Most people imagine the heavens as white, pure, maybe even a bit boring. Not Carmelita Martell. The 35-year-old owner of Carmelita Couture, a boutique on Third Street, has more of a Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat -inspired afterlife in mind — and she's using this vision to guide her spring 2011 line. "In the scripture, God sits on a throne over the rainbow. ... Maybe I'm not quoting that correctly," she laughs, "but I've always seen the heavens in color because the world is made of color."
Martell is decked in black leggings, a boxy top and fluffy, plaid boots, with middle-school blue eye shadow and jet-black hair topping it off. Her personal aesthetic — geometric, crisp, a little harsh — recalls the designer's past pieces, which have earned her the love of Mya, Katerina Graham, Lil' Kim and other famous folk. Until now, her unusually beautiful, tight-fitting apparel has been donned almost exclusively for red carpets and special occasions. But in her new spring line, Martell has made clothing for the everyday. "It's feminine, but not as body-conscious as before," she says, noting that the new pieces come in small, medium and large. "It's the summertime," she says. "People want a little more freedom, more movement." And that's how Martell went from designing metallic shoulder armor to flowing, tunic-inspired dresses that contain all colors of the rainbow.
One new multicolored dress is accented with '70s-era brown leather ties; another's fabric is mirrored after the galaxy. "This is the first time I've had the luxury of making my own fabric, which is usually only something bigger designers can do," she says. "That's a really big deal."
The new pieces still display Martell's signature weirdness, for sure — some fabrics look like the insides of a lava lamp — but their traditional designs make them uncontroversial enough to wear to the beach as cover-ups. The dresses look deceptively shapeless, but their silk jersey fabric melts onto women's bodies, hugging every swoosh and curve. That's all part of Martell's scheme to bring more business to her Old City boutique, which opened in May. "We dress a lot of celebrities, a lot of rap stars," says Martell. "But we're still undiscovered by a lot of people in the city. We want the girls on the street to know about us, too." The spring line of dresses, bustiers, tops and bell bottoms starts at $285, though — not exactly doable for the street dwellers she wants. So Martell says that some goods, like shoes and accessories, are priced at a more affordable $35 or $50.
But what does the future hold for Martell — besides a prismatic afterlife? Will she become more traditional, and risk losing her bizarre-loving base? Doubtful. Martell says her next move is a men's line — her way. She says she's been getting requests from people who are disappointed with the city's lack of unconventional male clothing. "It would work with the lines of men, the way they're shaped. But it would be more eccentric," she explains. "I'm thinking shoulder armor. Leather pants, capelets, straight silk tafetta pants — fearless menswear, for a modern-day Jim Morrison."
Carmelita Couture, 17 N. Third St., 215-925-3207, carmelitacouture.com.