Gei Chan: Rickrack and Tambourines
Designer Gei Chan's dresses seemed bizarre at first, with styles pulled from Russian folk costumes and medieval princess gowns, then dipped into a smorgasbord of trims and patterns: quilting, rickrack, piping, ruffles, braids, ribbons, swirling upholstery textiles, calicos, and various plaids situated shockingly together. But the accepted fashion aesthetic shifted rapidly, and Gei's work for Gunne Sax came to embody the early-1970s San Francisco urban-hippie scene that enchanted everyone everywhere. Women paired the looks with long parted hair and knee-high leather boots, then walked around inside songs full of chimes and acoustic guitars and tambourines.
A couple of these vintage designs are on display at the Wing Luke Museum's Fashion: Workroom to Runway exhibit, and Gei, now residing in Seattle, recalls her professional relationship to owner and lead designer Jessica McClintock, the hot-shit fashion-empire millionaire whose career began at Gunne Sax. Jessica had been a grade-school teacher before falling into the business, with no real apparel-industry experience (aside from being "intrigued by the sound of the sewing machine and the smell of fabric," she told Maria Wilhelm of People). "She could not draw at all," says Gei, and because Jessica was also limited in construction and pattern-making skills, she designed standing over a table, arranging combinations of fabrics into garment-shaped forms for Gei to understand and appropriate into our functional world.
In addition, Gei developed trillions of her own ideas for the label, although Jessica never acknowledged her design team in interviews. Perhaps she was too focused on projecting herself as a ridiculous asshole. People describes her as a woman of "frothy tea gowns and lavender prose," who floats through the marble rooms and Italianate gardens of her opulent mansion: "'I imagine myself lying here reading Emily Brontë,' she whispers, stretched out on a cream-colored chaise." And: "'I see rooms filled with dancers in beautifully flowing, ethereal dresses,' she says dreamily, 'waltzing, moving like fading shadows.'"
Gei, meanwhile, continued busting out loads of beautiful clothes for Jessica, though after many years, she broke away from the garment business and appeared regularly as an extra in a string of delightfully "crummy movies." Her activities—fake-crying at a fake funeral, fake-reading a magazine while fake-riding a bus—occurred in the presence of low-grade celebrities. There was one interactive scene with Chuck Norris, who paused in the midst of chasing a fake perpetrator as Gei shook her head and pointed him in the fake proper direction: "He was very short. He was really creepy, too. I tried not to make eye contact."
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