Jess James’ fashions reflect surfer philosophy

A couple of onesies with B.E.Z. design stencils applied. Note how they aren't quite identical. — Photo courtesy of Jess James

Dancer, surfer, fashion designer, Jess James has managed to merge her three passions to form a business. Her brand name, B.E.Z. (be easy), describes a lifestyle philosophy and the casual comfort of the designs. The 24-year-old Chilmark native has created a line of clothing that she describes as partially inspired by the aesthetics of surf culture. And she creates the signature outfits that she and her dance partner, Lizzie Kent, wear for their performances as the Skeleton Sisters.

Ms. James’s line of tee-shirts, dresses, and baby clothes feature bold stenciled images, distress elements, and embellishments for a look that’s very of-the-moment, yet unique. She creates all of her own stencils and hand paints or bleaches the designs onto 100-percent cotton pieces.

“It’s kind of a surfer, laid-back feel,” Ms. James said recently about her clothing line. “The ideas are somewhat random, but the way they look makes them go together.” Her designs might be inspired by Native American patterns or the natural world, and they encompass a variety of images ranging from insects and armadillos to UFOs, jacks, and a bust of Nefertiti. Some of the natural designs are created by painting or bleaching over ferns and leaves. Ms. James also embellishes, deconstructs, distresses, and paints on Thrift Shop finds for original one-of-a-kind pieces.

Vineyard born and raised, Ms. James has been a serious surfer since she was a kid, like her older brother, Mike. She is equally enthusiastic about dance. She was part of Kelly Peter’s dance troupe throughout junior high and high school. Last summer she and Ms. Kent joined forces and started jointly choreographing their own dances, which combine elements of hip hop and modern dance. “We try to be theatrical and create a story. There’s always some sort of confilict. The songs we choose are a huge inspiration.” The performances, which display the women’s imagination and exceptional dance skills, are enhanced by Ms. James’s striking costumes and Ms. Kent’s equally dramatic hair and makeup creations.

As the Skeleton Sisters, the two dancers have twice performed at Nectars and were part of a show at the Yard last fall presented by Satsang Lounge, a cabaret collaborative based in New York and Los Angeles. After that performance the women were tapped for another Satsang Lounge presentation in L.A. The Skeleton Sisters were most recently seen dancing at Built on Stilts in August, and at the second annual Best Fest earlier this month.

Although she has been creating her own clothes for years, mainly through altering and embellishing existing items in her wardrobe, Ms. James became serious about launching her own line while in Los Angeles. Previously she had considered exporting handmade clothing from Southeast Asia, where she traveled for four months after graduating from the University of Vermont (she majored in sociology and minored in studio art).

Though she’s been producing her designs for only a few months, Ms. James already has a following. She was part of a young designers’ collective trunk show at the Green Room in June, and B.E.Z designs have been featured at a couple of local stores. Ms. James set up a table at the Tisbury Street Fair in July, where she did very well. She has gained fans of her line through Facebook. She takes requests for custom pieces.

While launching her clothing line this summer, Ms. James supported herself by doing landscaping and catering. Next month she plans to move to Brooklyn, where a lot of young Islanders, including a number of her friends, have settled. She is hoping to intern with a friend in the fashion business.

“There are so many designers who are not mainstream there, and there’s so much inspiration around,” Ms. James said about Brooklyn.