The Cachet of Crochet

Shanie Jacobs turns over a giant plastic garbage bag and out tumbles Ed Wood's idea of Heaven. Angora sweaters pile up on the sofa and fall onto the floor, enough fuzzy rabbit fur to have sent the cross-dressing B-movie director into a tizzy. Jacobs is having quite a time herself. She rubs a pink angora bathing suit top against her cheek and fawns over a baby blue jacket and a matching miniskirt, stroking the furry nap. She picks up a pair of tiny knit shorts constructed of glittery copper and gold yarn. Bobbing to the beat of an old Cuban danzon coming from a cassette player in the corner, she makes the hot pants dance along. Then she abruptly scoops the garments up and shoves them back into the garbage bag as if they were dirty laundry.

Dirty laundry they are not. In fact, at age 57, the diminutive Jacobs is among the toniest of the nation's freelance designers; her handmade garments can fetch up to $2500 a pop.

Not that you'd ever suspect this given Jacobs's lifestyle, which is as frugal as her clothing is showy. She shares her stuffy South Beach rental with a college student from China. Her favorite treat is the Grand Slam breakfast at the Denny's on the corner. For kicks, she sometimes partakes in a low-stakes round of bingo. "Hey, I'm no Calvin Klein," she says.

Jacobs is not restrained, however, when it comes to her achievements. She is happy to haul out a three-ring binder stuffed with magazine clippings: a Harper's Bazaar layout featuring one of her designs next to an outfit by Klein, a People magazine cover showing Christie Brinkley in a white angora jacket, a Cosmopolitan cover showcasing supermodel Paulina Porizkova in one of Jacobs's custom-made crop tops.

Her creations have been showcased regularly in the pages of Cosmo for more than twenty years, from doilylike blouses and peekaboo underwear in the Seventies to her current retro designs. Impractical and exorbitant, her clothes fit perfectly into the fantasy world of fashion magazines. When she works, Jacobs says, she often imagines how the design will look in a photograph rather than in real life.

She sells her clothes to high-profile clients such as Brinkley and Marla Maples. But more often she rents them out for magazine shoots, charging hundreds of dollars per day. These jobs have accounted for the bulk of her income since she moved to Miami from New York last year. Most of her revenue, in turn, is spent on the supplies that make her sweaters unique: the wispy angora spun from the sheared fur of French rabbits, and custom-made wool yarns. With the help of one assistant who works in New York, Jacobs produces about 700 pieces per year. She refuses to mass-produce her designs and frequently launches into tirades about the shoddy craftsmanship that pervades the garment industry. "I have a lot of untapped potential for profit," she says. "But I have my principles."

Not only are her clothes prohibitively expensive, they are unwearable for most women. The small stable of customers who spend $300 on an angora bikini can also afford plastic surgery and daily sessions with personal trainers. As for Jacobs, she greets the very idea of wearing her own skimpy designs with a guffaw. "I can make someone faint and go to a hospital because of how badly I dress," she snorts. "I'm a bag lady." Today her self-described "gorilla" mammaries are hidden beneath a baggy T-shirt. Her legs swim inside a pair of shapeless slacks and her hair is piled carelessly atop her head. She wears no makeup.

In her day, however, Jacobs boasted a look more along the lines of her famous clients. To prove it she turns to the pictures in the back of her portfolio. Raven-haired and wasp-waisted, a twenty-year-old Jacobs smolders on the cover of an early Sixties True Police magazine, clad in a clingy red sweater and pencil skirt, a cigarette between her crimson-tipped fingers."Seattle's playboy lured women to his yacht -- a one-way ride to death," the headline screams. These clippings are interspersed with old photographs of Jacobs striking various sultry poses, as well as snapshots of her as a serious, dark-eyed child.

Jacobs studies pictures she's looked at hundreds of times before and shrugs. "I was gorgeous."

A little girl sits on the stoop of a Brooklyn brownstone and dreams herself away. Sylvia Blanche Cohen was the youngest of three sisters in what she describes as a family "straight out of a Woody Allen movie." Her Lithuanian father was an orphan who spoke no English when he went to New York in the Twenties. For more than 30 years he worked as a hospital orderly, developing an increasing phobia of germs. After wading in bodily fluids all day, he'd scrub up, put on his pajamas, and quarantine himself in a living room chair behind a blockade of gauze rolls and bottles of rubbing alcohol. Jacobs's mother rarely changed out of her housecoat and slippers; she rarely even left the house.

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Judy Cantor