Please write:
Return to Page One
Register here to receive Fashion Finds
email updates!

Listen up kids, here’s a little history lesson on leathers and other hides. There’s a young designer named Carla Dawn Behrle in downtown New York, in TriBeCa, whose designs take leather to a whole other level. As Carla says in the interview, leather, or hide, is really the earliest clothing, the most ancient of garments.

Before sewing, before weaving, there were skins to protect the body. The only other possible source for clothing might have been bark. Before tanning, early people used pelts preserved with grease or smoke for garments. Later, primitive needles were invented to sew and attach things, like feathers and long grasses. But if you could hunt an animal for food, take its hide and cut a hole in it with a sharp rock, you could put the skin over your head, and have some clothing to protect yourself against the elements.

Onward through time, leather has never lost its necessity, and humans have never stopped loving the visual and tactile beauty of skins. Always used in clothing, saddlery, shoes, and other adornments; leathers, suedes, and more exotic skins are enjoying, once again, another renaissance.

Carla Dawn Behrle is a forerunner in this field of designing clothes made of leathers and suede. Her seemingly magical ability to transform leathers into garments that move and flow with the grace and beauty of fabrics like silk and velvet is something to behold. The design, the meticulous construction, the choice of leather, the selection of color, the execution, and the fit, culminate in a true work of art. Behrle’s creations are not like any leather or suede items you have seen before.

Carla’s heavenly designs have been worn by a myriad of celebrities: Madonna, Steven Tyler of Aerosmith, Mary J. Blige, Angelina Jolie, and Gwyneth Paltrow, to name just a few.

FF: You certainly seem to have quite a celebrity following. Is there anyone in particular that you care to mention who is a Behrle groupie?

Carla Behrle: Well, I think Rah Digga, the woman I just did the music video for, might be turning into one. Lauryn Hill was wearing a lot for a while. One of my favorite customers was U2.

FF: Oh really. I love them.

Carla Behrle: I did a suit for Bono for the European leg of a U2 tour, the last tour that they did. And I did a bunch of hats for The Edge. I made leather cowboy hats for The Edge.

And they came out really beautiful, except I was working really late because they called me right after we opened. I got a phone call pretty late at night on a Sunday. And they wanted to come in the next day. They wouldn’t tell me who was coming. So I had no idea. And I told my partner, well, I, you know, spoke with someone with this English accent, and my partner’s like, oh, I know who that is. That’s going to be U2.

I’m like get out of here, I’m like where on earth would they get my phone number? And the next morning I met with the woman who was doing the costumes for their tour; pulling everything together for them. So it was them.

But it was so funny, because you know my partner Phillip was like ah, that’s U2, and I’m like, it can’t possibly be U2. Their tour started two weeks ago; they’ve already started their tour. Forget it.

But Bono wanted this suit to wear for Giants Stadium. But he didn’t wear it that night because it was raining. So I think they saved it for the European part of the tour. I’ve seen pictures of it from that leg of the tour.

But they wanted it in four days. It was a hand-perforated leather suit. And then I had to make like four hats for The Edge. And it was quite a trip, because I was working until like four o’clock in the morning on the last night, because they added hats to the order. And here I am, bleary eyed. I’ve got a hat on the hat block which is hot. I have an antique hat block to stretch hats out. And it’s very old, and it’s beautiful, and it gets very hot.

So I get a phone call at four o’clock in the morning from my upstairs neighbor. She said, do you smell something burning? And I’m like -- I was so bleary eyed, I jumped up to see if there’s something going on upstairs that I’m missing, because I’m totally freaking out that the place is going to burn down around my head. I have no idea what’s going on. Philip comes out of his office, and he’s like what are you doing? I’m like something’s burning somewhere, because I just know it.

And he looks across the work room, basically right in front of the sewing machine that I was sitting in front of. This is after I’ve run upstairs, gotten a ladder down to check everything out. And there’s this pristine white leather cowboy hat that is smoking. It’s got smoke billowing out from under its rim, and it’s rapidly turning into beef jerky.

FF: Oh no.

Carla Behrle: And I just couldn’t believe it. I mean, thank God leather doesn’t burn. It was the lining. And the leather was getting -- it turned into beef jerky, and I had to rebuild the hat on a Saturday. I had to find white leather on a Saturday in New York City and rebuild it.

I was dying. I couldn’t believe it.

FF: Tell me what it is about leather that you love.

Carla Behrle: I guess one of the reasons I really like it is that it is the original fabric. I mean it’s leather and probably bark. Probably the first two things that people covered themselves with, and I’m sure that leather won out over bark, until they discovered weaving.

I like to treat leather like it’s a fine fabric, which it is. I mean the quality of the leather that I’m using is really, really fine. And it’s going to last you for like forever, if it’s taken care of.

And the other thing is, it’s relatively low care. And pretty much indestructible. And that’s kind of a wonderful thing about it. When I wear it I feel powerful.

FF: Yes, I think it’s totally empowering.

Carla Behrle: Which is why it's such an important part of armor.

FF: Yes, exactly.

Carla Behrle: And it’s still there in the leather. Same that it’s been for millennia.

Carla Dawn Behrle

FF: It’s elemental. And so, while we’re on the subject, what are some of the care things one should do so that the leather garment lasts a long time and looks beautiful?

Carla Behrle: Well, one of the things is always to have a good salt remover. I don’t like to tell people not to wear their leather in the rain or something. I don’t believe in treating something like it’s dear. Of course, it’s hard nowadays with the prices of clothing, not to treat it like it's dear. People in some instances can’t.

My prices are at a young designer price point. So we’re not like up there with Gucci, where the pants are six thousand dollars. Not anywhere near. So I’m like adverse to the idea of treating something like it’s actually dear, and especially leather because when it wears, stretches out, and gets little marks in it or whatever, I think that just adds to the character of the garment.

But I do think that you definitely need a good salt remover, so that if you do wear it out in the snow or the rain, the bottom of your pants don’t get all destroyed. And also, with leather there’s always the possibility of getting too overheated with the way the buildings are, the way the subways are, everything like that. The way you run around in the city. So the salt remover’s handy for any kind of marks that happen if you sweat too much and mark the leather. Because some finer leathers will mark easily like that.

FF: So you just put the salt remover over ...

Carla Behrle: The salt remover just kind of rubs into the leather and pulls the salt out of it.

If you wear your black leather pants out, and you know, it gets all up and down the legs, you’ll get these little white spots. And it looks horrible. It just kind of makes these white spots.

FF: And so where do you get the salt remover?

Carla Behrle: Almost any good shoe repair shop. And then you can get a good conditioning cream. And I would try to stay away from the ones that are too greasy.

Some people want you to use mink oil, or neat’s-foot oil, and neat’s-foot oil works for certain things. But I always try to stay away from the ones that really emphasize the oil. It can make a sticky surface if it’s not wiped off properly. And then the dirt will get into the pores of the leather and stick there.

But there are a lot of really good cream cleansers. They’re almost like hand lotion texture, and some of them clean, and some of them clean and protect. There’s a lot of good ones out there.

FF: I understand you did a lot of fetish stuff in the beginning.

Carla Behrle: Well, the line started out called World Domination. And we started out because I knew I wanted to start manufacturing and producing leather. But I had no idea who to sell it to. So that seemed kind of already like a built-in audience.

But I was doing higher end. I was doing something actually that was much more geared to a European market. And we did a little catalog that was a foldout catalog, a small format catalog. I guess it was about sixteen pictures, very sexy, very European in flavor; some nudity but nothing over the top.

And I got a huge response on this catalog. Before I had even printed it. So it was kind of like, oh, gotta get this thing out there. And so I think initially I wound up selling more catalogs than anything else. But I picked up a couple of really good accounts. I picked up Dream Dresser in California. I picked up Pat Fields here.

The fetish stores just wanted cheap cheesy stuff. And I was trying to do something that was sexy and elegant. And not so clichéd. And out of really fine skins. And a little bit costumy but not hard core at all. Like I had two pieces that were kind of more fetishy, like I had a little mask hood that’s almost like a wrestler’s mask. And then I had a scuba hood style.

And I would say those were the most like overtly fetishy pieces I had. I mean besides a couple of g-strings and stuff which are lingerie.

I had totally misfigured the market. And wound up selling to stores who really did more of a business with it as club wear. And going out at night stuff.

You know sexy, sexy stuff to wear to a club. Or to accessorize your outfit with. So that’s how I really started selling to Pat Fields a lot. Like an awful lot, because then we started doing those same items in like really wonderful colors, and metallics and all different kinds of novelty finishes. And which makes it a whole different look.

With my work, I’m trying to put out the best work that I can put out, you know the best quality. And value-wise, too.

For my line I’m trying to do something that can be worn, but it still has a sense of individuality about it. I’m not really interested in following the whole Gap thing. That’s not where I’m coming from. I like clothes to be really flattering.

I think that women shouldn’t be afraid of looking good.

FF: That’s absolutely true.

Carla Behrle: And you would be really amazed as to how many women are nervous of looking good, or looking sexy, or wearing something that in whatever fashion they think might be revealing. Sometimes I’m amazed at what people are afraid to wear.

FF: I bet you see that a lot in the store when people come in.

Carla Behrle: Yeah, I’m amazed. It was a real education for me. And also I’m amazed at the imaginary faults that women find with themselves.

FF: Really.

Carla Behrle: Kill me.

FF: What is usually the main one?

Carla Behrle: Like you put on a pair of pants, and there’s a little bit of flesh hanging over the side. But it’s like if you move you get a little bit of flesh hanging over the side of almost anything, unless it’s fit baggy.

It’s the way my stuff is cut. I mean my pants, when you buy them new, they should fit like paint.

You should also know they’re not going to fit like that for very long.

And very often I have to argue with customers and say, if you buy those pants any bigger, you’re not going to be happy with them. And it’s so funny, because people are so used to the mass market fit, which is very baggy and loose, that they freak out when something actually fits their body. They don’t know what to make of it.

And I really have to spend time educating them. And then there are other women who can never find anything to fit, but who want stuff that fits to them, like they’re so thrilled to come down here and the clothes fit them.

So it’s like, it’s funny: on the one hand, it’s like a lot of people who can’t deal with the fit, and then on the other hand there’s women who totally understand and come down here regularly.

And I’ll argue with customers, and I’ll make them buy that size eight pant, even though they think it’s way too tight. And she’ll come back two days later and thank me for talking her into buying the size that she felt was too tight.

Because with leather, you get a lot of give, and it molds to your body, and what you don’t want to do is let anybody borrow it from you!

theres-more.gif (3027 bytes)

Next, Carla joins New York's Renowned Shakespeare Festival, then decides to strike out on her own in trendy TriBeCa, blocks from where John F. Kennedy Jr. lived....

Carla's store is called Behrle,
89 Franklin St., TriBeCa.

You can also find Carla's designs
at: Patricia Field, 212.254.1699;
Hotel Venus, 212.966.4066;
Untitled, 212.982.2088;
Red Wong, 212.625.1638.

Photographs by Phillip Wong except
Lauryn Hill, Bono and Pam Anderson.