Rubber Soul

New designer Julian Louie is at the crossroads of beach and


Consider the humble wetsuit. Made of neoprene, a synthetic rubber, it’s seen mostly on surfer dudes from Oahu, Hawaii, to Sydney, Australia. On the runway it has made rare if notable appearances through the years, in collections as diverse as DKNY and Balenciaga. And it’s making a comeback for spring 2009. Michael Kors sent out pieces with wetsuit-style piping, set to a soundtrack of the Beach Boys warbling “Good Vibrations.” If that weren’t enough of a sign that the seaside staple has once again ventured outside the surf shop en route to tonier territory, here’s another: In the hands of Santa Cruz, California, native Julian Louie, who showed his debut presentation of 15 looks during New York Fashion Week, neoprene went chic when tempered with dainty silk faille. Preserving the inspiration’s chunky plastic zippers but adding dry-land touches like peplums, ruffles, crystals and bugle beads, Louie crafted wares that won’t stand up to the waves—they are intended for more delicate pursuits. “It’s all about the tension between athletic seaming and precious baroque beading,” he explains.

Louie, who studied architecture at the Cooper Union in New York before veering into fashion, has a refreshing approach to his work. His starting point, he says, was growing up on the California coast—“the ocean, the light on the water.” He also cites the Giovanni Battista Tiepolo painting Perseus and Andromeda, which he saw at the Frick Collection, as another stimulus, one evidenced by his palette of pale pink, yellow and sea blue. But unlike so many young designers who break out clippings-bedecked boards and arcane allusions to describe their collections, Louie says, “I look at lots of different references, then try to forget them all and focus on the clothing itself.”

Louie got his start when Calvin Klein’s Francisco Costa chose to mentor him earlier this year for the Protégé Project, sponsored by Australian Wool Innovation Limited. The program allowed Louie, then employed as a design assistant at Calvin Klein, to show his clothes in Florence, Italy; Tokyo; and Sydney, and, better yet, to benefit from Costa’s expert tutelage. “He was at all of my fittings,” says Louie. “It was a real mentor experience.”

And while it remains to be seen if crystal-encrusted surf wear will play out in the real world, here’s a styling tip: These looks work better with Louboutins than with fins.