May 05, 1997 12:00 PM

PROBABLY NO FASHION EXPERT EVER HAD AS AN ULTIMATE goal the assignment of dressing Joe Pesci on a movie like My Cousin Vinny, but Daryl Kerrigan found the experience especially unnerving. Pesci played a very Brooklyn, very fuhgeddaboutit kind of guy in the 1992 film, and after she’d carefully laid out his clothes each day, recalls the 33-year-old Irish native, Pesci would let “his bloody dog”—a big golden retriever—nap on them. Then, just as the cameras were ready to roll, Kerrigan had to defuzz Pesci while he played prima donna. “He would just yell at me and laugh and make a joke in front of everybody,” she says, laughing.

Fed up, Kerrigan shed her movie career—and the letters in her last name—and emerged as Daryl K, clothing designer. With $20,000 from her Vinny paycheck, she opened a retail space and studio in Manhattan’s East Village that year. Now Kerrigan’s line of clothing, including nylon drawstring miniskirts ($80) and knit tube tops ($50) have become must-haves for such trendsetters as Kate Moss and Garbage lead singer Shirley Manson. But it’s Kerrigan’s skinny, low-waisted pants that have become her trademark. Elizabeth Hurley likes them, she says, “because they’re sexy and hip, fit properly and don’t cut in anywhere.” Onstage, Alanis Morissette favors the vinyl ones ($132), while Kerrigan made a pair in leather especially for Nine Inch Nails lead singer Trent Reznor. “If you don’t own her pants,” says Vinny costar Marisa Tomei, who has five pairs, “it’s like, what’s your ass doing?”

The fashion establishment agrees. In February, Kerrigan took home the Perry Ellis Award for new womenswear talent from the Council of Fashion Designers of America. “It means so much to me,” she said in her acceptance speech. “Almost as much as seeing someone walking down the Bowery wearing my hip-hugging pants.”

For Kerrigan jeans have always been a staple. Growing up with three brothers on Dublin’s south side, “I was pretty much a tomboy,” she says, a fact that influenced her sense of style. “She wasn’t one of those little frilly, flouncy girls,” says her mother, Mary Cogan Daly, 60, an accomplished seamstress (now divorced from Daryl’s father, Fergus, 64, an entrepreneur) who made many of her daughter’s childhood clothes. “She was always into denims and trousers.”

But Kerrigan was soon stitching up her own creations: a pink-and-lilac silk confection for a school dance and a dress made from green tulle and, as her mother recalls it, “bits of rubber tires that she got from a bicycle. It was a crazy-looking thing.”

Her originality made her a standout—but not a star—at Dublin’s National College of Art and Design, where she enrolled in 1982 and almost flunked out four years later. While classmates churned out predictable designs, Kerrigan experimented—going so far as to fashion a wardrobe out of canvases salvaged from painting class. Her creativity was not applauded. After four years, she says, “I was just like, ‘Get me out of here.’ ”

Moving to New York City in 1986, she found work as a waitress and later as a wardrobe supervisor on movies while designing on the side. Soon she developed a Greenwich Village clientele who snapped up the floppy hats and other rehabbed clothes she peddled to boutiques herself. “I’d get old stuff, and then I’d change the shape of it,” Kerrigan says. As for her now famous low-riders, they were inspired by pairs of vintage hip-huggers she discovered at a Bronx warehouse.

After Vinny, and with the encouragement of Paul Leonard, 34, a carpenter and fellow countryman whom she met at a Manhattan club in 1986, she turned to designing full-time. Leonard, who renovated her first store, now manages the business, which has 20 employees. The clothes are sold not only at Kerrigan’s two Manhattan retail shops but at Barneys New York, Santa Monica’s Fred Segal Flair and Browns in London.

Although they have never married, Kerrigan and Leonard, who share an East Village loft, recently celebrated the 10th anniversary of “our commitment to each other,” says Leonard. He marked it by giving her a gold ring. Kerrigan’s planning a more lasting tribute: She wants to have their child. “That’s all part of life, too, you know,” she says. “Fashion isn’t everything.”


MARIA SPEIDEL in New York City

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