Hunt and gather elegance with rustic appeal

Passersby probably thought it was the opening of the latest art installation: a hip, black-clad crowd was mingling by a deer head mounted over a fireplace, surrounded by raw leather skins hung over the stark-white walls. Hand-felted jackets were displayed on stands like freestanding sculptures.

In fact, the event was the opening party for the new Hunt and Gather boutique at 225 Carrall Street. It was also an appropriate introduction to an artful, conceptual line that defies trends and revels in the element of surprise.

Ask most fashion designers who their biggest influences are and they'll list off big names like Christian Lacroix and Alexander McQueen. But question Natalie Purschwitz about the inspirations for Hunt and Gather, and you'll get some answers as pleasingly unexpected as her dressy-yet-rustic apparel.

"A big influence for my store and my style is a guy I call Rolf the Radium Woodcarver," Purschwitz told the Straight after the opening. The designer, who hails from Radium Hot Springs, went on to explain: "He's this crazy woodcarver who makes bears, cowboys, and everything out of logs. He's got booby traps all over his property.”¦I always thought that was really great, that he could make whatever he wanted and that was his store. And that's what I wanted to do."

Purschwitz, who's studied everything from archaeology at the University of Calgary to visual arts at Emily Carr Institute and New York's the Cooper Union, has hunted and gathered many more diverse sources for her artful, striking looks-pieces that range from hand-felted capes to scalloped wool "apron-belts" to "holster bags" that sling around the shoulder and sit low on the side.

For one, she's travelled all over the world and spent time living in Japan; her own mother is Japanese, an archaeology graduate who was working in Egypt when she met Purschwitz's German father. The influence of Japanese culture is evident in everything from the asymmetrical lines and diagonal jacket closures to Purschwitz's celebration of natural fibres and their random imperfections.

Purschwitz has also worked as a costume designer for dancers, from large troupes like Calgary's Decidedly Jazz to Vancouver's Alvin Erasga Tolentino, and her clothes have a drama and movement to them that must have seeped in from the stage shows.

The designer calls her Hunt and Gather line "fancy but a little bit rough"-equal parts Clan of the Cave Bear, Soho avant-garde, Zen minimalism, and even 18th-century elegance. She has half-jokingly dubbed her latest collection the "paleo-Queen Anne" look. Fittingly, ethereal-looking art-popster Jane Siberry is one of her most loyal customers.

Pieces range from long, asymmetrical herringbone skirts to cozy, irregular hand-felted scarves and shrugs. Purschwitz approaches her fashion design like an artist, but there is a fiercely practical side to her as well. Take the apron-belt, a wide, low-slung piece of lined, scalloped wool that looks cool over jeans or a skirt: it's designed with pockets for toting items around. "I like to have some kind of tool belt when I'm working-something to carry, like, my scissors," she says of her inspiration for the signature look. Her holster bag, like her flat wool backpacks and small waist pouches, serves a purpose as well: "I really like the hands-free approach to bags," Purschwitz explains.

Colours this season are subtle and muted, from natural earth tones through to blue-greys and khaki. (Prices range from $12 for hand-knitted cuffs to about $100 for skirts and tops and $200 for holster purses; prices for one-of-a-kind hand-felted jackets start around $300.)

Purschwitz recently branched out to start making men's pieces, like vests and sweaters. "Because I'm working in here, I can produce new things every day," she says. "I would like to be able to make things that are just strange that people will like."

The point of Hunt and Gather is that you can always expect the unexpected. Take Purschwitz's current project: sewing up little log-shaped pillows made of brown ultrasuede or jersey knit. Rolf the Radium Woodcarver would be proud.