Barbara Diamond is a copycat, and proud of it.
As owner of the Left Bank Fabric Co. in Newport Beach, Diamond helps her customers duplicate the creations of Emanuel Ungaro, Oscar de la Renta, Yves Saint Laurent, Donna Karan and other leading designers.
“This store is for people who love fine clothing,” Diamond says. “They appreciate what they’re seeing in Vogue and wish they could spend $1,000 on an outfit, but they can only spend $250.”
An original from a major high-fashion house can cost thousands, but Diamond says the same outfit can be reproduced for a fraction of the designer’s asking price.
“We’re not going to make a thousand-dollar outfit for $50, but we can usually make it for 20% of the cost of couture,” she says.
Diamond travels to the mills of Europe to buy fabrics used by American and European designers in their current collections. Her customers can have clothes that are literally cut from the same cloth as a haute couture or top ready-to-wear designer garment.
“It’s exciting buying from the same companies Lacroix or Ungaro buys from,” she says.
Her shop is filled with rolls of lush silks, rich brocades and fine cottons, wools and chiffons. The fabrics are typically higher quality--and more expensive--than those sold in most fabric stores.
“All of our fabrics are intended for couture, not for home sewing,” she says.
“I got a call from a man putting together a Christmas show at the Radio City Music Hall who told me the fabric stores in New York don’t have what we have.” He asked the store to ship him several fabrics in the overnight mail, she said.
Most fabrics cost about $30 to $40 a yard, but a special material such as a re-embroidered lace or an elaborate brocade can cost several hundred dollars a yard--a price to make even experienced dressmakers nervous.
“We’re not afraid to go higher,” Diamond says. “No fabric is too exciting. I know I’ll have a customer for it.”
Her store’s reputation is “based on the glamorous stuff.” She pulls out a bolt of metallic brocade in a deep green floral print with gold and rose tones that sells for $210 a yard.
“Oscar de la Renta used it for dinner suits,” Diamond says.
Her most expensive fabric is a black French lace embroidered with gold metallic cord and rosettes of multicolored ribbon that sells for $425 a yard.
“We teach people to buy fabrics in small quantities,” she says.
Diamond suggests using just a touch of the French lace to embellish an outfit. She bought five-eighths of a yard to make sleeves for an evening jacket. The fabric can also be cut into pieces and appliqued onto a sweater or a little black dress already hanging in one’s closet.
“It takes it from being a $95 dress to high fashion,” she says.
Although her fabric is far from cheap, the savings can be substantial when reproducing designer garments. She found a brocade fabric used by Yves Saint Laurent for a suit that cost about $4,000. Diamond sells the material for $125 a yard, and the pattern calls for about 2 1/2 yards of fabric.
She also has a bolt of cut velvet fabric that turned up in a mini-dress with matching scarf by Anne Klein. The dress was priced at $1,200, but customers could duplicate it with a few yards of fabric for $95 a yard.
Left Bank Fabrics isn’t for those hoping to save money on everyday wear.
“For a basic wardrobe, a customer can buy discount. It doesn’t pay to sew if you’re just looking for a simple garment. But if you’re copying a $1,000 garment, your time could be worth $800,” Diamond says.
Diamond visits the high-fashion houses in Europe and New York to study the latest collections. When she comes home, she gives seminars on how to copy the styles. Her next seminar at the Newport Beach store will be Jan. 14.
Vogue, Style and other pattern companies carry patterns from designers such as Ungaro, Albert Nipon, Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan. If customers can’t find a particular outfit in the pattern books, the staff can often advise them how to copy it by combining patterns.
“Customers always tear pictures out of magazines and tell us, ‘I want that,’ ” Diamond says. “There are only so many necklines, so many sleeves. We can pull from different patterns and make an outfit.”
She estimates that only 40% of her customers sew the outfits themselves. Most turn the fabric over to a dressmaker, but even when they do that, they can still save about 50% off the retail prices, she says.
Those attempting to duplicate a high-fashion design need not be master tailors, but they should have mastered the basics of garment construction and fitting.
“I would not like to see someone learn to sew a seam on this,” Diamond says, pointing to a brocade with a $200-a-yard price tag. “On the other hand, if you’re a good seamstress but you sew with garbage, you’ll end up with nothing.”
Saving money on clothes isn’t the only reason people buy fabrics. Some of Diamond’s wealthy customers could buy from designers but want to create their own couture.
Instead of copying a garment line for line, they interpret it in their own fashion, changing the color, lowering the hemline, changing the shape of the neckline, shortening the sleeves.
Interpreting designer garments can add mileage to the wardrobe, Diamond says.
“No one will look at your garment and say it was last year’s Anne Klein. You should be able to wear it until you get tired of it.”
But sometimes a small, simple change can make all the difference. Customers can give an old garment new life just by replacing the buttons.
Diamond visits 10 European button houses regularly in search of extraordinary buttons. Some are so fancy and well-made, they can be worn as earrings. One style, for instance, features Austrian crystals formed in the shape of a flower. (These sell for $10 each.)
“They’re jewelry,” Diamond says. “One button can make a jacket look cheap or couture.”
Diamond grew up a material girl--her parents owned a fabric store on the East Coast.
She and her husband, Bernard, a fashion designer, opened their first store in Los Angeles in 1975, naming the store after the left bank of the Seine in Paris where Bernard once worked. They opened the Newport Beach store five years later, then added a third store in Tarzana 1987.
“I used to sew every night of my life,” Diamond says. “But I made my hobby my profession and lost my hobby.”
Diamond’s shop has attracted no ill will from couture houses because Left Bank does not buy in large enough quantities to be a real threat, she says. And there will always be people who insist on genuine designer clothes.
“If the label is real critical to them, they’ll buy it,” Diamond says.