A Cut Above The Rest

Cutting-edge is the best way to describe fashion designer Elisa Jimenez--literally. On Valentine's Day a client, Moran Nadler, was squeezed into Jimenez's three-room apartment-studio to have her wedding dress made. Jimenez cleared away her daughter's toys to make space on the floor and crouched down to do a quick sketch. Then, scissors in hand, she began to drape $30 worth of stretchy white cotton on the future bride. She slashed and sewed up the one-of-a-kind gown with her trademark exposed seams and jagged edges directly on Nadler's body. In just over an hour, Nadler had not only her wedding dress but also a see-through, skin-hugging slip that Jimenez stitched up with transparent fishing wire on the spot to wear under it. "The underslip is my gift to you," the designer said, "for the honeymoon."

Jimenez's own honeymoon is just beginning. Last week her collection--titled "Cosmology in Flesh"--was the talk of the prestigious Designer Debut presentation at New York's Fall 2001 Fashion Week. "Jimenez may have stolen the show with her not-of-this-world clothes," said Fashion Wire Daily. Although her designs have been displayed for years at a New York art gallery--and she's built a cult following that includes Courtney Love, Jennifer Lopez and Cameron Diaz--she says she "felt like a debutante coming out" in front of the hundreds of editors and buyers at her first major runway show. Her timing was perfect. The opulent glamour of last season had morphed into a punk sensibility in the designs of Jimenez's much more famous colleagues last week. Jill Stuart's ruched tops, Daryl K's frayed hems and Helmut Lang's asymmetrical sleeves add up to a fall look that's decidedly deconstructed. Jimenez's wild, sexy, slashy designs--tea-soaked dresses with exposed seams, tops with disconnected sleeves and thermal pants with burned hems--seem to embody this revolutionary spirit taking over the runways.

Her clothes are not for the faint of heart. Neither is the way Jimenez, 36, does business. A single mom and one-woman operation, she cuts and sews all her clothes herself, usually designing literally on the backs of her clients. The native Texan moved to New York with a master's degree in fine arts, and started out as a sculptor "doing the East Village starving-artist thing." She staged performance-art exhibitions--for which she often created the clothing--at places like the Holly Solomon Gallery in New York. When women, including Solomon, expressed interest in buying her designs, Jimenez started her Hunger World line five years ago. "I was just making dresses here and there for friends," says Jimenez, who brings a sculptor's approach to shaping fabric. "Then Vogue writes about you, and suddenly you're making a living."

But Jimenez is ambivalent about commercial success. When she began selling her line in boutiques like SoHo's Kirna Zabete two years ago, co-owner Sarah Hailes had to prod her to put labels on her clothes. "I mean, I had to hand her a black Sharpie pen," says Hailes. "There were many other designers--I'll say it nicely--that were inspired by Elisa, but she was the original, and it was important to our customers to know they were buying the real thing." Now Jimenez signs her pieces, which sell for $195 to $695, but signs backward, so that her name is legible only in a mirror.

Whether she likes it or not, Jimenez realizes that continuing to grow means she has to let go of some of the needle-and-thread--and scissors--work. "The next evolution," she says, "is not being such a control freak that you get in your own way." Although she's turned down the offers so far, she is looking for a backer to help produce her clothes. And she's just completed her first denim line--sort of an Elisa Jimenez lite--that is more accessible and affordable. Still, Jimenez says she won't tidy up her work just to make it more commercial. "You want the cleaned-up version of me, go buy Donna Karan," she says. Jimenez is sticking with her unfinished business.