matrimonial, and he recently outfitted a Gothic bride with a black beaded headpiece.

Asked about his tattoos, he utters a nearly inaudible, “Oh, dear,” before describing his work at largely leaning toward the “biomechanical,” with influence drawn heavily from Swiss surrealist H.R. Giger. Now Smith is looking for an investor. If you’re interested in financing a lovely hat shop for him in SoHo, London, he’s game. He’d finally be able to leave haircuts behind. Until then, check out Justin’s hats at Henri Bendel in New York and the posh Maria Luisa in Paris.

Ali Barone – Lipstick Prophets

On September 11, 2001, Ali Barone, the
Buffalo-raised designer behind the Lipstick
Prophets, was living in downtown New York City. Two days later she was barreling across the country in a borrowed 1983 Jaguar XJS with a Chevy engine. She drove all the way to Los Angeles and never looked back. “It was a nightmare. I jumped in my roommate’s amazing Jaguar. I didn’t have a driver’s license, but I dumped 35 pairs of shoes in the trunk, found a map, and drove the whole way. I never thought anything through. It was just‚ ‘I’m getting off this fucking island.'”

When she got to L.A., Barone started working in fashion for Agatha Blois. “I was her assistant for a couple of years and learned so much,” Barone says. After that, she started the Stiletto Killers Tshirt line with a partner before eventually branching out on her own. Her brand, Lipstick Prophets, made its mark with saucy T-shirts and hoodies that say things like “Property of Fuck U. Athletic Dept.”

“My new season is going to be a more high end collection,” explains Barone, who also hosts an Internet radio show called “Leave Your Weave” on In fact, music shapes a lot of what Barone is currently creating. “I’ll be listening to music and then this transfer happens. I visualize myself in the outfit, enjoying the song, and the song becomes an outfit.” Expect to see “a lot of British inspiration” in Barone’s newest designs, which include old-school late-’70s looks, “with that dirty feel,” as well as some ’80s inspired pieces like a bright satin jacket.

Says Barone of her future, “If I think about something for too long, then I’m too scared and I’m not doing it. Fear is so debilitating. You have to stop thinking and just do it.”

Adriane Errera – Lucky Girl HandbagsCruising the website for Adriane Errera’s Lucky Girl Handbags is a little like walking down a boardwalk during military R&R. Young recruits should be spilling out of tattoo shops, sore from their first “I [Heart] Mom” tattoo. There’s the pirate girl and nautical star wallets, panther bags, and leather belts.

Errera, from Long Island, has lived in Long Beach, CA, for the last six years. She works out of a shop in her backyard making very small runs of layered leather goods that include handbags, bands, and wallets. Although her work uses “a lot of tattoo flash” as of late, it’s leaning more toward the feminine. “I’m trying to get away from all the young stuff and do more adult designs,” she explains. Lately she’s been exploring Asian imagery, including a “geisha ghost” and koi fish. She’s also collaborating with other artists. Jim McLeod, a former tattoo artist who lost his eyesight but is still painting, created the geisha ghost girl while Erik McLeod designed the koi fish.
“I’m also getting more interested in using recycled and repurposed leather. I’m doing the ’70s patchwork thing in a more modern, edgy way. The way I work is still primitive. I screen print the image in black and then hand-paint the art before it’s sewn down like an appliqué,” she explains.

Errera has managed to bridge her early harderliving single days with a more domestic lifestyle of marriage and motherhood, but getting tattooed is still important to her. Brad Schneider, of 454 Tattoo in Encinitas, CA, is working on a large piece that’s similar in style to her new direction in fashion. “I have some Japanese flowers with flames and pin striping, and a tiger with peonies around it.” And her work? “It’s getting more sophisticated, but there’s still a child-like whimsical twist to everything.”

Tod Waters and Giuliana Mayo “I’m a bit more clean and Tod’s a bit dirtier,” Giuliana Mayo begins, speaking about her Junker Designs business partner of more than five years, Tod Waters. Dirty’s good, especially when it comes to their latest project, creating tour designs for Mötley Crüe.

Mayo and Waters, who both moved to L.A. in 2000, say fashion was an accident (Waters was a tattooist for a decade in Houston, and Mayo studied theater in Florida.) Their motus operandi is making custom-fitted leather and denim, and their vibe is Mad Max with a vintage twist. “Our stuff is super, super dirty,” says Waters. “We mutilate most of it. We sand it, we do lots of treatments on it. … Each piece definitely has a life and a story.”

Some of the recurring images that set their clothing apart from other like-minded designers, such as old airplanes and bombs, stem from Waters’ obsession with World War II. “The Germans had these Stuka dive bombers that used to annihilate the Pols, and they called these airplanes Junkers,” he explains. Enter the name.

“We want to expand, but not hugely,” says Mayo. “We don’t want to become Von Dutch or Affliction, or, God forbid, Ed Hardy. In this time of mass production, we want to keep things made in America, and keep our quality. … We have plenty of competitors who [manufacture] their stuff in Bali, but it doesn’t have the soul.” Waters adds a refreshing twist to Mayo’s ethos: “When you die, you’re not taking your money with you. The greed that we see here in L.A. knows no bounds. It’s really messed up. In Texas, … people put you in your place.”Of this ethically minded twosome, Waters is the tattooed one. “I have a lot of bad ones,” he says. “On my bicep, there’s something that’s supposed to be mufflers, but it looks like something out of Looney Tunes … And I have some crappy skulls. The good ones are done by Richard Stell, who I worked with in Houston at a place called Scorpion Tattoos.”

“We were both always into stuff that wasn’t mainstream,” says Mayo. “Everything from the subcultures we were attracted to has gone into our clothes. Our jeans? They don’t look like Levi’s, that’s for sure.”

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