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Fashion 87 : Designer Made a Little Label Big

Times Staff Writer

Designer Carole Little stands in her electronics-laden den, mesmerized by a taped television show. “Move,” she calls out when her husband obstructs the view. “I love watching this. It’s so much fun.”

On the screen is a cotton candy segment from “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” starring Little and Leonard Rabinowitz, her husband and business partner. There they are: running along the Malibu coastline with Jessie, their Bichon Frise; strolling the streets of London with Leonard’s portable cellular phone (he has three: one for Hong Kong, one for London, one for the United States); tending to business in their ultramodern Los Angeles factory; relaxing in their sumptuous New York pied-a-terre ; relaxing again in their villa-style Brentwood home; peeking into the architect’s model of their future Benedict Canyon mansion; flying somewhere, anywhere, in their Diamond IA jet.

Missing from the picture are the early days when the pair nearly lost their shirts--only to regain them, thanks to a man’s shirt they bought in France and copied in silk for women.

Rabinowitz sometimes dubs it the “Lauren Hutton,” because Hutton once wore it in a magazine spread. Little, who balks every time her clothes are linked to celebrities (“I think it’s tacky and I’m sure they hate it”), calls it “our signature shirt.”

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They added dyed-to-match pants, something of an innovation in 1976, Little says, and pretty print separates. Everything was geared to a career woman, who wanted the look of expensive clothes at “affordable” prices.

When Rabinowitz went to the banks, he gave his firm’s corporate title, California Fashion Industries. But when he worked with stores, he relied on the pizazz of the label: Carole Little for Saint-Tropez West. “St.-Tropez,” he explains, “was a hotbed of fashion in the early ‘70s. No one knew the line, but when I called people they said they were dying to see it because of the label.”

The French connection is being phased out now. “It’s not as important as it was,” Rabinowitz says. “What’s important is the credibility of the designer’s name.”

Although Little once thought she had “an odd name” for a label, she’s since changed her mind: “They (her first and last names) both have six letters,” she says with a laugh. “It’s worked well.”

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It’s worked especially well for a new advertising campaign, the company’s first in five years. There aren’t any clothes in the photograph, just the bare back and hips of a reclining model framed by the words: “Little or nothing. Carole Little or I won’t get dressed.”

The “soft nude” concept, urged by Little, has caused comment, she says. Most of it favorable, although “some retailers have complained.”

Two thousand stores in America sell her merchandise, which now includes fur and leather coats manufactured under license. For a while there were swimsuits, also produced under license, but Little says the venture was a mistake: “It was a New York company. Next time, they will come from California.”

Retail sales, expected to reach $142 million by the end of the year, are highest in stores such as Saks Fifth Avenue and Bullock’s. Rabinowitz calculates that Saks, one of their largest accounts, will ring up $8 million for Little’s garments this year.

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Sue Bowerman, assistant manager with Saks in Beverly Hills, says her store has been stocking Little “forever.

“It’s been one of the mainstays of our contemporary sportswear department,” she says.

The entire line, housed in the same area as Liz Claiborne and Cathy Hardwick, is successful because “it’s inexpensive for what it is,” says Bowerman. “It’s good quality, but you don’t have to spend tons of money.”

Teresa Pineda, divisional merchandise manager for Bullock’s, says the designer’s “forte, quite frankly, is her color and her prints. She’s always filled a niche that’s not easily replaced by other resources.”

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Giving the customer each month what Pineda calls “consistent fashion newness” means Little’s merchandise “is doing even better than in the past. We’re running with double-digit increases this year.”

The petite, blue-eyed Little refers anything technical, including her price range ($38 for a cotton T-shirt top to $5,000 for a mink coat), to Rabinowitz. “Carole is a talented artist,” the 39-year-old financial whiz explains. “My job is to create an environment around her that enables her to function.”

The rarefied environment extends to their home, where he oversees a small staff and all the details: “My attitude is that Carole should be treated like a guest in a luxury hotel.”

Rabinowitz, a piano student, owns two Steinways and says he sometimes hires a concert pianist to serenade his wife and him at dinner.

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But Little, 47, isn’t exactly a luxury seeker. She dresses roughly half of the time in her own label, frequently choosing black. “It calms me down,” she says. “Maybe its part of working with so much pattern and color.”

Her outside purchases are made in stores that sell antique clothing or in “obscure” Italian, French or English boutiques. American-designed clothing presents a problem: “I look at the garment, know approximately where they got the fabric, how much it took to make it and it loses its appeal.”

Boyish, redheaded Rabinowitz, however, pursues what he calls “the American Way.” About nine years ago, he computerized the business, later sold the softwear to other companies and “got a lot of our costs back,” he says.

The jet was purchased two years ago when he was both suffering from ennui and looking for new frontiers.

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With transportation at their fingertips, Little and Rabinowitz often cram in a full day’s work in Los Angeles, then fly away for more business. Recently, they spent a day in Aspen where they are opening the first Carole Little store in a few weeks.

When they squeezed in a quick trip to Denver two months ago, for one of Little’s rare personal appearances, “She was treated like a rock star,” says a proud Rabinowitz.

Rabinowitz, growing up in Great Neck, N.Y., devised a way to make conference calls before the telephone company did--and went into business setting up the systems. He was 16 and didn’t have a driver’s license yet, so every day after school he had a limousine waiting to take him to Manhattan. “After the cost of the limo,” he recalls, “I was netting $400 a week. That was a lot of money in 1964.”

His parents had no idea he was an entrepreneur “because I didn’t think they would approve.” The secret was out the day his mother discovered him in the local barber shop having a shave, manicure and a shoe shine.

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After being fully invested and enjoying “a wonderful run” in the stock market for a few years, Rabinowitz cut back his stock holdings last January “to 30%.” His decision was based on guidelines he once read and keeps in a desk binder: “When everybody, including your doctor, is giving tips,” he loosely quotes, “you know it’s time to get out.”

The ever-growing company occupies 60,000 square feet with more footage scheduled to include a design center, a day-care center and a little park for the 145 employees (who get such perks as free turkeys at Thanksgiving). “I fondly refer to it as Camp Carole Little,” Rabinowitz says.

Facing a move to an elaborate 12,000-square-foot home designed by Waldo Fernandez (who also designed a cluster of mailboxes, which Rabinowitz is donating to his neighbors “for about the cost of a BMW”), Little talks of their first small apartment in Malibu: “I was every bit as happy as I am now. I just don’t need a lot of things.

“Time,” she says, “is the thing I cherish most now. I never seem to have enough.”

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