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Paris and New York Waltz to L.A.'s Different Tune

Times Fashion Editor

As Los Angeles gets bigger, slicker, more difficult to navigate, it also becomes more comprehensible to fashion barons from such “sophisticated” cities as Paris and New York.

These people understand fine dining, four-star hotels, terminal gridlock and high-priced real estate. For them, Los Angeles becomes a little more like home with every passing year. But it’s a paradox of sorts. Because the real reason these retail giants now come here in droves--to scout locations for new stores, to order L.A. designer clothes, to search out young talent--is because we remain intrinsically different from anywhere else.

It’s a difference increasingly prized by fashion merchandisers who see old values dying among consumers and Los Angeles as a refreshing symbol of the new ones replacing them.

As many shoppers shy away from super-high prices, status labels and styles dictated by an Establishment in which they have little part, the Los Angeles alternative looks more and more tempting to those who sell clothes.

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At last week’s spring shows in the California Mart, local designers displayed the spirit that characterizes their city. As accompanying photos show, the mood is relaxed, with emphasis on long, easy jackets teamed with mobile skirts or wide-leg pants.

“Many L.A.-designed clothes have a hedonistic edge, a lack of sobriety that is typical of the city,” says Body Glove designer Robin Piccone, who made her name with neoprene swimsuits in screaming neon colors that she says nobody thought would sell.

“Certain things never sell, like the color chartreuse,” she says. But some impulse, which she calls “the total L.A. life style,” made her do it--and “we’re considered front runners and trend-setters now.”

The designer, 27, whose 2-year-old firm grossed $7 million last year, launched her business in her L.A. garage and “on a dime.” She had lived and worked in New York for five years and “can’t imagine starting this kind of business there. In New York, no one even has a garage.” Ironically, it was New Yorkers who picked up on her unusual styles before anyone else did, she says.

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French-born designer Michelle Lamy, in business seven years, has her own assessment of the escalating success of California style: “Everything comes from the Pacific now. It’s difficult to explain, but in places like Paris and New York there is only one way to be in. And if you’re not in, you’re out. People look like clones. But in Los Angeles, there are many ways. It’s more open-minded here. If you see something or someone a bit odd in Los Angeles, it can be interesting and acceptable.”

In Lamy’s opinion, the rest of the country’s population is tending toward the new, L.A. fashion value system and shedding the rigid Old World traditions.

But many tradition-minded merchants still scour the fashion capitals for clothes that are “directional” or “trend-setting.” Lamy’s clothes are intentionally the opposite, she says, and her sales have doubled in each of the last two years.

Leon Max, like many others in his field, does not like to be called a “California designer.” There is probably something too stereotypical and oppressive about labeling a talent by its city of origin.

Nonetheless, a look at Max’s incredibly spacious, spotless, modern, downtown facilities might cause any East Coast worker to take flight from subway madness to join L.A.'s sun and fun.

Max, 33, and in business 10 years, expects to gross $50 million in 1988. He too has made a nationwide success by selling a kind of blithe, breezy, unself-conscious style that speaks of freedom and ease more than anything else. His clothes seem liberating, and while he probably could have designed them anywhere, he might not have gotten the chance in Chicago or New York.

These designers are among dozens, perhaps hundreds of others, in various stages of success, forming a nucleus of what retailers call “the California market.” It is to this group that retailers increasingly look for contemporary clothes that might tempt women to part with the price of a pantsuit or dress.

Although the bulk of very high-price fashion is still designed in Europe and New York, even that may change as designers here start to benefit from the help of retailers who can coach them in the subtleties of fine fabric and superior workmanship.

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“We already spend $30 (million) to $40 million in apparel and accessories in L.A. and we’ll probably double that,” said Marvin Traub, chairman and chief executive officer of the trendy, 17-store, New York-based Bloomingdale chain, which will run a seven-week “California promotion” in its stores in spring.

Bloomingdale’s senior vice president of fashion direction, Kal Ruttenstein, said he considers Los Angeles “a major resource” for such firms as Leon Max, Guess?, Bis, Michelle Lamy, Anne Cole, Body Glove, Nancy Heller and many others he didn’t have time to name.

When Traub was asked what he liked best about California, he laughingly replied “Your dancing raisins.” So much for serious fashion, folks.


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