White shirts suit work or play

The man who is adventurous yet practical wants something that nudges tradition, but within reason. He keeps his eye out for well-constructed, perfectly fitted work clothes that are stylish and, while suited to his occupation, also make a personal statement. Nothing says on-the-job like a white work shirt, but the best ones in town are playing hard to get. They're draped over hangers crammed onto a clothing rack in the utility room of a narrow, crooked apartment above a bakery on West 10th Avenue near UBC.

Beside them on a drafting table, in stark contrast, lie illustrations and patterns for flamboyant, colourful men's clubwear. Beverli Barnes is versatile, to say the least. The local designer, tailor, and fashion illustrator holds a degree from Parsons School of Design in New York. She graduated more than 20 years ago on the dean's list. Today she provides made-to-measure services to clients (she also designs for women) on a one-on-one basis.

Sitting in her cramped makeshift studio, the daughter of the late Emery Barnes, former speaker of the British Columbia legislature, talks candidly about her up-and-down career and why, despite her background, she is on West 10th and not Fifth Avenue. A degree from Parsons opens a lot of doors in New York. However, the low-paying work of an apprentice designer, the drug-infused party atmosphere, and the new reality of HIV/AIDS wore her down. She moved home to confront the difficult prospect of a design career in Vancouver.

Her pedigree is certainly evident in the men's shirts she has styled for a wide variety of occupations, about 45 at last count. Made from top-quality, high-fibre luxury cottons and resplendent with fine detailing, each shirt is named after the man who inspired it.

"I want to know everything about a client before I design anything for them. My ex-husband used to say that I talked to my clients like old friends I'd known for 20 years."

The Howard shirt was designed for an architect whose cuffs dragged over the drafting table when he worked, covering them in lead. He complained that his tie always got in the way. Barnes created a sumptuous, understated shirt with an innovative cuff that is split over the wrist bone so that it never comes in contact with the table surface. She included a band collar and finished off the piece, appropriately, with architectural details such as angular yoke facings and pockets. The Craig is a loose-fitting carpenter's shirt with oversize pockets and long shirttails, sexy with a pair of jeans. The Richard, for financial advisers, is the most sober in her collection. She literally took the shirt off a financial adviser's back and re-created it with two pockets, a spread collar, and a dropped yoke and sleeve.

Barnes began designing work shirts in 1992, when she had her big break after several years of getting the cold shoulder from local retailers. "I'd go into stores and they'd keep telling me I wasn't Armani," Barnes says. "It was like, Who did I think I was?"

However, word about her work shirts spread, and one day a lawyer approached her. He liked her design so much, more lawyers followed, including women. " 'Can you do a waistcoat?' 'Can you do a judge's robe?' It just kept going on and on." A design company catering exclusively to the law industry, called Is It Legal?, was the result. In August 1996, Barnes entered into a joint venture with Holt Renfrew and opened a boutique in the store's downtown location. That boutique amounted to nothing more than a tucked-away rack. Barnes was out of the picture. Clients started calling her, complaining that the prices had more than doubled and that they missed her single biggest customer-service asset: herself. Within six months, the partnership was dissolved and Barnes, having unwittingly compromised her clients' loyalty, learned a valuable lesson.

Over the next few years, she won back many of her old customers and earned new ones. Last year, she felt the need to branch out from professional wear and found a unique opportunity. She produced a line of fabulous men's clubwear for a benefit in support of the Dr. Peter Centre, which provides care services for people living with HIV/AIDS. All 13 original pieces sold at an auction that raised $1,150. Inspired by the gay club scene in the 1970s, which Barnes frequented as a teenager, they are named after existing and defunct Vancouver gay bars and characters in TV's Queer As Folk. Numbers, for example, is a burgundy, rayon-velvet blend, low-rise boxer short. Odyssey is a black rayon shirt with vintage cream-coloured lace collar, cuffs, and left pocket.

Clubwear (pieces start at $150) can be made to order along with Barnes's work shirts, which are also $150 and up. Custom suits start at $1,200. Call 604-739-6934.

For men who value purposeful, custom-tailored design with staying power at the workplace or on the dance floor, Barnes has got the goods.