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Crazy ideas, stitched together beautifully

Adam Arnold paces his Portland fashion studio revved up on ideas.

Rail thin with red hair and skinny arms that seem to propel him about the room, he grabs a bolt of dark blue fabric from the wall, rolls it out on a high table.

He traces a pattern, lifts a huge pair of scissors and cuts out a sleeve. Words tumble out.

There was this motion machine, he says, at the science museum when he was a kid, and he'd watch the balls roll up, down, around and even upside down; and then there's that guy --what's his name? --who engineered geodomes; and in mathematics, that three-dimensional shape that is one-dimensional.

"You don't know what a Mobius is?" he asks, surprised but polite.

He cuts a long, narrow, strip of paper, twists it once and tapes the ends together. He places the tip of a pen on the paper and, without lifting the point, draws a single, continuous line to show how the mark appears on the outside, inside, top and bottom: "A three-dimensional object with one side."

He gestures with the giant scissors, so animated it seems he might accidentally trim his neat red beard. Or worse. He darts across the room, bends over a plastic crate on the floor and rummages. Clothes fly. He can't find what he wants. He digs through a second box then turns abruptly to snatch a navy blue sleeveless dress from a metal rack. He thrusts it forward. The front of the garment forms an intriguing shape.

"The Mobius dress," he says.

A blur of ideas

Arnold, 35, designs remarkable clothes. His Mobius dress has what appears to be a never-ending knot at the neckline. A man's sweater vest features keyhole cutouts. Yet another dress consists of dozens of octagonal shapes of fine charcoal-gray wool. Hundreds of tiny seams give it unique, yet classic, style. The inside looks like a jewel-toned honeycomb, the pieces lined in multiple colors.

Most designers try to solidify ideas, gathering magazine pictures, sketches and photos to create storyboards that help sharpen their focus. Arnold works the opposite way. His ideas blur. They flash bright one second, disappear into darkness the next. He follows one. It leads to another. Like running after fireflies with a tattered net, the fun for him is in the chase.

"I try to be influenced by art, music, dreams, random ideas, colors, fabrics, texture, construction --but not fashion," he says. "That just seems incestuous to me."

Arnold is perhaps Portland's most creative clothing designer. His garments aren't sold in stores; rather he works from his studio sketching ideas, developing patterns and stitching every piece himself. He creates made-to-measure and one-of-a-kind pieces by appointment only.

The quality of the construction is high. His prices reflect that. His octagon dress starts at $800; in New York, customers might pay $2,000 for such a garment. Being in a fashion capital could help put him on a national stage; the number of clients for custom clothing is smaller in Portland. But here, Arnold enjoys an aesthetic freedom. His clients are often creative types --photographers, graphic designers, filmmakers --willing to spend more money on clothing that is unique and handmade.

For 10 years, he's survived solely on his designs, slowly building a business without loans or debt.

"The first five was the kind of design you don't want to do; upholstery, costumes for plays, kids' hats --all to survive," he says. "You are hungry, you have a bill, you have to figure out something to make. It was a constant state of survival."

He lives modestly. His inner-Southeast Portland apartment is a low-budget, unstylish '70s vintage. He shares his nearby studio with a photographer friend. He doesn't own a car.

"You'll see him riding his bike around town," says Kate Towers of Seaplaneboutique, "with a big bolt of fabric on his back."

Sue Bonde, an instructor at the Art Institute of Portland, says, " Adam could make a lot of money doing technical stuff. But he would be miserable.

"He's the type who would sleep among the pins and the fabric, just to make sure he was able to say something" through his clothes.

What he tries to say is abstract and difficult to define --"I'm super philosophical!" he adds, laughing --but looks beautiful.

Portland milliner Dayna Pinkham first saw Arnold's designs in a group fashion show and knew immediately his were special. "He challenges himself with sewing techniques," Pinkham says, "And he is really pushing ideas."


Misfit and tailor made

Growing up in Kelso, Wash., Arnold was always chasing kooky ideas. Other kids made fun of him.

There was his Oregon Trail phase, at about age 10, when he created a covered wagon, prairie dress and pioneer bonnet for his older sister, pulled her to school and hitched the wagon to the bicycle rack.

Then there was the corset he made from cardboard, wire and an old pillowcase. He wore it cinched tight beneath his clothes, hidden until he became dehydrated and feverish by day's end. During his Little Boy Blue period, he made velvet knickerbockers and wore them to school. The principal called him to the office.

"He said, 'Your pants are causing a disturbance,' " Arnold recalls.

When his family moved to Vancouver, Arnold decided it was his chance to be normal.

"I vowed to wear only navy blue and brown and gray; no bright colors," he says.

Kids made fun of him anyway.

"That's when I realized, it wasn't my clothes," he says, "it was me."

The idea sent him into free-fall. And then, simply set him free.

Because he could never fit in, he would do what he pleased.

In the discomfort zone

Arnold attended the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in San Francisco. When an internship turned to a job offer, he dropped out to work forKoret of California. He stayed two years honing his technical skills. The job offered stability, but Arnold longed for the kind of creative challenges that set him off-kilter.

Whenever he visited friends and family in Portland, he felt his creativity spike.

"It was distressing that I was feeling inspired in Portland," he says. "I never wanted to come back here."

The more affordable cost of living drew him. He found a creative community, an early outlet for his designs at Seaplane and supportive customers, such as Miriam Elman.

Elman's daily trip on the No. 15 bus to her job as a Multnomah Countyepidemiologist took her past Arnold's studio. "Every time I would pass," she says, "I would notice something amazing in the window."

When she finally ventured inside she was, she says, astonished. That every item was made by Arnold himself convinced her, even on a relatively modest salary, to have something made. She's since had several pieces made, including a dress with coordinating shorts so she can ride her bicycle. For her brother's wedding she served, she says "as best man," so had Arnold make her a tuxedo-style dress.

" Adam synthesizes a lot of disparate things. He's one of the few people I've had a complete range of conversation with," she says, "from buttonholes to bacteria."

They both like abstractions and paradoxes, and she's intrigued by how he intentionally explores colors, fabrics or styles that initially repulse him, forcing himself to find the aesthetics in the ugly.

"It's like picking a pattern out of the chaos," she says. "How do you synthesize all the ideas you are seeing into creation?"

That's the appeal for Arnold.

"It's the process of having an idea and figuring out how to bring it to life, to manifest it," he says. "That could be sewing or any kind of three-dimensional stuff. I gravitated toward sewing because it was hands on and accessible."

"It is," he says, "like a tight form of sculpture."

His father and grandfather are map-makers, and Arnold sometimes imagined himself as an engineer type. Clients often comment that Arnold's clothes are "engineered" to his classic yet modern aesthetic, admiring his construction and finishing.

Christy Klep, a portrait photographer who shares studio space with Arnold, recalls wearing one of his blouses.

"He walked over and just tied it in a perfect bow," she says. "I thought, you know, I'm not going to even try. I'll just put on clothes, come down here and you can style me."

Inspired by dreams

Ideas often come to Arnold in dreams, he says, mixed-up memories and fragments, and he tries to give them shape.

In the past year, pressed to make a little white dress for a fashion show, he drew on one of the most disturbing images from his youth.

A friend was showing him around his house when Arnold heard an eerie moaning sound. "At first, I thought I imagined it," Arnold says.

Then came more cries, unmistakable this time.

Said the friend, "Oh, that's my sister. Do you want to meet her?"

Arnold followed his friend to the basement. There in a bed, flanked by nurses, lay a limp little girl on a ventilation machine.

"Tubes and wires coming out of her everywhere," Arnold recalls. "And the way she was dressed! Like a precious princess kept alive for other people's needs."

The image, disturbing and beautiful, haunted him. The memory randomly surfaced and disappeared. Almost 20 years later, faced with the challenge of the girl's dress, Arnold said he had a vivid dream about the child.

"We all have reactions to things. Whether it's a reaction of love or hate, or can't-stand-look-at-it-repulsive, those are strong emotions, and I think they all hit the same place in your body," he says. "And that is where all the inspiration or juices are."

At the show, Arnold and another man dressed in gray trench coats and ties walked onto the stage carrying a large black box. They unlatched and opened the doors. Curled inside the red padded interior was a small girl. She appeared limp and pale attached to a tangle of tubes and IVs. She wore an exquisite white silk dress with a scalloped hem embellished with tiny pompoms, and a glove-leather white corset with tiny heart cutouts worthy of a princess.

"Creative expression is the best therapy," he says.

He'll cut up a gaudy stripe fabric, meticulously matching up stripes to create a complicated graphic dress. He'll create neck piece to wear instead of a tie. Or puzzle over how to engineer a reversible jacket from a single layer of fabric with pouch pockets on both sides.

As soon as he figures it out, he stirs it up again.

"I don't think it is wise to be satisfied for too long," he says. "Nothing new comes out of satisfaction."

Vivian McInerny: 503-294-4076; vmcinerny@news.oregonian.com.

Adam Arnold
727 S.E. Morrison St.
Portland, OR 97214
503-234-1376
Adam Arnold online

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