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Originally published Wednesday, April 16, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Hippie goes haute: This is not your parents' tie-dye

Gregory Parkinson dresses fashion plates such as Brooke Shields and Shiva Rose. He's shown his collection on the runway in Los Angeles and...

Los Angeles Times

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LOS ANGELES — Gregory Parkinson dresses fashion plates such as Brooke Shields and Shiva Rose. He's shown his collection on the runway in Los Angeles and New York. And he sells his color-drenched, vibrantly patterned clothes at some of the world's most exclusive stores.

But this day, he's elbow deep in a potful of purple dye, teaching us how to cook up spring's coolest ombre pieces at home.

"This isn't the tie-dye your parents wore," Parkinson says in his British accent.

No, it's not. The spring runways proved that tie-dye today is as artful a form of decoration as hand-beading or embroidery. The old starburst patterns are gone, replaced by irregular stripes and arcs and watery rainbow effects. There are flowing ombre cocktail dresses at Diane Von Furstenberg, complex Japanese shibori patterns on circle skirts at Thakoon and dip-dyed scarves and sheaths at Matthew Williamson, mysterious and moody. For his own collection, Parkinson gave the tie-dye trend California ease with layered parachute silk tops, dresses and skirts in rich hues with subtle dyed details.

"Tie-dye is really like jewelry," says the designer, who makes all his tie-dye pieces by hand. "It's surface decoration."

Hippies took to tie-dye in the 1960s because it was a do-it-yourself, anti-commercial, anti-establishment venture, characterized by markings that are nearly impossible to replicate. Now, in an age when discount chains reproduce runway looks before they even hit stores, designers are turning to it again, to make things that are special and to stay ahead of the imitators.

These are all subtle pieces, a far cry from the psychedelic spirals worn by Woodstock's revelers. The prices are a far cry from those T-shirt days, too: $400 for simple pieces and upward into four figures.

But Parkinson let us in on a secret: The dyeing technique is as simple as it was in 1969 — so simple that a beginner can transform a basic cotton shirtdress in less than 30 minutes.

"Once you master it, the possibilities are endless," Parkinson says. He has the craft down to a science.

"I've probably spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on dye in the last 15 years," he says. During the early part of his career, he tie-dyed every garment he touched. Colorful but shapeless dresses served as test canvases.

"They looked like clown clothes," he says of those early "big, huge garments," before starting to work on his canvas for the day: A trim $24.99 H&M shirtdress. He checks the label first: Dye doesn't stick to polyester, so it's imperative that the garment be as close to 100 percent cotton as possible. At 97 percent, ours passes the test.

He begins by dyeing the dress pink, which will become the color of the "stripes." Next, he loops and ties strips of muslin around the parts of the dress where he wants to place the "stripes," to preserve the pink when he re-dyes the dress purple. This method of "tying-and-dyeing" is a form of shibori, an ancient Japanese art that uses dye-resistant materials to create intricate fabrics.

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Parkinson wants to create a playful pattern and rich color. He pours the entire bottle of purple dye into the pot, crushing leftover clumps of dye with a large wooden spoon. "They cause splotches," he says, stirring. Parkinson recommends that beginners use a three-pack of cheap T-shirts for a first draft.

Parkinson submerges the shirtdress into the pot of purple, stirring it occasionally, while being careful to keep it covered in liquid. After just a minute underwater, the dress is plucked from the pot, rinsed beneath the tap and squeezed dry.

Suddenly, it's time for the big reveal. He unwinds the muslin strips — so eager to see the results that he doesn't even wait for the scissors. The decorous Englishman tosses civility aside and uses his teeth and ...

Faster than you can say "Purple Haze," he shakes the rumpled ball of cotton, and a vivid pink-and-purple dress appears as if by magic. It's stunning. And it took about 30 minutes, start to finish.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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