Pittsburgh fashion designer James Houk makes salvage chic


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For James Houk, fashion design is a combination of three loves: athletics, art and Americana.

His casual-yet-clean-cut graphic tees for men and women are branded with sketches of boxers or motorcycles. Others bear eagles or references to Pittsburgh or his neighborhood, Brookline.

"Pretty much I just design from things in my life," says Mr. Houk, 49, who draws inspiration from his experiences as a former professional fighter, a practice catcher and conditioning coach for the Pittsburgh Pirates, and a member of a U.S. Army hostage rescue team in the late 1980s. "I don't think I've ever done a design, actually, that didn't have a real memory behind it."

His formula has been working with organizations such as the Andy Warhol Foundation and retailers including American Eagle, Barney's NY and Saks Fifth Avenue taking notice and carrying his clothes. One of his latest lines, Big Chief, his first denim endeavor, sticks to this personal approach to design by -- literally -- sewing pieces of Pittsburgh onto jeans for men and women.

The collection pays tribute to Pittsburgh's steel heritage with buttons and rivets made from materials harvested from local steel mills. Artisan Jason Stein scours sites for metals that are then hand-forged and hand-stamped into hardware for the pants. Mr. Houk also has been working with Ron Baraff of Rivers of Steel to collect metals and research the organization's archives for future design ideas.

"Every single piece is hand-touched, and it's almost literally the heart and soul of Pittsburgh," Mr. Houk says.

The jeans are priced at about $250 and have been carried at Fred Segal in Los Angeles. The Buckle retail chain is considering stocking the jeans, as well, Mr. Houk says. The Big Chief line includes other apparel, such as cotton tops.

In the past, Mr. Houk encountered hesitation from some about selling or wearing clothing with a strong Pittsburgh thread.

"People think Pittsburgh is cool now." Its steel history is "really resonating" with people, he says.

But even Mr. Houk didn't recognize at first the potential his designs had to attract attention. About 12 years ago, someone with ties to American Eagle saw a painting by Mr. Houk, a lifelong self-taught drawer and painter.

"They just happened to mention to me, 'could you take what you do with these paintings and somehow apply them to clothing?' " He was put in touch with the South Side-based retailer and designed some looks for it.

"I got so many positive comments, [people] said, 'you should try to do this on your own,' " Mr. Houk says.

He started a private label of T-shirts, thermals, pants and jackets named Brookline after his neighborhood that Barney's NY started offering in the early 2000s.

"I found that they were so well respected that pretty much anywhere you went after that ... it opened a lot of doors," he says.

Some of those opportunities have included collaborations with United Arrows Japan and Holt Renfrew Canada. He also has participated in gift lounges for the Grammy and Academy awards.

"I never expected it, but I've really been getting a neat following of celebrities asking to make stuff for them," with "NCIS's" Michael Weatherly, singer Fergie of the Black Eyed Peas and Jesse Metcalfe of the latest "Dallas" series on TNT among some of his fans, he says.

Next on his to-do list is a special line for BMW Mini Cooper. His business partners also recently opened stores that feature Mr. Houk's pieces, as well as selections from other designers such as Dolce & Gabana, in Mexico and Korea, where his business partners are from.

He tries to be as hands-on during each stage as possible -- brainstorming designs, picking color palettes and visiting factories where his clothes are manufactured. In whatever project he pursues, his goal is similar: to produce clothes that are authentic and fun versus trendy.

"I kind of design from the heartland out," he says. "I think of the middle of the United States and draw outward from there. ... It ends up being real."

Learn more about Big Chief and other collections by Mr. Houk at http://jetstreet.us or www.etsy.com/shop/JetStreet.

fashion

Sara Bauknecht: sbauknecht@post-gazette.com.


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