'When I moved here from Boston years ago," says Elizabeth Huller-Eisemann, "I brought ten goldfish with me on the plane. Or rather, they were supposed to be in cargo. They actually missed the flight, and they had to stay in their little bags for 23 hours. They all survived. Most of them lived another five years; one of them is still alive -- he's nine. When I got here, I wanted my license plate to be GLDFSH." Now, Goldfish is her brand, the name she has given to her line of customized jean jackets. "I went to art school 30 years ago," she says, "but I had never sewn or worked with fabric. But one day, I got bored, and I wanted to decorate my bed. I bought pillows and fabric. I cut out pieces of the fabric and glued them onto the pillows with fabric glue. I had this fabulous fringe left over, so I decided to make a jacket. I glued the fringe on, and everywhere I went, people thought the jacket was fabulous. They told me I should make more of them. So I bought a good used sewing machine. But I still didn't know how to sew."
The project went on hold until "I moved in with my husband and lined all his shelves with shelf paper -- clear plastic with a white grid pattern on it. I thought, 'This stuff would make fabulous backpacks. So I taught myself to sew on plastic, which was challenging. Plastic doesn't bend. I used multicolored ribbon for the straps." After the backpack, a jacket seemed like a no-brainer. "I covered it with sunflowers. The fabric I bought for the trim had its own hem. I cut it and sewed it onto the cuffs with funky stitching -- it didn't matter if it was crooked."
Things got moving when Huller-Eisemann wandered into Matti D's shop in Del Mar (858-523-0693) while wearing one of her own backpacks. "The salesman said it was fabulous. I said I was sewing other things as well, and the owner agreed to take a look at my jackets. She thought they were great; she ordered five."
Making the jackets starts with buying the jackets. "I used to buy jean jackets at TJ Maxx or Burlington Coat Factory. I bought whatever I could find for under $30. I went for shorter, more fitted jackets with some stretch to them. Then I bought some Gap jackets at an outlet. Finally, I got a resale number -- which made me a legal manufacturer -- and found a place in L.A. where I could buy the jackets wholesale. I buy the materials for decorating the jackets in the L.A. garment district -- but also from anywhere I find things. I bought some patches -- really good flags, Fresca, Goodyear -- on eBay. I buy whatever fabrics catch my eye."
Step one is replacing the buttons. "It's such a pain. I have a tool that cuts the button in half so you can pull it apart. My stepson is 17. I pay him to de-button the jackets, and even though he's an athlete, he hates it." Once the jacket is stripped of buttons (and whatever else she
doesn't want), Huller-Eisemann tries to let the fabrics dictate the design. "I bought a white antique beaded collar, and it was my guide for the rest of the jacket. I used white velvet for the base of the collar and the cuffs. I started with big cuffs, but the velvet was too bulky, so I made them shorter. I'm very good with a stitch-ripper; I'm very particular. If something doesn't look right, I take it out and redo it."
She takes pride in the details. "All the buttons I sew on have backer buttons. If a jacket has a black motif, then all the thread in the inside is black; if it's pink, then the thread is pink. Some things are designed to be fixed to the jacket with heat, but I sew them on. I spend anywhere from 3 to 15 hours on a jacket, depending on the details. Sewing on the buttons takes over an hour. Then I have them dry-cleaned to make sure everything can make it through." She sells some jackets out-of-town, but locally they are available exclusively at Matti D for $250.
latest creation is a racing jacket. "I love buttons, ribbons, and patches. One day, I found a rhinestone zipper; I didn't know what to do with it, but I thought it was great. Then, a little later, I was in a fabric store and saw some silver quilted satin. It was like a light went on. I thought, 'Racing jacket: silver sleeves and rhinestone zipper.' I went home and started to play with the idea. I cut the collar, button placket, and sleeves off a jean jacket, then added the sleeves, zipper, and patches. I grew up with my family selling Goodyear tires, so that's why I use the Goodyear patches."
The result was a hit. "Everybody wanted one, but I couldn't afford to manufacture them quickly enough. So, I had a prototype manufactured by a company in L.A. I liked it, and I bought 100. I add the patches and other details. A woman saw one at the Del Mar Nationals, which is a horse show, and she wanted it for the Baja races in June. Her husband's company makes Deutsch shock absorbers, so she wanted it with a Deutsch patch, a peace sign patch, and a BF Goodrich patch. Goodrich was sponsoring the races. I started researching the Indy 500 race, and I found there was a lot of interest in trading pins. I bought a bunch at a flea market, and I'm going to add those to the jackets."
Huller-Eisemann's Goldfish brand jackets are also sold at the Del Mar Nationals and at a women's boutique set up next to the Indy 500. They retail for between $400 and $500. Her website is www.goldfishdesign.biz; contact her at 760-233-0051 or at email@example.com.