A Change by Design

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Lat Naylor enters his second-floor factory--an old, industrial warehouse with floor-to-ceiling windows--eager to work with his hands. Sewing machines hum. Fabric cutters clip away. A sweater maker waits for his decision on sleeves, necklines, hems: finished or naturally unraveled? The usual.

The clothes from his fall collection will have to wait.

For the moment, the sight of a brown package on top of a massive glass table has taken Naylor, 36, into another world--a world that soon will be his--far, far away from all this: textiles, patterns and what he calls "10 years of 100-hour work weeks."

He rips apart the packing paper, tears at the bubble wrap and exposes the framed contents on the table, awash in sunlight. His face fills with a smile so wide he says it reaches to his heart.

"This is wonderful." His fingers slide across the untitled art piece--crosses fashioned out of Safeway paper bags covered with blocks of thin clear wax--the work of American painter Bonner Hamaker.

Hamaker, meet Lat Naylor.

After a decade of design, a decade of debt and a decade of battling his own ego, Naylor is giving it all up to become a fine artist. No more trips to Italy in search of splendid fabrics. No more collection deadlines. No more New York runways.

This, at a time when many consider his work to be among the upcoming fall season's most innovative and Naylor, possibly, the Next Big Thing.

Naylor will never know. Besides, he says, it doesn't matter. He's got bills to pay, jobs to find for his staff, and a factory to shut down and turn into an artist's studio.

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If he had played by the rules, maybe he'd still be in the game, he figures. But he plunged into the business as designer, manufacturer and reluctant marketer with lots of money, lots of pride and no experience. The mistakes just piled on.

It's time to throw in the designer towel.

It's time, he says, to paint.

But first he's having a sale, a very public farewell at his factory, 349 9th St. (an area known as SOMA, or South of Market), June 26-28. Up for grabs at discount prices will be his fall line, Homegrown--one intended for some 30 menswear retailers, including Neiman-Marcus, Barneys New York, Bergdorf Goodman and specialty men's shops like J.C. Hamber in Beverly Hills. Discounts will range from $20 T-shirts to $695 leather jackets.

Until then, the designer, his sweater maker, seamstresses and pattern cutters will be busier than ever.

"I have all this beautiful Italian fabric ready to be sewn," he says. He points to shelves filled with stacked patterns: three-button pinstripe jackets, sleek trousers in wool blends, shirts in the lightest of cottons, brocade vests, cashmere sweaters, houndstooth shirt jackets and gray alpaca walking coats. And this is just a sampling.

Everything is in the upcoming fall colors: black-greens, solid browns and blacks with some in pinstripes, plum, bronze, blue, lemon and grays from charcoal to slate. And then there's Naylor's favorite color, which never sells: orange.

He laughs. And reminisces.

As a rich kid from Baltimore, Naylor remembers a very traditional "really Wasp-ish, nonfashion upbringing." He attended private schools and then Princeton, where he earned a bachelor's degree in urban planning in 1984.

"Throughout my schooling there always seemed to be these very defined ways to dress, dictated by the environment I was growing up in. I made a point to dress as differently as I could," he says.

At 12, attired in private school garb, Naylor made a fashion statement of his own with his bright orange bow ties his mother knitted with leftover yarn from a sweater she had made him.

"I have orange in every line. It never sells, but I have it," he says.

Naylor, a fan of Jil Sander, Dries Van Noten and Antonio Miro, is not one to buy into the latest trends. He gets his inspiration from fabric: its weave, its texture, its feel, its movement. He's completely enthralled by how a garment drapes the body, how the roll of a good collar will just fall across the neckline with nary a wrinkle. His work is known for its spare silhouettes and precise construction down to letting out one-sixteenth of an inch on a sleeve if he's not pleased. He is influenced by his love of architectural design and, above all, the fine arts.

Still, at the start of his career, at 26, he knew nothing of the sort. He had just doubled his money from the sale of a house that his father originally bought for Naylor. He went into business.

He has a litany of mistakes, several that over time have played into his decision to close shop.

His admits that he had "this huge ego factor going on" about doing things his way even if that meant losing money. An example? His black--or nonblack--period, a time when he refused to stitch any black clothes--which sell the best--because "at that stage of my development as a designer I sort of saw it as a cop-out," even though it would have rung up sales.

He eventually relented and used more black in the last few years, but even that didn't save his company, Naylor says. It was the business of the business that drove him away.

"When you're designing, you have to remember that there's not only an artistic side to the business but also a commercial side. You can't let your ego get in the way of doing business," he says. "I'm not a stupid person. I'm not a good businessperson."

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His first mistake, he says, was being a novice designer in an industry where experience is really the key to success. He knows now that he should have spent important time as an apprentice.

And, he should have aggressively promoted himself, something he refused to do. Even after winning major back-to-back fashion awards. Even as sports stars began to wear his clothes and k.d. lang donned a Naylor suit to the Oscars, "I felt like I was still learning a craft and that the clothes weren't good enough yet."

To this day, the concept of self-promotion is difficult to him.

Stuck on maintaining the integrity of his product, Naylor manufactured it himself instead of sending it overseas like most designers. The line became too expensive to produce. Salaries for about 40 employees, equipment and a factory became too difficult to maintain.

And, as he readily admits, his ego wanted to control it all.

Add to that his insistence on using exquisite Italian fabrics--nothing else would do--that cost as much as $120 a yard. It was costing more to make a garment than what he could sell it for. His clothes--a vision of how men, young and old, could dress down with distinction--weren't cheap, which is why major department stores didn't take a risk on a guy like Lat Naylor.

Earlier this month, Ralph Lauren sent a wake-up call to department store executives for not supporting independent "young designers with new and valid points of view on fashion."

He criticized 200 executives attending the Fairchild Apparel CEO Summit in Carefree, Ariz., for having a lack of imagination and playing it safe.

"There's got to be room for young talent," he told the group as reported in DNR, or Daily News Record, the industry's leading men's fashion and retail publication. "Otherwise, we're going to die out."

Says Naylor: "Over time, as we were concentrating more on the business aspect of things, I was enjoying my work less and less."

His interest and instinct for fashion soon were taking a back seat to the business of fashion.

"One of the lessons that I've learned is that it's one thing to break rules when you don't know what the rules are. And it's another thing to know what the rules are and then know how to break them. It's much more valid that way."

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Naylor's start as a designer surprised even him. His future, after all, had been mapped out: prep school, Ivy League college, law school.

He started out as a physics major at Princeton but found himself "way over my head" and lasted one semester. He switched to architecture and then urban planning.

But no lesson is lost on this guy. Perhaps, he says, it was "the intricacy of drawing on that level" that led him to fashion. In retrospect, those blueprints were a lot like pattern making--something he loves to do--bits and pieces that come together to form a whole.

After college graduation, he moved to Oakland and worked for a low-income housing organization for two years.

That move, in itself, "was a big deal, from an East Coast perspective," he says.

In 1987, it was off to Berkeley for what was supposed to be a master's in urban planning.

"I lasted two weeks. I remember specifically how we were doing a set of drawings, and I just didn't care about drawing a toilet and knowing exactly where it went."

What did seem right was design school because he liked to draw. And he was a clotheshorse. So the next day he started a one-year program at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in San Francisco.

"My dad had always said that he would pay for grad school, and he really wanted me to go to law school."

And now, here he was, sitting at a sewing machine.

"To call my dad and say 'You know, Dad, the law school thing's not really happening and the urban planning thing's not really happening and what I really need you to do is buy me an industrial sewing machine . . .' Well, that was not what he wanted to hear. But he handled it really well."

"My dad was a conservative person, but he was very open to having people go their own way. And a lot of that came from my mother," he says, adding, "There's four kids in the family: a fashion designer, sculptor, poet and schoolteacher."

His dad, a mortgage banker who also worked for a company that developed malls, died two years ago. His mother, who used to operate a housing program for low-income families, is a naturalist. She broke ground two weeks ago on a family barn that will be solar energized and used as a teaching center.

"My father was a businessman's businessman," he says, realizing the irony of his statement because Naylor, himself, isn't.

After a much-too-short apprenticeship with the London design company Workers for Freedom, Naylor returned to San Francisco to start his own men's sportswear firm under the Lat Naylor/Think Tank label. Other labels would follow: his Signature Men's Collection, Lat Naylor Basics, and for women, Kit and Think Tank. Three years later he was selling to the biggies like Barneys New York and Neiman-Marcus.

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Along the way he nabbed the 1991 Golden Shears Award as the Bay Area designer of the year for his first women's collection and in 1992 received the prestigious Marty menswear design award as the California designer of the year.

Two years ago he opened a showroom in New York City that was closed June 1. And in the works was a Lat Naylor shop--now a pipe dream--in trendy Union Square, San Francisco's hub of upscale retail businesses.

But, Naylor's legacy as a designer will live on.

Robert Lohrer, DNR's editor, says Naylor is a risk taker who will be missed.

"He didn't knock off J. Crew or the Gap. He tried to address a different sensibility for the customer who wanted sophisticated sportswear. He was ahead of his time," says Lohrer.

That's why DNR featured Naylor's fall look on its cover two months ago: a cargo zip-front jacket and matching trousers in a rayon and wool boucle. He was cited as a contemporary designer who broke the rules with his not-so-traditional suit.

But barely two weeks after the splashy cover, DNR reported Naylor's closing, writing: "Unfortunately for the market, [Naylor's] decision is yet another reminder of how difficult it is for independent designers to market high-end, outside-the-box men's sportswear."

Says Lohrer: "I was disappointed and saddened. The business is worse off for not having him. He put his neck, butt and business on the line every day. But Lat Naylor is not the way men's designers get started. He was something of a lone wolf in that regard."

These days, Lohrer says, "you get started with huge marketing budgets and spend $20 million in advertising." And it helps, he adds in all seriousness, "to be born into an Italian textile family and have your last name be Zegna or Armani."

Janet Howard, the 1966 California designer of the year winner, is an admirer of Naylor's aesthetic expression.

"I love his lines, the simplicity of his art. He's a total construction freak, and that turns me on. It's like the death of a young designer to hear the news," says Howard, who herself has been through the ups and downs of the business.

Six months ago Howard sold her small business to an L.A.-based South Korean conglomerate that owned fabric mills. Finally, she was getting the proper financial backing. "It was a dream." And then the South Korean economy crashed. The money ran out, and she lost everything.

"My whole company was wiped out. I wouldn't take any calls. I went into hiding." Today she is the design director for Bisou-Bisou and refuses to give up her dream.

Naylor's dream of breaking into the fashion industry was never about staying with it for life.

"I went into this saying I was going to do it for 10 years," he says. "I would like to be more financially successful than we've been, but we're not."

*

But don't worry about him, he says. He's in training "for slowing down": tooling around in his 1969 Alfa Romeo, which is newly painted silver, reading about art theory and converting his factory into a studio and offices he'll sublease.

"There are things about me I want to develop as a person. To make that happen, I need to separate myself from this business. The most important thing is my relationship with my wife," he says about Jacqui, a jazz singer whose own career is on the rise in the Bay Area.

He stops for several seconds. It suddenly hits him why he decided to quit.

Two months ago, he had picked up fabrics for the spring collection and returned from the business trip with a plan to save his company.

On the plane home he thought about a conversation he had had the day before with his sister and brother-in-law "about people we knew who had every advantage in the world but had no compassion. It struck me at that point how hideous it is not to have compassion for others."

He was becoming that person, he says. "It had become more important for me to get the sleeve done than to listen to my wife, a co-worker or a friend."

He doesn't want that to happen again. Ever. Not with his painting. Not with his art.

"I don't want to turn somebody away because I have to finish a stroke."

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