When is a coat more than a coat? When it's a work of art by Murai, a San Francisco designer whose hand-painted coats, vests, and jackets hang in fashionable wardrobes from Fifth Avenue to Post Street and from Carnaby Street to Rodeo Drive.
A lot is written about wearable art these days, because it provides sound investment in fashion mileage. As apparel it owes no allegiance to passing years and knows no obsolescence. As art, it equals paintings that hang in galleries.
Murai, the artist with the legally adopted single name, uses as her canvas silk, raw silk, or wool, which is first shaped into a garment. Then she paints with delicate traceries the florals or other designs that make these garments uniquely desirable. Quilting, as artistic as the painting, sometimes follows the pattern, or it may go off on its own path, giving the garment a three-dimensional look.
Contrasting binding becomes the frame for the ''paintings.'' All items are reversible, lined in a solid color that coordinates with the painting so they can be worn plain side out for an understatement and bright side out for a look that's quietly dramatic. Button detailing, often looped in self fabric, reverses as gracefully as the rest.
Murai's colors are subtly Oriental in feeling, with such combinations as pale fuchsia, heliotrope, and lavender on a taupe background, for example. A jacket she herself wears and throws around like an old sweater is turquoise silk with an orchid-colored, delicately painted iris on one side, natural-colored raw silk inside, and edged in teal binding. Those coats that aren't painted are embellished with applique and then quilted. All are signed by the artist.
This designer, who doesn't really like to sew, started out five years ago with no capital, knowing of no outlets for her creative talents. She now has the wherewithal to let others do the basic sewing while she provides the artistry. And though her garments are in many stores, Murai prefers the personal contacts of trunk showings. She will travel countrywide to show her collections.
If you don't find the right shape in the right color schemes, Murai furnishes fabric swatches and a book of pictures from which clients can create personal favorites.
These decorative works are not for the polyester, wash-and-wear days of your day-to-day life. They must be dry cleaned, and prices range from $275 to $800. But like any thing of beauty, they are ''a joy forever.''