March 19, 1990 12:00 PM

In an industry aflutter with the look-but-don’t-touch hangtags of Armani, De la Renta and Lacroix, Gordon Henderson seems downright subversive. His bright and quirky creations are actually priced to sell. “There are hundreds of designers for ladies who lunch,” says Henderson, “but there are very few designing for working-class people.”

If his spring line—featuring, for example, a $200 pleated and embroidered dress based on a Cuban Guayabera shirt—still causes credit-card hesitation, just wait. This summer Henderson, 32, will introduce an even lower-priced label called But Gordon (inspired by the industry penchant for instant turnaround, as in “But Gordon, I needed it yesterday”). “They are great American sportswear,” he says of the outfits that will retail from $40 to $150. “They’re going to knock people’s socks off.”

“Gordon is a very talented young man,” says Carolyne Roehm, president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America. Adds Kalman Ruttenstein, Bloomingdale’s vice president for fashion direction: “Gordon has an original, witty point of view. He makes a strong statement with his silhouette and color.”

Henderson, who shuttled between divorced parents during his California childhood, was winning style points as early as second grade. “For his class picture he wore flannel dress pants, an oxford shirt and a scarf tied like an ascot,” says mom Yvonne Simmons, 53, a psychologist. As a single mother, Yvonne economized by stitching her own dresses from Vogue patterns. “Gordon would always comment on them,” she says. “I knew he had a special eye, and I would consult him.” By the time he reached Oakland’s Skyline high school, he was sewing his own jackets, pants and shirts.

At the University of California at Davis, Henderson toyed with becoming a doctor, then transferred to New York City’s Parsons School of Design, graduating in 1984. A year later he landed a job as an assistant to industry powerhouse Calvin Klein. “Klein was like an idol of mine,” he says. “I was low man on the totem pole. I saw how one of the great creators of America works.”

After an apprenticeship of just six months, Henderson started his own firm—and suffered a severe bout of jitters. The first time he presented his designs to a buyer—from Neiman Marcus—she had to coach him. “I was so nervous. I remember her saying, ‘Okay, Gordon, take your jacket off and show me the line.’ I thought, ‘What am I going to do if she hates it?’ ” But she loved it, and he soon became a secret resource for lunch-time shoppers at places like Macy’s, Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdale’s. When tony Bergdorf Goodman put his clothes in their windows, the young designer knew he had arrived. Says Gordon: “I remember explaining to my mom, ‘Bergdorf Goodman, Mom. You know, Bergdorf Goodman.’ ”

For all the hoopla over his recent collections—last month Henderson received the industry’s Perry Ellis award for best new talent—some retailers are miffed at such glitches as loose buttons and poor fit. “All the sensibility in the world doesn’t count,” gripes one, “if he can’t make a good garment.” Henderson dismisses the snags as common to start-up operations. “The most established fashion houses in the world have design problems—quality, fit, you name it.”

Still, Henderson seems sufficiently concerned to leave nothing further to chance. He sees little of his antique-filled Greenwich Village apartment, where he lives alone, spending most of his waking hours in his new midtown studio. “I’ve finally been accepted on Seventh Avenue,” he says. “It’s the best university I could hope to get into. Now I have to get straight A’s.”

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