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Designing Man 

How Al Abayan's penchant for deconstruction has become so constructive

Wednesday, Jul 10 1996
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Al Abayan has always been a handyman. Perpetually curious about form, function, and design, he repaired the front wheel mounts of his car when he was 16 -- without a single hour of previous mechanical experience. He carefully removed nuts, bolts, and struts, labeling each part with yellow masking tape. With instinct as his only guide, he methodically rebuilt the damaged undercarriage.

Years later, after he had dropped out of business school and spent some time waiting tables in San Francisco, Abayan was visiting his native Santa Barbara one lazy afternoon. He found himself staring at a hat, and, once again, curiosity got the best of him. He removed the visor, lining, and pie-shaped center piece. He noted each section. He drew a pattern.

Abayan not only reassembled the hat, but was inspired to make his own. Which, for him, was almost as easy as it sounds. "A friend had to show me how to operate a sewing machine because I didn't know how to sew," he says, reflecting on that pivotal moment.

Inspired by the experience, Abayan returned to San Francisco, where he converted his narrow bedroom closet into a production room replete with sewing machine, fabric, and thread. After weeks of work, he had made 11 casual, multicolored, floppy-rimmed hats, which he succeeded in selling at $50 apiece by walking door to door among the clothing outlets on lower Hayes Street. He quickly refined an ad-libbed "rap" into a true sales pitch.

"The response was terrific," Abayan recalls. Orders began pouring in. "I was concerned because I was still learning how to sew, and it took hours to make one hat. I thought, 'Oh my God, I have to get more fabric! I need more time!' "

That was 1991. Soon, he had branched out, making vests, shirts, jackets, pants, and more hats. Within a year, he moved out of his overburdened closet and opened One by Two, a chic clothes boutique in the heart of Hayes Valley that today enjoys an international reputation in urban sportswear. And last spring Focus Magazine nominated him for the Golden Shears Award as one of San Francisco's top designers.

On a recent afternoon, Abayan leans against a cluttered table in the basement workroom of his store and shrugs nonchalantly about the dizzying rate of his success. "When I see something I want, I get it," he says. "I'm not spoiled. I worked hard to get everything I have."

Success, however, has not lessened Abayan's creative drive. He wants to open a store in Los Angeles and see his $400,000 in annual U.S. sales double.

Reed-thin, with oiled black hair curling above a low forehead, Abayan is wearing a gray sweater, white flared pants, and black platform shoes. A barely discernible, delicately trimmed mustache lines his upper lip. He could pass for a teen-ager.

But the casual look belies Abayan's intensity, and his store reflects the care of his craftsmanship. Electronic jazz melts into the hardwood floors and creamy white walls of his showroom. Blue striped rayon pants, V-neck golfing sweaters, zip-front vests, James Dean waist-length jackets, orange cotton shirts, and slick vinyl work aprons in baby blue make up a small sample of this colorful collection. Glossy transparencies serve as hang tags, bouncing shards of light off fishbowls bobbing in the window display.

Abayan develops the concepts and shapes for all the clothing he carries. He is in the store seven days a week supervising two sales people and four other employees who do 40 percent of the production sewing work. The remainder he jobs out to Draw You, a Bay Area tailoring firm.

"My eyes inspect everything," he says. "The clothes are shipped from here. We press it. We check all the seams, cut the loose threads from around the buttonholes. Then we send it out the door."

This attention to detail has attracted buyers throughout the U.S., Germany, and Japan. "We have no sales representatives," Abayan explains. "We travel all over selling everything ourselves here and in Tokyo."

Many of his ideas are inspired by Japanese pop culture.
"Theirs is a mix of American society and their own," he says. "I take that with me and give it my own special twist."

Abayan's "twist" can be seen in one of his more popular items, a pair of skintight slacks in red, white, and blue lame that he describes as "flashy as a Las Vegas billboard."

T-shirts too are infused with his quirky wit. Developing a sports theme, Abayan has dozens of them embossed with the logo "Hayes Valley High School: Dept. of Hipsters." The school exists only in Abayan's frenetic imagination.

Abayan's 1995 Glitz & Glamour line remains a favorite series of his, a labor of love commemorating the childhood trips he took to Las Vegas with his grandfather. Abayan merged the sharp tropical colors of his grandfather's native Philippines into the blouses and miniskirts of cocktail waitresses.

Abayan is now busy promoting a fall line that expands on the trade uniform idea. Bellhop jackets, nurse outfits, and color guard vests have been spun into a stunning gabardine palette with colors ranging from dusty blue to camel.

"We're making a stand and doing it in San Francisco," he says. "Our look, our attitude is creating a new trend that will be an alternative to New York."

Indeed, Abayan wants San Francisco to be acknowledged as a world design center in its own right. "In New York, everybody does what the magazines tell them," he says. "I don't want to be Calvin Klein or Ralph Lauren. San Francisco should be seen as a different place with well-made things. I want to bring the national eye here and then the world eye."

The comment might seem pretentious beyond all imagining from the lips of most designers. But remember, this is a guy who couldn't sew five years ago, a guy who transformed the sensibility of a car mechanic into the aesthetic of a rising star of design.

Holding one of his bellhop jackets, Abayan is examining a sleeve when the sputter of a passing station wagon distracts him. He hesitates, listening.

"Could be the carburetor," he says.

About The Author

Malcolm Garcia

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