HOW CAN WE MEASURE
Henry Duarte's obsession? Begin with 84 pieces of denim, large and small, sewn into one pair of pants. Some are joined with seams like a spider web. Others are cut into ornate shapes, layered on top of each other. Still, Duarte wants more detail. So the lace-up fly has bronze grommets, hammered into place by hand, and the fabric is sanded to produce just the right fade. "More and more detail," he says.
For about a decade, Duarte has been Los Angeles' most visible designer with the fewest sales, making a name for himself by creating custom clothes for rock musicians. Carlos Santana appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone in his shirt of tie-dyed gauze, macrame and beads. Aerosmith's Steven Tyler paid $3,800 for cream-colored leather pants on which Duarte had spent days doodling loops and circles in ink.
"It's about craftsmanship," Duarte says. "I don't think I will ever change."
But he has changed. Not in the way he makes clothes but in the people he hopes will wear them. The target audience now includes "common folk," he says--or, more accurately, that segment of the populace who are not necessarily celebrities but will pay $1,200 for casual pants and jackets. While the attention to detail remains, the materials have changed from rawhide to denim, from deerskin to less-pricey corduroy and velvet. Rock star fashion for the produce aisle. "You can wear these things," he insists. "You can wear them to the supermarket."
Easy to say for a man whose workday uniform consists of a tight floral shirt and pinstriped jeans, a clatter of rings, his face framed by a startling mop of hair. Yet the new collection has clearly struck a nerve, scooped up by Barneys New York and boutiques from London to Hong Kong.
"We have a waiting list for his pieces," says Sara Nygren, owner of Ultimo in Chicago. "It's such a rock 'n' roll brand and so well made, once people see it, they go crazy."
The prospect of mass appeal intrigues the 38-year-old Duarte, who now talks of a factory and licensing deals. At the same time, his mind reels at the thought of countless bits of fabric required to fill those orders.
Designers tend to follow a prescribed path. Get through fashion school, get a salesperson and a publicist, then have a show--preferably in New York. Initial success brings investors who front the cash to produce more garments. Next comes licensing. Top designers generate only a fraction of their revenue from clothes, the real money being in shoes, handbags and perfume.
Little of this applies to Duarte, who has survived 16 years in the business on an alternate track.
The Torrance kid grew up listening to rock and imagining the costumes Robert Plant and Jimi Hendrix might have worn onstage. After stints at the old Otis Parsons school and the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, he started a business in 1986 with a surfing pal, William Beranek.
Their Sqwear label had some success, dressing the New Kids on the Block in wildly colorful outfits for a Coca-Cola commercial, but the partners butted heads. Beranek left in 1990 to create the understated William B label, freeing Duarte to "just go wild."
His clothes blended American rock with the '60s London scene, a mix of Jim Morrison-inspired deerskin pants and dandy morning coats, everything "really fitted, really sexy." They were handmade and expensive, and when a sluggish economy hurt orders, sales picked up from a new source--an emerging MTV that needed video fashion.
"Once you met one rock guy, he told another rock guy who told a stylist who told a producer," Duarte explains. "The next day, a new client walked in the door."
Neil Young, Tom Petty and k.d. lang came calling. Bob Dylan ordered suits. No need for a publicist, not with all that exposure on television and in magazines. Duarte and his wife, Daina, rented a 1930s house in the Hollywood Hills that was mired in probate. They lived on the third floor and turned the rest into a showroom, filling the basement with sewing machines, throwing parties next to the waterfall in the backyard.
But the good times could not last forever. The house was eventually sold and Duarte felt the need to augment his custom work by making clothes for a broader clientele. Searching for direction, he opened an eponymous boutique on the Sunset Strip in 1998 only to have a falling out with his partners.
He found his way by taking a narrow road into the hills, zigging left and right, making hairpin turns, to a house on the rim of Laurel Canyon. It was small, shrouded by oaks and evergreen, with glass all around. Henry, Daina and their 6-year-old son, Julian, moved in three years ago.
"It wasn't a normal place," Duarte says. "When I came here, everything was different for me."
All around were birds and falling leaves, spider webs and sunlight changing at day's end. An idea began to form. Duarte tries to explain, tugging at the ends of his hair, as he is wont to do. He sits by the fireplace in his living room, the trees outside rustling against the floor-to-ceiling windows.
"You know, the French designers say they are really French," he begins. "Ralph Lauren has the WASP thing and Tommy Hilfiger has the Connecticut look. Well, I'm fourth-generation Californian. I'm really Californian."
His work had always been rooted in memory, in those rock fantasies. Now he dredged up youthful recollections of surfing on the coast and browsing through 1970s shops that sold jeans with patchwork and embroidery. Inspiration hit, he says, like a sonic boom.
The new collection would start with denim and would blend his established style with shapes and hues of the Southern California landscape. Hiking in the Santa Monica Mountains, Duarte filled sketchbooks with things he saw. "No one has really touched on that vibe," he says.
Photographer Sasha Eisenman helped by shooting the canyons and beaches, studying the way sunshine washes across the frame, what Eisenman calls "that golden California kind of light." Duarte hoped to reproduce the effect by fading his garments.
The collection grew in increments: the "spider" pant and another influenced by the shapes of leaves; a $1,100 jacket festooned with parrot-like curves; and $475 belts of woven fabric. Duarte was on a roll, adding detail after detail. Wait a minute, he thought, I have to produce this.
On a stretch of Melrose Avenue where the boutiques have stylish facades, Duarte's studio has been a phantom, painted black, its windows blank save for the logo of another designer long gone. The security door has been latched tight, and there's been no sign of life.
Later this month, the storefront will revert to a boutique for Duarte's clothes, but for much of spring it has served as a makeshift factory. Inside the steel door, workers cut and sewed, squeezing past each other as they selected fabric from plastic bins. An acrid scent of glue filled the air. No choice, Duarte says. No warehouses were available.
The construction of his clothes must be exact because those seams are more than artful--they should hug the torso, bend at the knee, curve gently over the back of the hand. Debi Greenberg discovered as much when she ordered a dozen pants for Louis Boston, an East Coast boutique, and kept the first pair for herself. "When you're in the dressing room, they're quite tight," she says. "You have to wear them a little bit before they mold to you, and then they are your favorite pair of jeans."
More than a year ago, with the collection still in sketches and test pieces, Duarte wondered about the demand for such involved, and pricey, casual clothes. His concerns have eased with each new order. The first phase sold well--it is available at Maxfield in Los Angeles--and his accounts are clamoring for more.
"His clothes are like pieces of art," says Barbara Ross, a local vintage dealer who came to the studio on a recent evening to try on an outfit. "There's nothing else like them."
The designer could stick with what he's got, focusing on production schedules and shipments, selling as much as possible. But old instincts die hard.
Duarte continues to experiment, expanding his ready-to-wear collection with tidbits from his custom work. He is adding corduroy and velvet for texture and designing boots and hand-cast belt buckles. Perched on the edge of a wide cutting table, keeping watch on his tailors, he cannot help imagining a new detail here, another adornment there.
Not even 84 pieces of denim in a single pant are enough. "You never stop," he says.