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Desperately Seeking Susan ...

[whitespace] illustration
Illustration by Amy Davis

By Heidi Pollock

They say that imitation is a form of flattery but the people over at Penelope Starr are likely to disagree. Imitation of Penelope Starr designer Susan Robinson's creations has become something of a struggle between the locally owned business and a large corporate interest operating out of Los Angeles under the remarkably similar label "Penelope." This southern pretender with the similar name has unnaturally similar designs bearing unusually similar hangtags with strangely similar fonts all displayed at trade shows against a background of largely similar early '60s plastic furnishings. Which all seems strikingly similar to, say, willful violation of proprietary information and common-law trademark infringement.

So while the likes of Diesel are no doubt dreaming of carrying the large-scale fakes, the original Penelope Starr spring line is already on its way to real clothing stores worldwide. Sleeveless cotton knit dresses with sweatshirt-like drawstring details in strong neutrals lead the line, followed by mix-and-match separates from easy knee-length skirts to girly tube-tops. Strong stretch-twill pants and jackets in that ever-practical spring navy are complemented with more casual pieces in delicious striped patterns. Look for these striped tomgirl tops and kicky knee-length shorts with homey cuffs alongside the cool knits in any of our city's singular fashion stores; among other places, Susan's designs can be seen in Hayes Valley's Asphalt and SoMa's Virgin 69, all the way across town to Fillmore's Mosaic or Girlfriend's on Union Street.

While you can find Penelope Starr as far away as Japan, only San Francisco hosts the "outlet store." About a year and a half ago, when a dishonest distributor stranded Susan and Aaron, her husband and business partner, with a load of unshipped designs the couple converted the front of their Penelope Starr design studio into a retail operation. Ring the doorbell of this Lower Haight shop for a chance to get your hands on the limited stock of remaining mesh bags, nylon jackets, and fall's too-too sexy charcoal knit turtleneck dresses. If you ask nicely they might even be inclined to pull out some of their very first season's adorable T-shirt dresses in bright bold colors with high-contrast edging.

The intimate, tiny dimensions of this shop, dimensions shared by all good clothing stores, shouldn't be intimidating. I've never been able to see why people would rather drive to an ugly strip mall outlet on the side of a freeway and buy clothes made by anonymous manufacturers who can't even come up with their own designs than browse through their neighborhood boutiques. This apparent need for anonymity during the purchasing experience must be related to the desire for anonymity in the clothes themselves. For what else could fuel the market for copycat corporate cloning? Certainly it's easier to stumble blindly into the Gap than it is to look carefully for a small, original label like Penelope Starr. But it would behoove us, as a species, to engage our sense of sight in an effort to distinguish between the real and the fake, lest evolution assume our eyes to be merely a vestigial organ that we are no longer using.

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From the February 1998 issue of the Metropolitan.

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