Not many people get out of Huntsville, Alabama, fashion designer Lorraine Parish said knowingly.
Reclined on a sofa in her State Road, Vineyard Haven studio, her matching black and white poodles Rudy and Cleo at her side, Ms. Parish watched a late summer drizzle fall on the sidewalk outside. The sky darkened with the threat of a thunderstorm, and as students walked toward town from the Tisbury School, Ms. Parish thought back to the girl she was at 17. “It’s a big world out there,” she remembered thinking at the time. “And I wanted more for myself.”
The small-town girl moved to New York city after high school, into a woman’s hotel. She loved to dance and took as many dance classes as she could afford while working nights as a waitress. Huntsville was history. Nearly 40 years later, though, Ms. Parish still has some Alabama in her. She speaks with a slow, Southern drawl. When a visitor knocks at her front door, she opens it and exclaims that it is just about time for a good thunderstorm.
After a few years in New York, Ms. Parish moved to Los Angeles to continue dancing. But once there, she found her inspiration in clothing. “When I got there, everyone was wearing antique clothing, so I started wearing it, too. I developed a taste for that,” she said.
Ms. Parish had first become interested in fashion as a young teenager. It was an interest born out of necessity. “I made all my own clothes growing up. Nothing fit my body size,” said the designer who taught herself to sew at 13. “I have these long arms and legs, and I didn’t like anything in the store.”
When in Los Angeles, Ms. Parish met the man who would become her husband, and the two moved together to Baltimore. “I opened an antique clothing store there. I didn’t know what I was going to do with it, so I took out an ad [asking] for antique clothes,” she said. A ballroom dancer with a closet full of old ball gowns responded to the advertisement and sold Ms. Parish everything she had for $150. From a little workroom at the back of the store, Ms. Parish tailored the clothes and restitched them. “That’s when I really got into it. I learned the cuts,” she said. “Like carpenters love wood, I love fabric. It was a love of fabrics.”
From Baltimore, Ms. Parish set flight again, this time to the Spanish island of Ibiza. Friends had raved about the place and she moved without ever having visited Europe before. “When I got there, everyone was wearing antique clothes,” she said. So she phoned her dealer in Baltimore and had him ship her supplies over. She rented a booth at an outdoor bazaar and for a year straight, showed up every Wednesday morning with American antique clothing to sell. She bought a travel sewing machine, too, and began making what she called with a laugh, pirate shirts. “They had antique embroidery, were good for men and for women. They sold like hot cakes,” she said.
At 23, she returned to New York. She looked for work as a waitress, but could not find any. She asked her father for a $100 loan — “I’ll never forget that,” she said, “one hundred dollars” — and bought herself a table for cutting fabric. She put together a collection and walked down to the legendary Fifth avenue boutique Henri Bendel. “They bought everything and placed orders for more,” she said. “A week later, my collection was in the window. That’s it, I thought. I’m not waitressing anymore.”
From her Tribeca loft, Ms. Parish designed clothes like mad. She signed with a few more companies, including the dancewear line Capezio. But after a few years, she again got the itch to relocate. “I did not want to be in New York anymore. I had done it. I wanted to be in the country, but I did not want to be in the sticks,” she said. That is when she first heard of Martha’s Vineyard. “I came down to visit. I came here because I loved the name Martha’s Vineyard,” she explained. “And I had always lived on islands.” She knew nothing about the Vineyard, but rented a house in Chilmark and spent a weekend by herself exploring the Island. She was on the beach in Aquinnah when she had one of the great epiphanies of her life (“I’ve had a few,” she explained).
The epiphany: “This is where I belong. I can do what I want here. The customers that I want are here. I had a vision. This is where the customers are. People kept telling me, ‘People don’t dress like that here, Lorraine. They wear cutoffs and T-shirts.’ I just kept saying, ‘It’s not to wear here. It’s to buy here.’” When her husband arrived at the Vineyard airport to join her for the remainder of the vacation, she told him her news. “The first thing I said is, ‘I don’t know what you’re doing, but I’m moving here,’” she said. “I was just true to my vision.”
In 1980, Ms. Parish opened a store in Chilmark center and sold her womenswear with labels which read Martha’s Vineyard. Nineteen years later, she would open the State Road store she runs today, but in the interim, she relocated from Chilmark to Edgartown and back, opened and closed stores in Aspen, on Nantucket and on Boston’s Newbury street. She gave up her New York accounts and began coming out with catalogues.
Over the years, her product has stayed primarily the same. “I sell anything from really good T-shirts to black tie ball gowns,” she said. She does fabrics for the home and creates her own prints, many of them Island-specific, with Chilmark fields, scallop shells and grape vines. Prices range from a $60 T-shirt to a $1,200 top-of-the-line evening dress.
Ms. Parish has always been innovative with her business. She used to spend the slow Vineyard winter months hosting trunk shows up and down the Northeast, and in 1999, she launched Mother’s Old Mink Rescue, a custom-made fur coat line made from the minks of her customers’ mothers. This July, with business lagging, Ms. Parish thought of a new way to keep things fresh. “I thought, ‘Oh expletive! What am I going to do?’ ” she said, earnestly guarding her vocabulary.
A friend from New York had shipped to the Vineyard all of her old Lorraine Parish dresses and the two sat unpacking the box in Ms. Parish’s studio with the friend’s 14-year-old daughter. The young woman pulled out a tartan plaid dress from 1986 and put it on. And then Ms. Parish had epiphany number two. “It was full circle,” Ms. Parish said. “For her it was a vintage dress, and I could have gotten depressed about that, but I didn’t. It was wonderful,” she continued. “And then I had another epiphany. I really don’t get many of those.”
So Ms. Parish has decided to begin a fashion class for Island teens aged 12 to 18 and perhaps some young adults. “You don’t know how much you know until you teach,” she said. “Hopefully I will inspire, if it’s just one girl, a passion.”
The classes begin after Columbus Day and will continue through April. There will be one class each weekday from 3 to 5 p.m. for up to three students. Participants can register for one class each week. The cost is $200 for a month of classes. The classes will cover the great fashion designers, the history of fashion, draping and the names of different fabrics and cuts. The one thing it will not teach is sewing.
“It’s not about sewing,” Ms. Parish said. “It’s about fashion.” And with that, she hustled her guest out to her car to avoid getting caught in the thunderstorm which, by this time, had finally rolled in.
For more details about Lorraine Parish, her upcoming fashion courses, or to register, call 508-693-9044.