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Artist creates one-of-a-kind clothes from hand-painted silk

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For many people, the art of dressing is a principal means of self-expression. Artist-designer David Stiffler has created an unusual look for these artful dressers by fashioning hand-painted silk panels into wearables.

Mr. Stiffler's fashions are especially suited to the individual who enjoys making a dramatic statement and who takes pleasure in attention-getting attire. And with an acrylic rod placed carefully through the sleeves, these clothes are easily converted into wall hangings.

Broad panels of pure white silk are individually stretched and painted by Mr. Stiffler as though they were artists' canvases. These are then cut and stitched into classically shaped caftans and kimonos as well as coordinated pant and top outfits, jumpsuits, and quilted jackets. Quilted coats, sometimes decorated with spotted leopards and striped tigers, were added to the line last year.

Mr. Stiffler works with crepe de Chine, silk habita, silk chiffon, charmeuse, and other pure silk fabrics of various weights and weaves. His palette contains a bouquet of pastel hues -- blues, pinks, greens, and yellows, often blended into subtle tones. The colors are applied with a brush, as in watercolor painting technique. Light areas are painted first, then darker and darker areas by progression.

Mr. Stiffler's dye formula is his trade secret, but he paints with water-based colors which are then treated with heat and chemical solvent to make the garments safe for hand laundering in mild soap.

With decorative motifs of inventive, whimsical, and mythological animals, cheerful floral bouquets, fluttering butterflies, and bold geometric patterns, Stiffler's designs have a fanciful look. Colors tend to be rich, and the garments have an airy and flowing quality.

The visual themes and vibrant color schemes have been inspired by Mr. Stiffler's extensive travels throughout Latin America and Asia and by his fascination for anthropology and native handcraft. As a sideline, Mr. Stiffler has produced several record albums of Central American Indian tribal songs for Folkways Records.

He has been working with silk since 1975. He intends to keep his business small and personal to ensure quality control.In his Greenwich Village studio, Mr. Stiffler produces about 300 signed originals per year. These are retailed at fine department stores and boutiques, including Neiman-Marcus, Bergdorf Goodman, and Saks, among others. They are also available by mail order through The Very Thing Catalogue, PO Box 7427, Charlottesville, Va. 22906, or directly from Mr. Stiffler's atelier at 26 West 10th Street, New York, N.Y. 10011. Overall, prices range from $250 to 1,000, depending on style and fabric of the garment.

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