Notch by notch, Al Beres has been pulling himself up in the fashion world by his belt straps.
His belts, contemporary in style but rooted in the traditions of the Old West, can be seen wrapped around the waists of such celebrities as Bruce Springsteen, Tom Cruise, Sylvester Stallone and assorted members of Hollywood’s brat pack.
“We see (the belts) on TV and in the movies. The other night a backup singer on Arsenio Hall wore one,” Beres said.
He designs his high-priced belts not for cowboys, but for what he calls a contemporary clientele with a taste for flashy apparel.
“The belts are for people who can wear anything and not worry about it,” he says.
To run his rapidly growing business, Beres divides his time between his homes in New York City and Huntington Beach.
His Los Angeles showroom, on the 10th floor of the California Mart in L.A.'s garment district, has all of the respectability of Pee-wee’s Playhouse. There’s a rubber hand sticking out from beneath a belt display, a toy CHP car and a miniature Statue of Liberty.
But don’t let the toys fool you. Beres is a serious, even shrewd, businessman as well as a creative designer.
Since opening six years ago, Al Beres & Associates Inc. has become a million-dollar business, selling belts and bolo ties in more than 400 exclusive stores worldwide, including Bloomingdale’s, Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman.
Beres chooses his markets carefully, preferring stores that will carry his line in a small store-within-a-store. He refuses to sell to one upscale department store because it lumped his belts with more moderately priced ones. In Orange County, he has selected trendy shops such as the Look and Theodore in Newport Beach’s Fashion Island and Saks Fifth Avenue in Costa Mesa’s South Coast Plaza.
Two years ago, his company averaged just $250,000 in sales when it was purchased by Prestige Leather of Los Angeles. With strong financial backing, the company’s sales jumped to $1.2 million last year, and Beres, who is head of the Al Beres USA division of Prestige Leather, expects sales to double this year.
Beres has helped turn belts into a luxury item. He prefers his belts to be treated like jewelry and rightly so: They range from $150 to $1,900.
Beres finds no shortage of people willing to pay that and more to hold their pants up.
Cost of the belts depends mostly on the amount of silver in the buckles. Beres’ top-of-the-line belts have heavy sterling silver buckles with straps of lizard skin.
Cowboy silversmiths from small towns across the country supply him with handmade buckles, and American artisans make the straps from fine leather imported from Italy. Beres uses soft, triple-laminated leathers instead of the raw leather used on genuine cowboy belts, so his belts can be worn with fine Italian suits.
“I don’t just design for jeans,” he says. “Women will buy an evening dress and put our belt on.”
All belts come with the basic metal buckle, loop and tip. Some come adorned with braided horse hair, Indian beading, small metal studs and silver conches on their straps.
“All I’m doing is transforming what the rodeo rider will wear to our contemporary customer for a whole different feeling,” Beres says.
His factory in Los Angeles turns out about 2,500 belts a month, working from crude sketches Beres makes on graph paper in the back of his showroom.
Beres first became interested in fashion design as a teen-ager when he sang in a rock ‘n’ roll band called the “Marvalons” in Norwalk, Conn. Beres created pink, lapel-less jackets with a large M embroidered on each breast pocket for the group to wear in concerts.
When his music career faltered, he set out to make a name for himself in fashion. He moved to California 26 years ago at the age of 20 and found a job at a pleating company designing trims, embroidery and stitches. He later worked at a Hollywood fashion boutique designing leather jackets for the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix and Rick Nelson, and for several years owned a clothing store on Melrose Avenue.
Beres switched to making belts because “it was something I could design, sell and produce myself.”
Bloomingdale’s bought one of his first designs, a three-inch-wide belt with sculptured silver buckle that became a hot seller, and Beres began designing belts for the high end of the market.
As the company grows, he’s trying to keep the belts from becoming too commercial. So he limits his market, aiming at those stores that will sell the line as a collection, preferably under glass like fine jewelry.
“I want my customers to feel they’re getting something really special,” he says.