Women designers bring fresh ideas to menswear

Four women who design for men are enjoying considerable success with their innovative approaches to masculine fashion. Jhane Barnes creates suits, Vicky Davis makes neckties, Nancy Knox is best known for shoes, and Marsha Akins is a milliner. All currently live and work in New York City.

Since they invaded the male-dominated world of menswear design, their fresh ideas have chalked up a sizable customer following and an impressive number of accolades, with five Coty American Fashion Critics' awards among them. All are tuned in to the soft, easy trends of the '80s. They also emphasize quality, comfort, and function.

Both Jhane Barnes (she added the "h" for distinction) and Nancy Knox are totally involved in the design process of their rich, hand-loomed fabrics.

Miss Barnes, the youngest of the group and a graduate of the Fashion Institute of Technology, likes to blend unusual colors for a quietly kaleidoscopic effect. She dyes the yarns and weaves her own swatches, sometimes getting so absorbed in a job and working such long hours that she ends up sleeping the floor of her tiny home workroom.

Although her clothes are slated to be sold in England and West Germany, as well as stores like Saks Fifth Avenue and I. magnin in the US, she claims her operation is somewhat limited. Still, a $2 million projected volume this year is a creditable success.

"My father, a retired banker, looks so good in my clothes," she beams.

Although Nancy Knox started with shoes, getting her first experience at I. Miller, her goal always has been total wardrobing. So, for fall, she also applies her gentle touch to jackets, trousers, sweater, and fun headgear -- the kind of crushable hats a man can stuff in his pocket when not worn. All bespeak luxury, even the caps with names like "Flivver."

"Jackets are made in Ireland to my specifications," Ms. Knox says. "The wools are hand-loomed. I drove the Irish crazy when I wanted to combine tones like cranberry, lilac, and lemon yellow. Of course, the effect is subtle and tweedy, not gaudy at all."

"A special mentality is needed to do shoes," Ms. Knox says. "They must fit, because you can't alter them once they're made."

Hers are in buttery soft calfskin, buckskin, and baby lamb suede. The greatest compliment a man can give them is to say they feel like old shoes. She is also making boots for fall.

Marsha Akins turned a jobless situation in 1974 to a thriving business three years later. She can take some credit for the recent upsurge in hat-wearing among men.

Her company, Makins Hats Ltd., began when she started to block hats in the kitchen of her fourth-floor walk-up apartment. She baked them dry in her oven, stitched them on her home sewing machine, and added trims.

Although hats are now turned out in the Makins factory, they are still hand-blocked to preserve the softness and texture of fine fur felts. Colors are also dyed under supervision to maintain strict control over shadings.

"Ties are important in hard times when men can't afford to buy suits," says Vicky Davis, who started to shake up the staid neckwear industry with her "unserious" ties about 10 years ago.

Mrs. Davis called herself a "kooky middle-aged housewife" in Oak Park, Mich., before her necktie business took off like a rocket in the early '70s.

What spurred the haberdashery habit?

"It happened when i tried to find interesting ties for my husband. They all looked so much men must share the same frustration and boredom," Mrs. Davis says.

So she bought some nontraditional fabrics and gathered PTA friends in her basement to cut and sew ties. Her dream then was to become president of the Oak Park PTA. But when the first two dozen orders came in, followed by an order for five dozen more a few days later, thoughts of taking up the gavel vanished.

When tie orders became brisk, she moved to New York City, where her husband and two sons joined the business.

Although most of her fabrics come from France these days, the line, admittedly tongue in cheek at first, in offbeat fabrics, electric colors, and standard widths, took off when Mrs. Davis introduced her super-skinny ties, some measuring less than an inch. Today they're a trademark.

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