Everything that Remi Hoang knows about the fashion business he picked up at Mervyn's, Nordstrom, Bernini and Apropos.
Over the years, while sales clerking in department stores and upscale boutiques, he learned that accessories make a wardrobe tick. And, being the frenetic type, he also learned that he worked best solo.
"I've always been an entrepreneur and a control freak," says Remi, who goes by his first name only. So, after a few ill-fated ventures in retailing, and with no formal design training, he put himself and a seamstress on the payroll and, in 1994, opened his own custom clothing business.
"I first got started by doing cummerbunds and bow ties and selling them through Tuxedo Center on Sunset Boulevard," Remi, 30, recalls. To augment his income, he took another sales job at Louis, a high-end menswear store in Sunset Plaza, and eventually persuaded the proprietor, Lou Melazzo, to hang a few Remi formal vests, priced from $245 to $395, in the store.
In the first week, Louis sold six out of 10 pieces, three of them to the costume designer for Fox TV's "Living Single."
"That was a good sign," says Remi, who emigrated from Vietnam to Placentia just before the fall of Saigon and now lives in West Hollywood.
Today, his company leases a Beverly Hills showroom and sells about 1,000 vests a year as well as bow ties, scarves and other formal accessories. Celebrity clients include former pro athletes Lester Conner and Eric Dickerson and musician John Tesh.
"I even have a Saudi Arabian prince who spends $10,000 a year on my stuff," Remi says, holding up a gold brocade, medallion-patterned vest that has royalty written all over it.
Few people would recognize the label by name, but members of the social elite who spend at least one night a month in a tux probably know a "Remi of Beverly Hills" vest on sight. The designer also dabbles in women's wear, but jazzing up plain white shirts is clearly his forte.
"I can't compete with the major designers right now," he says. "That's why I decided to concentrate on the accessories. They're the key to the entire wardrobe."
Remi works exclusively in ornate silks, velvets, wools, brocades and satins that celebrate the glamour of formal dressing. Some of the designs, including multicolored clashing geometrics used on both oversized silk shirts and vests, are way, way over the top. Others, like a quilted black satin vest with gold pin dots, settle for simple elegance. All the garments have a signature 1 1/2-inch-wide vertical stripe of print fabric running down the back.
"They're just classic and gorgeous," says Tom Brown, a loyal customer and owner of Jimmy's Custom Bed & Bath stores in Los Angeles. "You walk into a room wearing one of Remi's vests and everyone turns around and looks."
For Remi, that's the ultimate payoff.
"One guy even told me he actually met his fiancee because she came up and complimented him on his vest," he says.