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A Heroine for Whoville

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It was a quandary of Seussian proportions. Charged with outfitting the population of Whoville for the new ?Jim Carrey film Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas, costumer Rita Ryack envisioned the Whos in colorful sweaters with zany patterns. But the L.A. knitter she turned to first “just didn’t understand the humor” of the classic holiday tale. The sweaters, Ryack recalls, “were stiff. There was no whimsy to them. We needed something you couldn’t just buy at the Gap.”

Enter Susanne Cousins, 40, a Swedish designer known throughout Hollywood for her fanciful knitting—and called by one and all, appropriately enough, “Suss” (pronounced like “Seuss”—which rhymes with moose). Looking at Ryack’s sketches for the wacky polka-dotted, zig-zagged sweaters, Cousins got it instantly. “They looked just like the ones I used to make in Sweden,” she says.

In four months, Cousins and her two knitters produced some 250 pieces of knitwear on their hand looms, including eight identical red-striped sweaters for Carrey’s Grinch. “Her work is lighthearted and witty,” says Ryack. “She even came up with a technique to make a sweater look shaggy and furry. I was delighted.”

She isn’t alone. Cousins counts Elisabeth Shue, Angela Bassett, Dustin Hoffman and Magic Johnson among her fans. She has made over 30 tops for sweater aficionado Bill Cosby—no small feat since “one of his arms is 1½ inches longer than the other,” she says. Other stars, including comedian Julia Sweeney and actress Rose McGowan, cross their own needles in Suss’s popular weekly classes, held at her L.A. boutique, Suss Design. “Knitting is the new yoga,” says Cousins. “Women like to come because it’s very relaxing. For some it’s like therapy.”

But it’s the appeal of her designs—she favors bold colors and wild geometric patterns—that has made Cousins’s business such an unrivaled success. Her wares, which now include her own line of Grinch sweaters, are available in some 300 stores and catalogs nationwide, helping Suss Design ring up nearly $1.5 million annually in sales—and gratitude. “She’s the most generous person,” says her pal, actress Noelle Beck (formerly of TV’s Loving). “She just gave my kids a Grinch sweater which is adorable.”

Cousins comes by her playful inventiveness naturally. Born in the village of Angelholm, Sweden, to Goran Fritz, a musician (now deceased), and Carin, 64, a housewife and artist, Suss recalls watching her mother and grandmother knit Christmas gifts by the fire. “In the winter we’d knit all the time because it was so cold and there was little else to do,” she says.

Suss first took up the needles at age 7, but the sweater she tried making for her brother Tony, 47, now a musician, turned out so big her grandfather ended up with it. Still, Suss recalls, “I remember how good I felt giving it to him.”

In 1982, after a brief venture selling sweaters and trendy duds out of a small shop in Angelholm, Suss moved to New York City. Tending bar at night and knitting sweaters by day in her tiny East Village studio, she sold her creations to people she happened to meet through work and friends, including actress Beck. “I wore them on Loving and everybody wanted one,” says Beck. In 1984 Suss fell in love with Brian Cousins, now 41, an actor she met at a party. “We married in six weeks,” he says. “The key was we accepted each other as artists.”

In 1991 the couple moved to Los Angeles, where Suss began a wholesale operation out of their garage. The retail shop, located near the rented Spanish-style home the two now share with daughters, Hanna, 11, and Viveka, 3, followed in 1995.

Now Suss plans to open a retail store in New York City and another in San Francisco. She also hopes to increase sales of her knitwear in chains like Neiman Marcus and p Bloomingdale’s. Her 11 guiding inspiration: a bit of her mother’s advice, which Suss often gives to her own stuff dents. “She said, ‘Always finish what you ‘ ” start so you feel good about yourself,’ ” Suss says.

So how did she feel when the Grinch’s nice striped sweaters kept getting destroyed during the filming of action scenes? “I got really excited,” she says, “because I got to knit more.”

Sophfronia Scott

Alison Singh Gee in Los Angeles