Escada's store reopening in Beverly Hills fits its livelier style

Special to The Times

If the chromed ceramic tiles blanketing the foyer walls and the warren of 14 rooms appointed in glossy black furnishings and white Barcelona chairs evoke the sexy thrill of an exclusive nightclub, then the new look of the Escada shop at the mouth of Rodeo Drive has accomplished its mission.

The thrill is Escada's too. The five-month-long, $5-million renovation of the flagship — a 6,000-square-foot corner of the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel — marks a new chapter for the Munich-based fashion brand as it strives to revitalize its image.

Charged with this balance is 36-year-old Damiano Biella, named creative director just six months ago and whose trendier, more youthful imprint is already evident in the short-sleeved, full-length minks and chiffon dresses featured in the revamped store.

As if to sear the new concept into the minds of VIP clients and media at the opening bash Thursday night, celebs such as Maria Bello, Angela Bassett, Sophia Bush and Gabrielle Union traipsed a carpet colored black, in lieu of red. A platinum chanteuse flown in from Paris howled live on a wireless microphone against a thumping soundtrack, while singers Jewel and Amerie stood by, posing dutifully in the label's friskier party dresses.

Host Hilary Swank seemed to take the velvet-rope notion to heart. Sequestered in the very back room, the actress, dressed in a great black-sequin cocktail sheath of Biella's design, was shielded from the partying plebes by a handler who emphasized the actress was "not doing any media tonight." Never mind the point of the event.

Just steps away stood Biella, more than willing to talk. "I couldn't be more happy," he gushed. Since leaving art school in Milan, Italy, at 19, where he studied graphic design and advertising, the affable designer has honed his craft under Tom Ford (at Gucci), Celine, Carolina Herrera and, most recently, Valentino Garavani himself.

From them he learned to appreciate color and femininity as opposed to turning women into fashion experiments, he said the following morning under quieter circumstances.

"For me, what is important is uncomplicated clothing for women. Escada is about making women feel beautiful and sensual without being vulgar."

Although he didn't set out to study fashion, it came to "mean something at a very young age," Biella said. "My first memory is of my two older sisters taking me to the Fiorrucci store. All those colors, the clothes! It made a big impression on me."

That "love of color and joie de vivre" is also in the DNA of Escada, he noted. And he very much intends to keep it that way.

With the old store's brass and ivory traded in for black, silver and plum, Biella calls the more dramatic, graphic look "a perfect combination to display the clothes. It's not about having this museum-like environment but about being able to move from room to room, in very chic spaces that feel like a luxury home, very feminine and sexy. It's probably a very different idea than what people have about Escada."

That said, he's quick to add: "We intend to keep our longtime customers too, with a more updated world. When I say young I don't mean in age, but in attitude." But age does matter.

Like St. John, which is striving to placate its core fans while brandishing Angelina Jolie in its ads, Escada has its eye on the future. But unlike its historic competitor, Escada's new management so far appears to be making all the right moves, down to Chief Executive Frank Rheinboldt, who took the reins from company founder Wolfgang Ley 16 months ago. (Ley and his wife, Margaretha, founded the brand in 1976 on the winnings from a racehorse called Escada.)

Although the appearance of a very pregnant Naomi Watts at last week's opening celebration fueled speculation that she may, in fact, be still considering appearing in Escada's next ad campaign, the current one features a very fresh-faced anonymous blond against a Los Angeles nightscape. The city is significant to Escada's success for more than the celebrity factor. This one store accounts for 20% of the total retail sales in the U.S. About a quarter of the Beverly Hills store's space is devoted to handbags and other accessories. There are more than 400 Escada stores worldwide.

Thankfully, Biella won't be required to visit every one of them. "But I will see many," he said, noting he would be off to Tokyo the following morning. "The house has a fantastic history, and I want to evolve that. But we also need to recognize where we want to go next."

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