FASHION Designer's novelty tops grew out of boredom

A whim led to serious fashion buzz for the T-shirt designer.
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- "It's just kismet, a weird kismet," Rita Accurso announces, pounding the air with her hands.
Her dark red hair falls loosely over one eye. The upper part of one arm is embellished with tattooed cowgirls. Her double T-shirts cuddle her body affectionately while geisha girls' faces float freely around the midriff. Her voice is deep and husky. And she is beaming with a smile that envelops her face.
She is talking about how the whimsical novelty tops she created have taken off on a remarkable flight among fashion consumers. She barely gave them a nudge.
Cast members from television's "NYPD Blue" recently ordered nine. Several New York and Hollywood upscale boutiques have responded favorably. A buyer for Jeffrey, the exclusive fashionistas' favorite mini-department store in downtown New York City, was interested but failed to place an order.
And a Hollywood friend has promised to pitch them to Los Angeles boutiques. "I just sent her more. She keeps selling them before she can get to the stores."
They are one of a kind, quirky, lovingly detailed and soft. "There is a kind of innocence about them," she says.
How it started
It started about a year ago. Accurso, who is part of a large Italian-American family known especially in Kansas City for a midtown deli and restaurant, was working as a bartender. One night, she was at home and bored. "I just started messing around," she says.
Taking a man's extra-large white T-shirt, she sewed in seams until it was pared down to a small, skinny size. She pulled print fabric from the piles of textiles scrunched into a bookcase, choosing one of her favorite images, geisha girls. She cut them out and, slowly and tediously, began to embroider them onto the shirt.
She made one and then another. She used other fabrics, other images. She sent one to Hollywood to her best friend, Deanna Madsen, who is married to actor Michael Madsen. And the serendipitous process began to evolve.
Deanna Madsen wore it to a party where it caught the attention of other young women who wanted the shirts for themselves. Madsen's friend, Gay Whittaker, was marketing her own fragrance with specialty stores. She began, literally, to sell them from the trunk of her car. When she called on stores to promote her perfume, she also showed the shirts.
Meanwhile, sportswear buyer Kelly Schneider of Halls in Kansas City spotted Accurso wearing one at a party and, after seeing the collection, wrote an order.
These days, she spends days and nights in her sunny, second-floor cubicle studio fashioning the shirts, embroidering images on the fronts and backs. "You should look good coming and going," she says.
Long hours
One top can take eight hours and on a good day, she can make two. "I've created my own sweatshop," she jokes.
Her label is La Rita Ro, adapted from the nickname, La Rita Rouge (red-haired Rita), a French friend assigned to her.
Accurso has sewn as long as she can remember. When she was 3, her mother and grandmother, a tailor, taught her to pull a needle through material, and soon she was making Barbie dresses from the flour sack fabrics her grandmother brought from Italy.
She has always made her own clothes, combining them with vintage pieces in ways that set her apart. "I love Betsy Johnson, Vivienne Westwood and Comme des Garcons. I could never afford their clothes. So I made my own," she says.
If she buys an item, she is likely to change the buttons or deconstruct and restyle it. Never wanting to look like anyone else, she loves to wear gloves, hats, high boots and lots of velvet.
Today, her most formidable challenge is to make her new labor-intensive venture work financially. Although she thinks she could sell the T-shirts for considerably more on the West Coast, prices start at $100 at Halls.
"I figured up once I'm making $3 an hour."
On the upside, she is wading into an apparel project at a time when, as Schneider notes, both consumers and retailers are desperately seeking new, unique styles. Also, hand-crafted looks such as embroidery and crochet are rising fast in fashion ranks.
On the downside, it is difficult for upstarts like Accurso to get notice -- much less financial success -- in a faithless, erratic, trend-driven business. Sustaining the buzz may well be the toughest part.
But Accurso has no concerns.
"If I get in a pinch, I have a friend in the wings who can come in and help me make them," she says. "But I never planned for it to take off. It will never be a mass-produced T-shirt. Right now, I'm just taking one day at a time."
She also makes draperies and wedding gowns for private clients. She has made costumes for Starlight Theatre. She embellishes denim jeans. And she still tends bar part time in Westport.
In the future, she would like to live in Paris or Amsterdam, but for now, she is content with chance.
"Things work out," she says, "if you let life happen to you instead of fighting it."

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