Doing Laundry : The Name May Not Connote Fast-Track Clothing, But Katayone Adeli's Line Puts a Stylish Spin on Power Dressing

Mary Rourke is a Times staff writer.

Katayone Adeli (pronounce it cat-a- yohn ) whizzes toward Melrose in her polished black BMW, making telephone calls while she drives. It's Sunday afternoon, but she's looking very put-together in a cheap-chic Hanes T-shirt and amber beads under a mahogany-color jacket from her newest fashion collection. As with most young professionals today, poverty holds no charm for this successful 26-year-old. In her case, success goes by the name of Laundry, a casually elegant, Los Angeles-based fashion collection.

A decade ago it was different. The hottest young forces in L.A. fashion were long on creativity and short on cash, sewing their earliest collections at kitchen tables, not looking very far into the future. Fashion was for dabbling, then deserting for careers in painting or interior design. Through the '70s, the city had a reputation for its highly original, completely unreliable fashion talent pool. But Adeli is cut from different cloth.

Like the youthful executives who wear Adeli's kind of power dressing, which mixes traditional tailoring with ethnic elements, she courts far more than the creative muse. She is part of the MBA generation, thriving on six-day weeks and 12-hour days. The five collections she designs each year appeal to a wide range of stores--Saks, Nordstrom and Bloomingdale's as well as Modasport, Ann Taylor and The Limited.

Not surprisingly, with her new visibility and responsibility, she worries. Right now, for example, she is concerned that contemporary collections--the term for her particular retail slot--may be losing their stronghold in what has always been a trend-driven business. If that market falls flat, it could hurt Adeli's 1 1/2-year-old fashion division.

But she seems prepared. Last fall she launched a second line, called Rickie, of very casual clothes. Like Laundry, it is owned by Podell Industries, a conglomerate that reported $30 million in sales for 1988. Owner Anthony Podell says the Laundry collection generated $5 million in 1988, which translates to about 2,000 garments produced and shipped per month.

Success gives the designer no rest. "It's not enough to have money and backing," she says. You also have to have a niche.

Hers is easy to describe: classic designs with a twist. She cites jackets that wrap to one side or that feature a collar with a distinctive tab, emphasizing that such details must be subtle. "Making clothes that people can really wear is harder than making something avant-garde," she says.

At Fred Segal's patio restaurant on Melrose, between dainty sips of peach-flavored sparkling water, Adeli seems cut out for more sensitive matters than shipping and receiving. Soft-spoken and refined, she looks like a young woman who should be reading romantic novels by the sea.

"We were always comfortable," she says of her childhood in her native Iran, where her businessman-father took the family traveling, her mother wore custom-made clothes of European fabrics, and Adeli rode horses in her free time. When she came to California as a high school student, she didn't expect to stay. "Three years later, the hoopla began (in Iran)," she says of the ouster of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. Adeli chose to stay in California, where she could pursue her career. "I consider America my home now."

At San Francisco State University, where she studied fashion, Adeli formulated her ideas about California style. "People here feel free to experiment and have fun with clothes," she says. "I see them mix thrift-shop pants with designer jackets or men's vintage shirts with nice, new pants."

If the name Laundry doesn't exactly connote fashion savvy and sophistication, it's one of the few things that Adeli does not worry about. Podell chose the name, and she is happy to hide behind it--for now. "The fashion press seems to feel more comfortable if there is a designer's name," she says. "But I'd rather not be a personality. I'd rather work quietly, learn and see the business grow first. You can't let your ego get in the way."

Even without a designer's name on the label, Laundry's casual, career-minded look attracted attention from the start. The spring line features safari-inspired clothes mixed with batik prints. The summer collection is built around sarongs and boleros in rich spice colors.

"It's power dressing for the younger crowd," says Peter Jacobson, Adeli's sales representative at Creative Concepts in the California Mart. He and his partner, Ara Haleblian, also sell the collections of some of Adeli's better-known local contemporaries, including Karl Logan and Mark Eisen. Jacobson says their clothes are earning a national reputation for being innovative yet wearable and priced well below their New York counterparts.

Adeli's efforts earned her a Rising Star award from the California Mart last fall, but she accepted it with her usual, pragmatic cool. "For my own fulfillment, it was excellent," she says of the prize. "But if a store didn't like the clothes I design before, the award wouldn't make any difference."

But it has, perhaps, encouraged her to think even bigger.

"Katayone's customers would wear Donna Karan if they could afford it," says Jacobson, citing the designer Adeli admires most for feminine career-woman styles. "Young California designers are more business-minded than ever, and Katayone is a perfect example," adds Yvette Crosby, a fashion consultant who promotes California clothes around the country. "They're not just in it for creative expression. They're completely committed."

Styling: Katherine Bloxsom-Carter; hair: Brad Bowman / Cloutier; makeup: Deborah Howell / Cloutier; models: Debbie Falconer / Elite; Vandalyn / It; Dillan / Elite.

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