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Cult Fashion

There is nothing the prolific dress designer Christina MacColl is afraid to wear—or sew

Designer Christina MacColl in her home studio in downtown Santa Cruz. PHOTO: KEANA PARKER

If anyone could turn the color orange into a visual statement both subtle and sophisticated, it’s fashion designer Christina MacColl. Even the front door of her cozy Craftsman bungalow is painted orange, I notice, as the dressmaker guides me through the spacious back garden and into her sewing studio.

MacColl took up sewing a while back at the suggestion of her sister, and became expert enough to now enjoy a Bay Area cult following for her bold coats and dresses. MacColl’s hallmark is her surprising choice of upholstery fabric.

“I like to work with patterns,” she explains, as we make our way through her laundry storage area filled with dresses and coats hanging from zippered bags. MacColl’s clientele grew as people began stopping her on the street and asking where she got the clothes she was wearing.

“They asked where they could buy them,” she laughs. MacColl now shows her work with artisan colleagues of the Look Collective twice a year in Santa Cruz, and takes orders year-round from her expanding fanbase.

“I shop at Hart’s [Fabric] and wherever I travel,” says the seamstress, freshly returned from two weeks in Cuba. Bins of antique buttons and rainbows of thread decorate her tidy studio. “Portland has good fabric stores,” she reveals. “In San Francisco, I go to Britex for buttons—I love buttons. Or to Satin Moon on Clement,” she adds. My eyes enjoy the sight of giant carved deco-style buttons, the Bakelite kind my Auntie Da used to sew onto her swing jackets.

“Usually I make one-of-a-kind pieces. I want them to be distinctive, unique,” she says.

The studio, whose central work table was custom-made for the statuesque seamstress, is lined with sewing counters. Her equipment arsenal includes the workhorse Pfaff, a Serger—“to finish edges”—and, most recently, an industrial sewing machine for working with leather.

“Buttonholes are the trickiest thing,” she confides to me. As a lifelong amateur seamstress, I can relate. “I love to use big buttons.”

“If I wanted to sell my stuff in San Francisco or Carmel, I could charge twice as much,” MacColl says. But she wants her clothing to be accessible to everyone. “I look at clothing in stores these days,” she says, raising her impeccable eyebrows. “The prices!”

Born in Philadelphia and raised in South Jersey, MacColl is one of five sisters. She graduated from UMass with a degree in literature, but says she didn’t want to teach. “I was a jock, and I didn’t tap into my creativity until late,” she grins. (Her coral lipstick is perfection.) “My first girlfriend came out here for Five Branches in the mid-’80s and I came with her,” she says.

Fashion design beckoned, but unable to afford an art school education, MacColl settled on Wayne’s College of Beauty in downtown Santa Cruz. As a hair stylist at Jillz Hair Design Studio for many decades, MacColl is her own best model. “My clients see what I’m wearing, and they want me to make them something.” Word of mouth does the rest.

“I’m excited by interesting clothing. Always coats. I bought upholstery for coats, and lots of buttons,” she says. “I make lined things in winter, and loose drapy cottons in the summertime.”

MacColl believes there’s no rhyme or reason to what sells, but likes to push her clients beyond their usual attire. “I don’t have much black in my collections,” she says. “I think people don’t think they can dress up here in Santa Cruz. But every day I dress for myself. I think you can be comfortable in these clothes. I’m not afraid to wear anything.”

A dog lover, MacColl says that her animals and her sewing are what keeps her going. “I watch basketball while I sew,” she says, laughing, and claims she never gets sick of fabric.

“The best thing is hearing how a client enjoys wearing a piece I’ve made,” MacColl says. “I always like to try new patterns, or bring back old favorites—no rhyme or reason. When I first started I was really into vintage. The ’50s fabrics have great texture and pattern.”

MacColl went to Paris for the first time a few years ago. Good buttons in Paris.

“I have a sister in London—so I’m looking forward to seeing about fabric and buttons there,” she says. Radiant in a sundress of her own construction, MacColl is enjoying a bit of down time from dressmaking. “Right now I don’t have a show in front of me,” she says. “It’s good, because I have some ideas for leather that I want to explore. Sometimes you need time just to let things materialize.” We both grin. I take another close look at the dress she’s wearing. Custom.


INFO: Christina MacColl, Grant Designs. Email [email protected] to be added to her mailing list.

 

Christina Waters was born in Santa Cruz and raised all over the world (thanks to an Air Force dad), with real-world training in painting, music, winetasting, trail running, organic gardening, and teaching. She has a PhD in Philosophy, teaches in the Arts at UCSC and sings with the UCSC Concert Choir. Her new book 'Inside the Flame'

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