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FASHION : Michele Lamy Somehow Knits It All Together

When she was a teen-ager she performed the striptease at county fairs in France. In time, she settled down and got a law degree.

He was a performance artist who had a street evangelist act, “The Great and Glorious Reverend Rick.”

To pair them up would be either the act of a twisted Hollywood scriptwriter or a delicious twist of fate. In their case the fates took the upper hand. The French country girl, Michele Lamy, has become one of the best known clothing designers in Los Angeles. Her artist husband, Richard Newton, is now a movie producer.

The unlikely couple live in Hancock Park with their 9-year-old daughter, Scarlett Rouge, in a white clapboard Colonial house. From the flower-lined front sidewalk it looks very American. The mailing address could be Anywhere, U.S.A.

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But peeking out from behind the second-story roof line is the telltale sign that all is not as it seems. A Dijon mustard-colored stucco structure, a studio addition by contemporary architect Frank Israel, smacks up against the Colonial clapboards. When they are not gallivanting about town, the Lamy-Newtons hole up inside the Israel room. That is where the large-screen television, exercise bike, dining table capable of seating 20, kitchen and two worn sofas are located.

“There were other houses we liked better, architecturally,” Newton said about his house that he described as “Beaver Cleaver-style.” “But Michele wanted to be in this location, close to everything.”

Everything, for Lamy, is a multifaceted career and diverse family obligations. She heads a $10-million fashion business, owns a retail store, Traction Avenue, in the Beverly Center and more recently she opened a homey, French bistro, Cafe des Artistes, in Hollywood.

While other parents keep tabs on their childrens’ scout meetings, Lamy’s family obligations include keeping tabs on her daughter’s performances in a rock ‘n’ roll band, Visiting Kids. She is also the executive producer for Newton’s first movie.

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Her fashion designs have bankrolled her diversification. Each season her collections combine old favorites with new shapes. Among the recurring themes are her most popular knitwear garments: fly-away vests, tunic tops (both short and long) and leggings. The silhouettes of her jackets change from season to season.

For the coming fall she draped web-like constructions of knitted fabric around the shoulders and waists of her models who wore a basic under-layer of bustiers, miniskirts and leggings. The close fitting stretchy knit separates for women are so popular that the I. Magnin Palm Desert store is adding a full-scale Lamy boutique.

“Because her things are easy fitting and unconstructed, they fit a multitude of figures and figure problems,” said Carolyn Biggs, the store’s manager. With economical price tags starting at $65 the sales associates have found it easy to sell five or six pieces to each Lamy customer. “We always sell multiples,” Biggs said.

For a while there was a Lamy men’s wear line, but that was short-lived. The Star Trek look of the clothes, with their stretchy leggings, body-hugging jackets and the like, were futuristic by any standards--perhaps too much so for most men. While the line came and went in just one year’s time, there is speculation among Lamy’s staff that it will resurface next year. Customers still call the designer at her factory, asking for more.

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But before there was any of this, there was Lamy the French lawyer. She switched to a fashion career in 1974 when she began having philosophical problems with the French judicial system. She says she had more of an affinity for the people she had to defend than those involved in the legal profession.

When she gave up law, Lamy moved to New York City and started making plastic jewelry. The accessories business was a logical career change since her family owns an eyewear company in France. For one year she lived in Manhattan’s Chelsea Hotel, then the hotbed of the emerging punk scene (“the good years,” Lamy calls them). But in 1975 she was looking for a new direction. Her brother, who had visited Los Angeles, suggested she move here.

“He told me Los Angeles was like New York City and the Riviera. I came here just to see how it looked and I stayed. I felt at home when I arrived.”

Lamy is a petite woman with piercing eyes, given to wearing rag-tag pieces of clothing and yarmulkes, who binds her burgundy-colored hair in twists of fabric. She uses body language more than direct verbal responses. Her voice is smoky with a heavy Gallic accent.

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“I don’t feel especially French. I feel like I’m from here,” she said. She has taken to Los Angeles with a vengeance and considers herself a native. It is only when she speaks that she gives herself away.

Lamy does not look or act like an polished French fashion designer. “I thought it was nice with my provincial bourgeoise background to look like this,” she said amid the clutter of her office, dressed in an knit shirt that had lost its memory for elastic response, and a pair of leggings.

Even though she has a multimillion-dollar fashion business, she pointed to her foot and said, “See? I have a hole in my sock.”

For eight years, Lamy and Newton worked together to build the Michele Lamy line of contemporary knitwear. Newton ran the business and Lamy did the designs. Eighteen months ago, Newton left to pursue his film ambitions. Lamy took on a partner, David Guez, to help with the business and to free her time so she was able to work as executive producer on Newton’s “Small White House,” a low-budget film shot in Tijuana. She found the money to produce the film, which was recently finished. The couple is shopping for a distributor.

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“Maybe it’s just our temperaments, but Michele and I are good for each other,” Newton confided, reflecting on their 11 years together.

Since their marriage, Lamy and Newton have become fixtures and catalysts of the nighttime club scene in Los Angeles. When the trendy nightclub, Flaming Colossus, was in business they had a special table, where they were likely to be found on a regular basis. Now that Lamy has her restaurant they are hosting some of the season’s hot-ticket events there.

Several seasons ago Lamy abandoned the formatted fashion shows at the California Mart in favor of showing at Cafe des Artistes. “The kind of shows she wanted were more like happenings than fashion shows,” remembered Yvette Crosby who worked at the Mart during the years that Lamy participated.

“The kind of fashion I am doing is not meant for the runways,” said Lamy. “It’s made to be lived in. The people are more important than the clothes.”

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Lamy’s fashion shows are a gathering of her friends. She uses them for models, and when the show is over they move back into the crowd of musicians, artists and fashion folks.

At her last fashion week show, Anne Crawford, society editor of L.A. Style magazine, and Barbara Leary, wife of Timothy Leary, were two of the gamboling manikins in the back yard at Cafe des Artistes.

Before the show Lamy calmly greeted her guests and saw to their comfort. Her minions dashed about looking for shoes, reseated people and cleared a path for the models to pass through the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd. In short, it was bedlam, but Lamy was completely unfazed. She waits until the last possible minute to plan her shows and lets the details sort themselves out.

Lamy’s style can wreak havoc at the office. “Everything is completely unplanned, there is something unexpected around every corner,” said Brian Watson, one of her employees. But she is also capable of instilling a rabid devotion from the same people who find her management style unorthodox. “If her unpredictability is a problem, then it is a problem for us, not her,” says Watson.

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Lamy has found her niche in Los Angeles and surrounded herself with supportive people, who she, in turn, nurtures. “There are a lot of people I like, and I like the way they see things. It’s visual, artistic and tough,” she said. “Here, I feel comfortable in my skin.”


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