Photos by Larry Hirshowitz
IT IS EVIDENT FROM HIS STUDIO WALLS THAT Ismael Gardea is an art groupie. Autographs of Cindy Sherman and Gilbert and George are displayed alongside prints and drawings by local artists Bruce Meade, Silvia Capistran and Artemio Rodriguez -- and a collection of Homies action figures.
Gardea grew up in Lynwood, on what some would call the wrong side of the fashion industry. "My mother was a seamstress," he says, "and she would bring work home. From the scraps she would make clothes, whip me up some little patchwork pants. That's where the inspiration to become a designer came from." Ismael Gardea
At 28, Gardea has an impressive amount of experience, going into the fourth year of his line and his sixth collection. At 18, still interested in fashion, he became the first in his family to attend college. Entering L.A. Trade Tech with a somewhat scattered vision, he mentioned someday opening a boutique and was automatically shunted into fashion-merchandising classes. A year later he realized the business knowledge was useful, but it was design that was his calling. He began working as a sample cutter for A.K.A Los Angeles, moved up to assistant production manager, then trim buyer. He went on to work for designers such as Tina Hagen and Rozae Nichols, and began doing occasional freelance work for Eduardo Lucero, whom he cites as an inspiration. Eventually he became Lucero's right-hand man, overseeing every aspect of the company for six years.
Though Gardea started out with a women's line, he is emphatic about only producing menswear. "I couldn't get into a woman's perspective," he says. "It makes more sense to me to design for men -- I know what they feel, what they want." His line is characterized by slick, luxurious textures and sleek fits. His slacks have a tuxedo touch, wool gabardine with silk waistbands; a shirt is done in sheer black silk with a windowpane-pattern knub. He works strictly within a dark and neutral palette, avoiding bright colors. It's all very disciplined, the only diversion being the long-sleeve T-shirts hand painted with bright blue birds, a collaboration with the ChiapasL.A.New Yorkbased artist Filiberto Montesinos. Stand tall and wear a mapron: Silk windowpane shirt and wool gabardine trousers topped with a wool gabardine and silk apron.
"I think fashion should be accessible," says Gardea, "just like art, theater and music. You have to understand that a lot of inspiration comes from the street -- graffiti, hip-hop, as we see it now, everywhere."
Within five years, Ismael plans to open his own boutique, expanding his design concepts to a retail environment. He cites Chet Baker and Serge Gainsbourg as men of style and modernity, but listens to Laibach while fitting clothes on a male mannequin that his brother rescued from a violent shooting on nearby railroad tracks. He gives it a good shake, laughing at the rattle. "There's still a bullet in here!"
Fashion heroes: "Comme des Garçons and Martin Margiela -- they are groundbreakers who don't hold back, and are inspirational in every way."
Sweatshop politics: "I have very mixed views. I pay my sewers, my patternmakers very well, and I'm very conscious of the issues. It's not right to exploit workers, but what happens if you take jobs away? I believe that working conditions and wages should improve, but then we as consumers have to pay more. We have to think about what that means for our economy."
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Who's buying: Joe Goode, Lenny Kravitz.
Rebel, rebel: "I'm an old death rocker, so I tend to go to the dark side."
Ismael Gardea is available at Aero & Co. in Los Feliz.
MODEL: Djalmar Castañera