A Designer Looks for a Byte of Fashion Bucks

updated 08/29/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/29/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

It's a dress made for Princess Leia, a space-age frock fashioned out of computer chips and electronic debris. At 10 pounds, it may be a tad weighty, and at $50,000, it's more than a tad pricey, but look at it this way: "It's wrinkle-free and waterproof," boasts Melissa Panages, the 29-year-old designer behind the glittering kimono. "You never have to take it to the cleaners."

Panages has designed eight high-tech garments (the cheapest, a vest, costs $1,000) over the past three years, but the kimono is her masterpiece. She and an assistant spent 18 months stitching together the 3,000 18-karat gold-plated computer slivers that make up the shimmering garment. Panages calls her clothes "20th-century armor" and proclaims that they may be "the barbaric beginning of a revolution in the fashion industry." Well, not yet. So far her blue-chip prices have turned off potential customers. But Panages isn't fretting. "I'm just waiting," she says, "for some eccentric millionaire to buy one of the dresses and make art history with me."

A self-described "romantech," Panages first got involved with space-age refuse back in 1979 when her boyfriend, artist Leonidas Paulos, found a cast-off bag of gold-filled computer pins beneath an Oakland freeway. Within hours Panages had constructed her first high-tech necklace. Since then her company, immodestly dubbed Famous Melissa, has sold jewelry to major department stores like Macy's and Bloomingdale's across the country. Clothes were a natural next step, and in 1980 Panages started designing her futuristic fashions, made with everything from cable connectors to electronic leftovers from Skylab. She scrounges for obsolete NASA parts from surplus-electronics dealers up and down the California coast.

Panages has never believed in keeping a low profile. As an art student at Berkeley she glued ceramic leaves she had made in pottery class to the trees on campus. Now her high-tech togs have some folks wondering if she's out of her tree. Panages' response: "If Famous Amos can make it on chips, so can I."

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