Hawaii-raised designer Margie Tsai opts for simplicity over the extravagant as she plans to observe New York Fashion Week, beginning Wednesday, from the sidelines.

Comfort comes first

N.Y. designer Margie Tsai finds
fresh energy in fashion but with
less flash and more reserve

By Nadine Kam

With New York Fashion Week set to begin Wednesday, this would usually be a busy week for designer Margie Tsai -- a week for meeting with stage managers, lighting artists and making last-minute fitting adjustments necessary to bring her 2003 Spring-Summer Collection to the stage. Instead, she'll be keeping up with the shows the way the rest of us do, through the media.

Her Fall-Winter 2002 "show" took the form of a 6-by-6-inch fold-out color brochure mailed to buyers and the media. And it was enough. She'll be doing a mailing for her spring collection also.

"After Sept. 11 there was nothing I could do to make fashion important at all," she said by phone from her shop at 4 Prince St. "I haven't shown since then. I felt I needed a break. Lots of designers did shows during the spring, but they tended to be smaller, more private."

In keeping with the mood of the nation, fall's collections seem to have honed in on comfort. Tsai, in a show of patriotism, offered a subtle red, white and blue palette teamed with chocolate browns for the season, working with KRT Jewels to come up with jewelry inspired by the first Americans. There are feather-tipped suede lariats and necklaces and belts that resemble dream catchers.

Tops and ponchos of boiled wool are meant to cloak their wearers in cocoons of warm and nubby comfort.

Her spring collection will feature the tactile splendor of old-fashioned handwork inspired by her travels to India.

Margie Tsai's 2002-2003 Fall Collection was "shown" on paper through mailings sent out earlier this year. The low-key approach fit her theme of all-American style, comfort and ingenuity.

"I think people are looking for comfort clothes," she said. "They want things that last longer, that are more comfortable and not so flashy. There's a sense of reserve.

Margie Tsai takes a tactile, handmade approach to Spring-Summer 2003, with leather "beadwork" embellishing pieces.

"There's still a lot of "I love New York T-shirts around."

A YEAR AGO, Tsai, who grew up in Hawaii, was not as calm as she sounds today. The world, it seemed, had exploded around her after "a big silver thing" passed over her apartment building five blocks away from the World Trade Center.

"It wasn't that unusual because I live pretty high up, although it did seem closer than usual, and much bigger.

"Almost immediately afterward, my husband and I heard a big explosion, and my first thought was that there was a big truck accident. Living here, there are a lot of loud noises just from trucks going over bumps."

Late for her meetings, she rode her bike 15 blocks north, all the while noticing more sirens than usual and everyone on the street facing south as bits of silver and paper floated in the air. It was only when she got to her boutique and turned on the radio that she found out what had happened and fretted that her parents might have been on those United flights. They were due to arrive from Honolulu that afternoon to attend her show slated for the 13th. Instead, they were stuck in San Francisco, unable to leave for a week afterward.

Tsai rendezvoused with her husband as they tried to make their way back to their apartment to rescue their dog.

"They wouldn't let us in. The whole strip was blocked, but only the main streets, so we went through a store and out the back door. Once we got back, we watched TV and were trying to call everyone, but then the cell phones stopped working, then the other phone stopped working."

While the phones were still working, she got a fax saying Fashion Week was canceled.

In the days that followed, no food deliveries were getting made below 14th Street, so there was no fresh fruit at the markets, and at coffee shops, java was strictly black, with sugar but without milk.

"Most stores closed and kids didn't go to school, so they were playing baseball, football on the street because there were no cars. Usually they can't do that because the streets are very busy."

Tsai tried to keep appointments made with reporters, but instead of asking them to venture downtown to contend with two or three layers of security, she figured it would be easier to head uptown.

"The moment I stepped out of the subway, everything seemed so surreal. People were sitting in cafes, lunching, going on as if nothing had happened. It was like two different worlds.

"Where I live it was like a military zone with guns, policemen, and every day, I woke up there was that smell that was there for three or four months."

While many businesses around her failed after Sept. 11, she is grateful for the shopaholics who kept her in business.

"There are people who always lived on shopping, and before, everyone was wearing black, but now they wanted color, something fun, like a bit of ruffles here and there."

Tsai has always been able to offer a touch of whimsy or clever details in her design. Perhaps as a statement of her confidence in the future of New York and fashion, she's moving next week to 475 Broadway, closer to the World Trade Center site, which is coming back to life as old warehouses are being converted into retail space. London's enfant terrible designer Alexander McQueen will be among her neighbors.

While Tsai can't help living and breathing fashion, the events of Sept. 11 and her journey to India were eye-openers.

"Going to a place like India makes you appreciate everything you have. It makes you feel like, why are we complaining. They have their problems, but they're comfortable with the way they live.

"It showed me there are more important things than chasing a dream. There's family and friendship and love and a lot of other things that are as equally important as your career.

"Not that career isn't important, but everything needs to be more balanced. When the World Trade Center was attacked, the first thing I thought about was my family, not work."

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