Hodge's creations, marketed under the label Brat Originals, are sold only in three boutiques—the Spilt Milk in L.A., Bambino in Scottsdale, Ariz. and Crackers in Aspen—plus, for private customers, in Kathi's West Hollywood home. Hodge insists the world should not be misled by her label into thinking that she has contempt for her clientele. "Most people don't know that brat is an old English word for a bib or child's garment," she points out. On the other hand, Kathi says, "I'm not in the business of catering to movie stars. I just make the kind of clothes I want to."
That lately means tops and bottoms embroidered or hand-painted with bright animals. She also crochets sweaters and bikinis and adds antique buttons and trim to dresses she pieces together of many different fabrics. "I like doing a design once and then moving on to something else," says Kathi, who turns out two pieces a day—no more—though she often toils from 6 a.m. to midnight. "I'm dedicated to clothing as art. I can't be bothered by what people think little kids should or shouldn't be wearing." As for the resulting haute couture prices, she giggles, "The clothes make great hand-me-downs." Blouses and T-shirts run to $35, overalls $40, jackets $50.
Hodge (née Mullaney) was not in that bracket as a child. Raised in Schenectady, N.Y. and then Seattle, she took after her mother, a professional seamstress, when she started making clothes for her dolls at 2. By the eighth grade Kathi was charging her girlfriends 50¢ for the skirts she ran up on her mother's Singer sewing machine. But after graduating from high school, she took off for Aspen: "My little sister died when I was 16 and it was tense at home. I felt I needed to go."
To pay the rent she turned out cowboy shirts for waiters around Aspen. She sold her ski clothes and jackets made from old quilts to local boutiques and to stars like Valerie Harper and Jill St. John. "I was involved with all the wild stuff," she remembers. "I've seen and done it all." That included a failed marriage to a carpenter and a five-year relationship with restaurant manager Ron Hodge. He fathered her son, Hess, 4, and she took his name though they never wed.
Kathi began making children's clothes in earnest after Hess' birth—she cut down his first shirt from an old tablecloth. Close pal Claudine Longet and Cher were enthusiastic early boosters, and by the time Hess was a year old, Brat Originals had turned into a serious business.
These days Kathi, who moved to L.A. with Hess in 1977, lives in a Spanish-style West Hollywood duplex with Larry Greene, a kitchenwares dealer at fairs and swap meets. A front bedroom-workroom is shared with Hess, who often poses in his mother's ads and inspired many of her best designs. "Hess and I stick together," Kathi says proudly. "But he wishes I'd give up sewing and just play with him."
In spite of all her celeb customers and the prices, Kathi figures that last year she netted only an "embarrassing" $766. To turn that around, she plans to hire a staff of three and get into the mail-order business. But she points out, "I have always been free and a rebel," and there is no danger that the boss of Brat Originals will be swallowed by a conglomerate. "I've never worked for anyone else," Hodge declares, "and that's something I'm proud of."
Twenty-nine-year-old designer Kathi Hodge is a freckle-faced slip of a woman who is the Halston of Hollywood's under-12 set. Cher's Chastity, now 10, oves Kathi's overalls and hand-painted T-shirts. So does Maximilian Brooks, the son of Mel and wife Anne Bancroft. Ditto the Natalie Wood-Robert Wagner brood, Courtney, 5, and Natasha, 8. Neil Diamond has just ordered embroidered jeans for his son Micah, 1. A more serious patron is actress Quinn (Family) Cummings, 11. "You don't now know hard it is for someone my age to find a dress for the Academy Awards," says Quinn with a grin.