Carla Manuel's modest Del Mar showroom is as tall as it is wide, a wood structure almost filled to the rafters with fabrics, fashion magazines, fashion-shoot accoutrements and, of course, racks and racks of clothes. Stepping into the room is like walking into a giant closet, one that-if you're a girl-you wouldn't mind having as your own. Of the half-dozen racks full of tops, dresses, skirts and fitted jackets, nearly every piece is different, designed and, for the most part, handmade by Manuel herself.
Manuel, who was born and raised in Brazil and speaks with a heavy South American drawl, started her label, Kites, four years ago after a career designing surf wear. Her business is 30-percent private clients-who come to her for fitted gowns and other couture pieces-and 70-percent retail. She sells to 29 handpicked stores throughout the U.S., like Satine in Los Angeles, Portland's Seaplane and Niche Boutique and Matti D here in San Diego. She's also getting increasing attention from TV and film; her designs will be in the upcoming film Jack and Jill vs. the World. So far, though, she's purposely kept Kites' growth in check. "Kites is my baby," she said. She has plans to branch out at some point, but for now, she said, "I've just had other priorities."
If you've come across Manuel's work, it's likely been at Thread, the seasonal fashion-and-lifestyle show started in San Diego three years ago by British ex-pat Lara Matthews. On Sept. 10, Matthews is taking Thread to the San Diego Cruise Ship Terminal, where men's and women's clothiers, shoe makers, accessory designers and artists will sell their wares. If you go, Manuel's the pretty, almost pixie-like dark-haired woman standing among racks of soft-yet-edgy, girlish-yet-sophisticated garb. Her stuff might set middle-income fashionistas back a bit-a blouse can run $160 to a little more than $300-but there's an easy justification for that purchase: You'll be the only one who owns that blouse. "Most designers out there doing the one-of-a-kind thing... have actually much higher prices than I do," she points out.
Save for occasional limited-runs for which Manuel's cousin in Brazil, who owns a clothing production company, will make, say, two each of 200 different styles (one in small/medium, one in medium/large), each piece is unique. And Manuel's designs are stunning; her attention to detail is impeccable, rivaling-surpassing, even-better-known designers to whose work hers might be compared, like Marc Jacobs, Nannette Lepore or Betsey Johnson. Look closely at a boyish, sleeveless plaid blouse and you'll see it's made from a raw silk with just the slightest sheen to it with triple stitching around the armholes, which are lined with grosgrain ribbon; the back of the blouse is fitted, carefully tailored to the waist, so that the bottom hangs in soft gathers. For another piece, she redeemed a giant silky black vintage cocktail dress (Manuel's a fan of vintage fabrics) turning it into a mod-ish short party dress with puffed sleeves. Not one to waste good fabric, she had enough left over for two basic separates-a skirt and a spaghetti-strap top.
Manuel is as enchanted by the not-so-obvious features of her designs as are the women who buy her clothes. "When I look at my pieces, I'm, like, wow, there's so much contrast. It's, like, delicate, feminine but with a rough edge, too."
Lara Matthews has known Manuel since before Kites; Kites and Thread have sort of grown up together, with Manuel first selling her designs at the trunk shows Matthews would hold in her backyard.
"I just love her stuff; it's so feminine. I just like the way she knows how to make the best of the female form, you know? None of her clothes make your boobs look horrible or give you a flat butt or anything," Matthews says. "Her clothes just seem to, like, slink over you; I always feel really sexy when I wear her stuff.
"I think the Brazilian people are way more aware of their sexuality, so it's reflected in their work a little bit in a tasteful way," Matthews adds.
For Manuel, well-made, fashionable clothes are something she grew up with. Her mom knew a talented seamstress and took advantage of the opportunity to have her clothes handmade to her specifications. Manuel, too, worked with the seamstress to design her own garments. She was also influenced by, and got to know, Brazilian designers like Tufi Duek, Alexandre Herchcovitch and Carlos Miele.
"Brazil is a big country, but almost everyone knows each other," she said.
A close friend of Manuel's worked for Duek and it was through her that Manuel got her first look at the inner workings of the fashion business. She already knew how to sew and had been designing clothes for fun.
At 17, after a trip to the U.K. with her parents, she decided she wanted to study fashion in London. "I think I picked London because it seemed to me the easiest to branch out to the rest of the world from," Manuel said. And, her French father encouraged her to give Europe a try. "I was very fascinated by the energy of the whole place," she said. "To me, London is like the whole world inside a city. At that time, I also thought that it was a design mecca."
She worried, though, that her English wasn't good enough-she didn't want to pay for an education she couldn't fully engage in. She went to London anyhow, for eight months, just to study English. After a few months, she enrolled in a three-month course that focused on the technical aspects of clothing design: pattern making, measurements-all the minutiae that goes into garment construction. Having those skills is a necessary part of being a designer; too often Manuel sees designers who seem to have bypassed that training.
"Nowadays I look around and there's so many independent designers. Now, all of a sudden, everyone became an independent designer. But I look at the designs, and-I don't want to put anybody down," she says, "but it's just, like, wow, there is no quality at all.... I do raw finishing, but it's part of the theme, it's part of the character of the piece, but then I see pieces made by other people and [they're] not so well put together."
It frustrates her, she says, when she comes across designers who seem to lack a necessary attention to detail and finishing. "It kind of frustrates me a little bit because I almost feel like there is no orientation whatsoever.... It's just, like," she pauses for a moment. "I don't think I want to go there because it sounds harsh on other people and they should try it anyway."
While in London, Manuel took a trip to Australia to see some friends. She'd been a professional bodyboarder in Brazil, and wanted to try the waves in Australia. (Manuel surfs regularly-"It's my church," she said.) She planned a three-week trip to Australia but ended up staying for two and a half years.
In Australia, she took more design classes and started working with an ex-boyfriend on a line of T-shirts and sweatshirts for his surfboard company, Insight, based in Sydney. "It didn't go anywhere," Manuel says of the T-shirt/sweatshirt venture. "But it was a spark for me."
On her way back to Australia after a visit to Brazil, Manuel had a stopover in L.A., and so she drove down to San Diego to visit friends. That was 15 years ago. "I basically threw away my ticket," she said. "I had a lot of friends here. I looked into the school program [at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising] and I thought it was a lot better than what was in Australia at the time."
After FIDM, she started working for her friend Xanadu, an Encinitas surfboard shaper who also designed a line of men's surf wear. One of Xanadu's clients was Brad Gerlach, who, in 1991, was considered one of the top surfers in the world. Gerlach asked Manuel to design a pair of shorts for him, something with a floral print.
"Back then, nobody had ever done that before," Manuel said. "All the surf shorts were just plain and stripes or solid colors." Manuel found some vintage floral prints and sewed up a few pairs of shorts for Gerlach, who took them along on a surfing tour in Hawaii. Several surf magazines photographed him wearing the shorts, and the floral-print thing was a big hit. "Shortly after that, all the main companies did that," Manuel said. "All the kids wanted to wear the same thing."
The success with the shorts gave her leverage to convince Xanadu to let her do a line of girls clothing. Like floral-print shorts, surf clothing for girls was something no one was doing in the early '90s. "Back then there was none of the [clothing] lines that are out there now, like Roxy, Billabong Girls-none of them existed."
After working with Xanadu for almost three years, Manuel freelanced for other surf-wear lines like Carlsbad's Ton clothing, Ruby (Red Sand's girls' line) and Billabong Girls in Brazil. All the while, she had an idea that she wanted to do her own thing.
"I just kind of got tired of working for mainstream companies," she said. "Basically I just followed my vision. I can only try; if I fail, I fail, but at least I tried."
She could probably have started Kites sooner, she said, but she wanted to build a foundation, moving from working for other independent labels to mainstream labels to freelancing to her own line. She named her label Kites after the bird of the same name whose arched wings and long tail creates a striking silhouette.
Manuel spent six months making clothes before pitching the line to retailers. She started building a small client base, showing her work at private trunk shows up in Los Angeles. Matthews would tag along and got the idea for Thread from these shows.
"Carla stood out as being different because her [pieces] were all one-of-a-kind. I was, like, we should get a whole bunch of Carlas together and start Thread," Matthews said.
If she's focused, Manuel can churn out three finished pieces a day; if she's doing a special-order gown-she's recently begun designing wedding dresses-she can put it together in about a day as well. For a fashion show at the San Diego Museum of Art in July-to coincide with the museum's Andy Warhol exhibit-Manuel created a dozen gowns in 11 days.
It would be too expensive to mass-produce the line, she says, and it would mean she'd have to cut down on the variety of pieces-the very thing that makes Kites different.
"It wouldn't be worth doing because everything's based in numbers," she explained. "If you come to a production company, [you'd have to have] 10 designs and want 5,000 of each. If I go there and say I have 200 designs and I want two of each, they're going to laugh." Doing such a run would up the price of her pieces, too. "The only way for them to do it is charge you five times more. It's just not worth it and I can just do it on my own," she said.
Manuel's goal is to bridge the gap between high-end and mainstream designers, making clothes that are unique but also relatively affordable.
"I think what makes [Kites] special is that it's just very limited," she said. "It's one-of-a-kind and I tend to put a lot of time and focus on the fit and details.... I chose a niche, and that's my focus."
The Thread Fashion and Lifestyle Show happens Sunday, Sept. 10 from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. $10 ($7 with RSVP). www.threadshow.com. To see more of Carla Manuel's work, go to www.kitesdesign.com.