Dawn Younger-Smith lives in a place apart.
On a quiet, shady street in the Victorian district of Smithville, the clothing designer resides with rock guitarist Mark Younger-Smith in a maze-like 1891 house. Rooms are entered and exited through 40 interior and exterior doors. Inside, the spaces unfold fancifully with furniture, decor and fabric rescued from roughly the 1880s to the 1920s.
Some spaces are reserved for her husband’s rock ’n’ roll sensibilities. Yet a dayroom deep inside a fantastical wing of the house, reputedly a former brothel, is populated with her collection of boudoir dolls. These are no children’s toys. In the 1920s, adult women carried these silky, satiny high-fashion dolls with them to parties and out on the town.
From these dolls came the memorable name of her businesses: Boudoir Queen.
“Sometimes I’d rather have a different name,” Younger-Smith sighs. “But people keep saying: ‘Keep the name.’ So I do.”
The former artist’s model, who retains a striking presence at age 48, moved from designing makeup to putting together apparel a dozen years ago. A recent collection was the buzz of the 2012 Austin Fashion Week in August. Runway models stalked the Driskill Hotel in vintage-inspired designs fashioned around the theme of Tennessee Williams’ Southern Gothic movie “Baby Doll.”
“I study fashion history and old Hollywood,” she says. “I’ve watched a lot of old movies.”
No doubt she has. These days, her clothes — often constructed from vintage fabric — exude the glamour of eras past.
“You really either like it or you don’t,” Younger-Smith says. “Some people say I overstyle (my models). It’s too much. I actually do that for a reason. Because I have to use the pictures over and over. I load them up so I can keep using an image.”
Customers of her online business — theboudoirqueen.com — don’t seem to mind. Creative, independent women such as Patti Griffin, Shawn Colvin, Emmylou Harris and Courtney Love snap up her modern takes on old looks.
(Note: Love settled Younger-Smith’s defamation suit against her. The designer wants to put that chapter behind her.)
I met Younger-Smith, sometimes known as Dawn Simorangkir, in an odd way. I sat next to her mother, Betty Baldwin Wetteroth, during Fashion Week. I thought: Oh, how sweet, a supportive mother. In fact, Wetteroth appeared as blown away as everyone else by Younger-Smith’s sexy, inventive designs, unfurled to steamy movie music.
Born an only child in Bakersfield, Calif., Younger-Smith lost her father to a car accident when she was only 13 months old.
“I always wondered what he was like,” she says. “He was very handsome and popular and people would talk about him constantly when I was growing up. So I think there was a sadness that led to the rebellious teen years.”
Hyperactive, she competed at gymnastics. She was doing well in school until transferring to an exclusive private school at age 12.
“I didn’t like my leaving friends,” she says. “And it really was a difficult school. I never loved going to school that much.”
As a teen, she rebelled by dressing up and shopping for antique clothing. She dyed and ratted out her naturally bright red hair and hung out with musicians.
“I discovered boys during this period,” she deadpans. “That’s when it all went awry.”
Now the mother of an adult son from a previous marriage, she’s selective about retelling some of those youthful misadventures.
She became a makeup artist at a time when few people branded their own designs. Naturally, she packed up and moved from Bakersfield to Beverly Hills. Living in a tiny apartment, she held down a job at Georgette Klinger on Rodeo Drive, where she made up celebrities, wealthy clients and wannabes. She later worked for the Bruno and Soonie Salon and Casandre 2000 and started a series of her own fashion businesses.
She set sail on the Hollywood club scene with some predictable results. Once at a club, her doctor date excused himself for a few minutes. The musical artist Prince waltzed up with his crew and asked her to dance.
“I was wearing a purple crushed velvet dress,” she recalls, almost shyly. “He was wearing tight red pants and a white shirt with red polka dots. He started spinning and twirling. I’m thinking to myself: ‘I am not a dancer.’ Then the song stopped, thank God.”
During her 20s, she shucked the punky look and started dressing like a model: very short hair, often very dark. Tight dresses. Heavy makeup. Think Edie Sedgwick, one of Andy Warhol’s ill-fated muses.
“I was trying to grow up,” she says.
Then she met her own Warhol, photographer Steven Arnold. A protégé of Salvador Dalí, Arnold used all sorts of media to stage bizarre and sometimes erotic scenes. She tagged along to one of Arnold’s parties.
“Angela Bowie was in a tent dancing a dance of the scarves,” she says. “Nude guys in gold were serving food. It was flamboyant, but very elegant at the same time. I’d never seen anything like that. I’m just a girl from Bakersfield.”
Some of Arnold’s images pop up in a startling manner at the Smithville house.
She continued to design makeup while modeling for magazines. Then she concentrated on collecting decor, clothing, textiles from the Victorian, Edwardian and Jazz ages. She made purses with some of her boudoir-doll heads, then summoned up elaborate visions of metallic lace that became immediate hits.
Younger-Smith first met her husband in 1989 on a blind date when he was playing with Billy Idol.
“He doesn’t remember me,” she thrusts.
“She had short black hair!” he parries, after being summoned from another part of the maze.
Ten years later, the Austin-based guitarist was in Los Angeles cutting a record. At the Sunset Marquee, he hung out with Brad Pitt and Billy Bob Thornton. Women lined up to beg for their autographs, but the designer flounced up to Younger-Smith, saying: “Are you Mark?”
Though he didn’t recognize her right away, they’ve been together ever since, finally marrying in 2007.
Meanwhile, the designer put all her energy into repurposing vintage materials. She jumped on this periodic trend early in the cycle, landing her clothes in Vogue, Italian Vogue and other defining publications.
Former intern Shannon LaRotta, who trained at the University of Texas, does most of the construction.
“She gets my crazy brain,” Younger-Smith says. “I do not sew. I think everything through in my head. Then I gather everything and lay it all out. She sews it. She’s been with me for so long, she knows what I like.”
They start with piles of old, falling-apart dresses, cut them up and then whip up something entirely new. Ten years after she began the process in earnest, other designers are using similar methods to rethink vintage.
“If everybody is doing it, I don’t want to,” she says. “It has to be fun for me. It has to be interesting. I don’t really need to do it. It has to be stimulating.”