In February, design lovers descend upon Palm Springs for Modernism Week, an annual celebration of midcentury modern art and architecture. Everywhere you turn, people look like they have walked out of the late 1960s: One woman wears a pink and yellow paisley mini cocktail dress; another is in a billowy bohemian top in a kaleidoscope of browns and oranges; a man strolls by in a dapper plaid suit as if he’s just stepped off the Mad Men set. Many are wearing clothes created by Trina Turk, the Japanese-American designer who has spent the past quarter of a century shaping the style of Palm Springs, setting up a boutique in what would become the town’s cultural district. In doing so, she offered the world a distinct vision of American fashion—one grounded in bold, maximalist patterns that reflect moments of revolution and counterculture in the nation’s history.
In a new book, Turk looks back at the 25 years since she launched her eponymous label. (In a nice touch, the book itself is bound in cloth from one of Turk’s ’60s-inspired prints.) Every season, she has created between 40 and 50 prints, inspired by garments she has stumbled across while rummaging through flea markets. Some years, she takes cues from her travels, introducing fabrics inspired by Morocco or India. These busy styles contrast with monochromatic garments, such as skinny black cigarette pants and white halter tops, still grounded in silhouettes of earlier eras. “I’m known for my prints, but each collection also has simpler pieces, where I am much more focused on the drape of the fabric and the way it falls on the body,” Turk says.
What is striking as you flip through the images is how consistent Turk’s aesthetic is, even as trends have come and gone over the decades. Throughout her career, she has managed to define a distinct strain of American style, one that is disparate from the preppy aesthetic popularized by Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, and Brooks Brothers, and from the Western look defined by hard-wearing Levi’s jeans and flannel shirts. Instead, Turk’s garments call to mind Mods and Hippies. They immediately transport you to a pool in California or a beach in Florida.
In the book, Turk lists the numerous style icons who inspire her. Many are strong women, such as Anni Albers, Mary Tyler Moore, Gloria Steinem, and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis—women who used their fashion sensibilities to push back against the cultural norms of their time. Turk incorporates their aesthetic into her own, creating garments that celebrate women who dare to live boldly.
Turk began her career in junior roles at other fashion houses, such as Brittania Jeans and Ocean Pacific. But her real passion was digging into vintage looks and colorful patterns at thrift stores. She launched her company in 1995 at the age of 34 to create versions of these garments with subtle modifications that made them look modern. When she debuted her first collection, department stores such as Saks, Barneys, and Fred Segal placed orders. Over the years, she has done collaborations with Macy’s and Banana Republic. (She even made a pair of Minnie Mouse ears for Disney, featuring one of her iconic patterns.) She launched a menswear line called Mr Turk with an exuberant aesthetic similar to the women’s line. And eventually, she opened six boutiques across the country and launched her own e-commerce store.
But unlike other American designers who have become household names—for instance, Diane von Furstenburg and Ralph Lauren—she has chosen to keep her business relatively small. Rather than expanding into a wide range of categories and lines, she has stayed focused on the clothes she loves designing and the customer who embraces her style. While she has occasionally participated in New York Fashion Week, she isn’t a fixture at the shows.
Instead, she has been content to embed herself in the Palm Springs community. She loved digging through the city’s thrift stores, discovering clothes from the heyday when Hollywood stars would vacation there. “Back then, the stars’ contract stipulated that they had to stay within two hours’ drive of the film set, and Palm Springs was exactly two hours away,” Turk says. In 1998, she and her late husband, Jonathan Skow, bought a 1936 house inspired by a ship in Palm Springs, and in 2002, she opened her first boutique there, decorated by the interior designer Kelly Wearstler. She didn’t realize it at the time, but she was helping to kickstart the revitalization of Palm Springs, helping to transform it into a cultural hub in California. It made sense that when Modernism Week debuted in 2005, attendees flocked to her store, dressed from head to toe in her looks. “Modernism Week has always been one of the most successful weeks of the year, when it comes to generating sales,” says Turk.
That was true again this year, Turk says. But shortly after the event took place in February, the coronavirus arrived in the United States. She shut down her stores during the lockdowns, and like many other fashion businesses, her sales plummeted. To survive, she says she had to lay off employees and spread out inventory meant for a single season across several. It has been a difficult few months, but Turk has a steady personality and is taking the crisis in stride. “We survived 9/11 and the Great Recession,” she says. “We’re a relatively small business, so we’ve been rattled by the pandemic, but we’ll survive it.”
In many ways, Turk’s outlook is encapsulated in her prints and patterns she loves so much. “I’ve always been drawn to bright vintage prints because they represent optimism,” she says. “They make the statement that we control our own happiness. We can respond to the world around us with joy.”