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What L.A. Style?

After attending shows by some 40 designers during L.A. Fashion Week Spring 2004, I find myself in a metaphysical pickle. Sure, we could chat about the flounces, ruffles, ruching, shirring, buttons, asymmetrical necklines, lurex, buckles, danglies, hankie hems, blousons and jersey that dominated the runways. But for the moment I’m struggling to figure out a bigger issue: What does design in L.A. mean right now? Not very much, I’m frustrated to report, if you judge these things by the majority of shows presented last week. Call it the curse of California sportswear. We’re known for contemporary casual, but that’s not what we should be sending down the runway — especially when L.A. is now chock-a-block with design talent that goes way beyond sportswear.

That’s not to say there weren’t some stunning ensembles that sauntered down the runway, but more often the outfits, while perfectly serviceable, were indistinguishable from clothes you might find at the Gap or Banana Republic (and in some cases, a few notches below that). So where is the art? Too frequently, there was little or no sense of a cohesive vision, just random thoughts occasionally punctuated by a mind-blowing piece — which does not a collection make. Moreover, the production elements — hair, makeup, shoes, music — in a number of shows seemed to be competing with rather than enhancing the outfits, or were just simply wrong for what was being shown. (A notable exception was the Frankie B. show, where everything, including the clever city-view projection and plants placed at the entrance, reflected the sporty Lady of the Canyon feel of the line.)

During last April’s Fashion Week, when a significant number of fashion press, celebrities, top-tier stylists and major buyers turned out for the first time, there was a giddy sense that L.A. had arrived. So where are we now? Perhaps the question should be, where are they now? Many shows had empty seats, and everyone had a theory on why that might be: the fires, the transit strike, competing schedules. Again, we had two separate entities hosting the majority of the 60 shows that were held citywide: Mercedes-Benz Shows L.A. at the downtown Standard, run by New York’s 7th on Sixth, and Smashbox at its Culver City studio.



Believe the hype. Louis Verdad,
on the map after designing
Madonna’s recent tour outfits,
put on an electrifying show that
matched the playfulness of his
spring line: smart button details,
sexy high-waisted denim pants,
put-the-blame-on-Mame pantsuits.


No doubt there’s merit in each of those reasons, particularly the scheduling conflicts that forced most of us to choose one venue or another (or get stuck in traffic trying to get back and forth). But the fact is there were few reasons for stylists and press to attend — or stay. These are the people, along with the designers themselves, who push fashion forward — particularly the stylists in our ubiquitous red-carpet culture. Granted, fashion — like so much art — is stuck in neutral: We’ve blown up narrative, we’ve deconstructed form, we’ve recontextualized content. The result, at least in fashion, is that there’s no sense of where to go. Instead, ironic or iconic nostalgia informed many of the collections. Flappers, mods, Jackie O, Gilda, Dynasty, Halston, punk, new wave — nary a decade from the past century went untapped. Of course, that’s hardly limited to L.A. design.

Despite having seen every show at Mercedes-Benz, I couldn’t get a handle on why many of the designers were chosen. How do you go from the edgy elegance of Eduardo Lucero or the smart architectural angles of MartinMartin to the run-of-the-mill sportswear of Sanctuary or the unfocused mishmash of Jenni Kayne? A 7th on Sixth spokeswoman says “a small select group of fashion and style leaders” set the lineup, but it seems they are doing L.A. a disservice. At the same time, runway shows are hugely expensive to mount — we’re talking a minimum of $5,000 to $10,000 unless you get sponsors, and even then you’ll still be spending a hefty amount — and many designers can’t afford to show every season. (Unless, of course, your dad is a CEO or movie star, or your beau is a rock god.) Among those missed this time were Rami Kashou, Cornell Collins and Grey Ant.

To M-B’s credit, it did underwrite show space for four designers well worth watching: Louis Verdad, Alicia Lawhon, Cynthia Vincent, and Nony Tochterman for Petro Zillia. But indulge me in just one more complaint: Why did a Miami designer, Esteban Cortazar, who had already shown in New York, kick off Mercedes-Benz Shows L.A.?

 



Best known for her one-of-a-
kind pieces, such as the five
dazzling ribbon lace pieces that
anchored her show, Magda
Berliner put out a more wearable
line that featured a subdued
palette for spring — a relief
from the sherbets shown
elsewhere.


I’d rather see fewer shows with a more carefully considered lineup. Which might also take care of the scheduling issues, though it appears both M-B and Smashbox are determined to solve that problem for the next Fashion Week. And I hope Gen Art, which has consistently been on the forefront of presenting local up-and-comers — many alums were showing at M-B and Smashbox — is in on that conversation as well: The overwhelming schedule meant that we missed the “Fresh Faces in Fashion” show, which featured local ones-to-watch Brian Lichtenberg and Oliver Twist.

Smashbox seems to be carving out a niche as the party-down venue — perhaps too much so: At one show, models reportedly slipped and slid down a booze-soaked runway. Many stylists and reporters decamped for the Standard once M-B started. However, Smashbox did feature the breakout designer of the week: Bao Tranchi, whose distressed-silk gothic fairy wear and rock & roll romanticism evinced a playfully sophisticated vision.

Ultimately, despite the sometimes-disappointing character of Fashion Week Spring 2004, there was design to celebrate, and reason to take L.A. seriously. We’ve highlighted on these pages a few of the veterans and newcomers who demonstrated a transcendent understanding of the iconoclastic impulse that defines the best of design right now.

Call him the king of drape. Eduardo Lucero consistently turns out jaw-dropping red-carpet wonders, and as usual, he sent out a number of beautifully detailed ensembles.
This was perhaps Alicia Lawhon’s most commercial collection, but, with a sequined patch on the back of a top, or ruffles cascading down the front of a suit jacket, Lawhon remains true to her art-vintage roots.
One of the week’s most cohesive collections: Sexy mama-to-be clothes in striking fabrics (shown by models in varying degrees of pregnancy!) from Jennifer Noonan of NOM (Naissance on Melrose). “Got milk,” read one tee.
The architectural cuts of MartinMartin, the husband-and-wife team of Eric Martin and Diane Moss-Martin, evoke the best of the early-to-mid-’80s Japanese design, but they take it beyond with their own finely nuanced touch.
Newcomer Evelina Galli’s classic twist on wearable art: sensual, hand-painted and -beaded silk dresses inspired by the temple courtesans of ancient Greece. Galli’s mother and grandmother crochet her striking full-length sweaters and capes.
Monah Li returned strong after a few years off from her own line. “Is there an award for most ripped-off designer?” wondered one wag, perhaps referring to the fact that Ghost and Voyage are known for the overdyed mixes of velvets, satins and silk with lace insets that Li pioneered.

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