There’s a special corner of the fashion world reserved for the sponges; those whose sketches, plans and designs are dictated by what they absorb from their cozy world of inspiration. They drink in the scenery, the places and the soirees that color their surroundings and channel it into something so tactile and true that it looks like it grew from the ground.
Trina Turk lives in the mod, sun-drenched part of that corner known as Palm Springs. Every nail polish, dress or piece of upholstery she designs is sophisticated, but infused with the colors of California and the ease of a poolside cocktail party. Her 17-year-old eponymous line is as much a reflection of California as it is of Turk herself and it couldn’t be any other way. “Everything we do is inspired by California,” she says. Which is why, in a beautiful way, it is ironic that one of her biggest accomplishments to date happened 3,000 miles away from her beloved home state.
Turk pulled off her first New York Fashion Week presentation on Feb. 10 in the Box in Lincoln Center. The “experiment,” as she calls it, capped off a banner year that saw a wildly successful partnership with Banana Republic and an eighth namesake store getting ready to open in Atlanta. Turk has done editor presentations in the past, but this was her first for fashion week. With wholesale receipts topping $50 million and a clear ideology, why mess with success?
Turk aims to modernize her brand, make it more visual, and communicate the internationally recognized idea of California to all. “We want to do everything, to manufacture it ourselves, from shoe to handbags and sunglasses,” she says.
California as much handicaps her clothing line as it does breathe life into it. “The west coast is great, but it’s out of the loop from New York City, the fashion capital of the world,” Turk muses. “Sometimes, being based out of Los Angeles, I feel we’re out of sight and out of mind. This year, I decided to step it up and participate.”
Her trial and error-rooted decision to dredge up some California real estate and set up shop in Lincoln Center to show off her fall collection is classic Turk.
She studied apparel design at University of Washington in Seattle, which she remembers as “not a hotbed for fashion design studies,” but was at least where she met husband and Trina Turk co-founder Jonathan Skow. After graduation, she worked for various designers like Brittania Jeans for 12 years before giving her own line a go in 1995.
“I thought I knew everything I needed to know, but I definitely did not. I knew nothing about financing—like what a factor is.” She recalls her time “alone with some bolts of fabric” as exciting, albeit unfocused. “When first started designing, I thought too narrow, I didn’t consider the directions I could go in.”
“What I envisioned was a small clothing collection,” she says. “I designed clothes I wanted to wear that were very Southern California. I did want a national or international brand, but I couldn’t have expected how the brand has evolved to other categories organically.”
Though her plan was idealistic at best, the journey has flavored her designs with the enthusiasm of someone realizing how well the machinery works–her success is best described as a happy surprise. She opened her first store in Palm Springs in 2002 and now has seven standalone boutiques, a menswear collection designed by her husband called Mr. Turk, and partnerships spanning from St. Regis Hotels and Resorts to Schumacher, for whom she is planning a third collection of indoor/outdoor upholstery fabrics for summer 2014.
“My prints and colors lend itself to interiors, exteriors and swimwear, they made it easy to transition,” she says of her unexpectedly large umbrella of Trina Turk-branded merchandise. “My core concept, even with this new fall line, is very similar to what we were doing 17 years ago, but now it’s more sophisticated, thanks to my great team of producers, stylists, casting directors, and everyone else.”
That team is what makes the presentation run like clockwork. Her husband, clad in a gray plaid suit and giant black-framed thick-lensed glasses, adjusts the curtains and greets press and buyers as Trina smiles from underneath her Louise Brooks bob and bangs and warmly mingles with well-wishers. Jonathan is Director of Inspiration for Trina Turk, a fashion stylist-cum-photographer that shoots for lookbooks and e-commerce, casts models and scouts locations. They have no children; the label is their baby. Trina describes them both as “picky,” a couple that talks constantly about styling and pieces and travels far and wide for inspiration, always together. She is calm amidst the hectic preparations, crediting much of the operation to her team.
“My motto is don’t take yourself too seriously—it’s a business, it’s serious, but fashion and technology and colors and patterns is also a lot of fun,” she says.
She describes her brand as optimistic, and markedly influenced by the geometric midcentury architecture of Palm Springs, the label’s holy land of sorts.
Turk’s placid exterior hides an industrious work ethic and vivid creative streak that dictates every last thread of the line. She grew up as a middle child in a home life that exactingly foreshadowed her future career. Her father was a discriminating clotheshorse who shuttled his family around the west coast. “He was interested in seeing the natural grandeur of California—Yosemite, Monterey, Carmel, the beaches, the mountains,” Turk says. Her mother, whose Japanese heritage informs much of Trina’s multicultural prints and colors, made her clothes, Christmas decorations, drapes and taught Turk to sew when she was 11.
“Making things is something I grew up with. I was raised thinking that it’s perfectly natural to express your creativity.”
It’s the art of expression that excites Trina the most. She names the opening of her first store, designed by Albert Fey, as her breakthrough. “It was exciting to my present designs in an environment designed to do so. Seeing it in other stores is sort of deflating, when you see it on hangers, not in a congruent space with your patterns, and mixed in with clothes from other designers.” Her stores are as sunny as her demeanor–she specifically chose her New York location in the Meatpacking District for its outsize skylight at the back of the space.
An independent boutique also meant more room for experimentation. “Department stores often test you to see how much you’ll sell for them, which can be limiting,” she explains. “It also sometimes means you can’t use as expensive of fabrics.”
The freedom of fabric and full creative control is largely the root of her Fashion Week foray. Her fall collection has sumptuous fabrics like French milled satin and elevated designs like crepe jumpsuits. It’s still California, but it’s showing people that her 11 yearly collections are not all Palm Springs and pools.
Turk says that her future with fashion weeks depends on the level of sales and press coverage stemming from her presentation. The toggle coats, column dresses and curly lamb vests in rich jewel tones and muted neutrals) present brand in a context of U.S. fashion industry, but she says it’s the digital tweed collage print Tiburon coat that speaks the loudest about the presentation’s purpose.
“It shows patterns, which I’ve always loved, in a new and exciting way.”
The presentation, unlike a runway show, is like her –no fuss, and puts all the focus on the patterns, fabrics and the moody ‘70s tunes playing in the background. What Turk wants most from this is the opportunity to complete the look of her customers, from head to toe to living room to patio. It’s a clearer vision than she had 17 years ago, but the road to get there is just as uncharted, but this time she knows it will be colorful.