Under Construction

TIMES FASHION WRITERS

Whether they are making dresses out of football jerseys or slashing hems, the free-spirited designers who showed during L.A. Fashion Week gave local fashion a strong image of experimentation for spring.

Some carved-out collections seemingly armed with little more than ambition and scissors. Others, such as Michelle Mason and Eduardo Lucero, brought rigorous training and an understanding of the finer points of dressmaking and marketing. Many, like Petro Zillia or Josh and He Yang, offered highly personal expressions that function more like wearable artwork that cannot be easily copied for mainstream fashion.

Then there were the unwearable works in virtually every collection. For several seasons, many designers have been exploring alternative methods of construction in an attempt to define a new mode in fashion. Their unsewn seams, experimental construction and use of vintage or recycled clothes defiantly and sometimes awkwardly populated runways this week. Perhaps because local designers often get their start by dressing stars for photo shoots, many seem to have an allergy to proper construction or a dependence on stagy, fantasy clothes. Too often, however, these experimental, dramatic clothes have been seen elsewhere--and in better form.

If L.A.'s designers were unified on one point, it was that tricked-out jeans and T-shirts are still the uniform of the young, hip and fashionable.

Show reviews follow:

GenArt

Nearly 2,000 of L.A.'s hippest and coolest filed into the ornate but underused Los Angeles Theater downtown to see eight-item collections from a dozen local clothing and accessories designers. They were selected by GenArt, a nonprofit group that holds shows yearly in New York and L.A. for emerging talent. Though every capsule collection had its hits and misses, Jerusalem-born Rami Kashou, 25, exhibited the elements that often add up to success: well-made clothes that are original and in step with current trends. His voluminous maxi-dresses and almost-Victorian ruffled dresses reflected a European sensibility that's rare in many West Coast collections.

A keen appreciation of L.A.'s casual lifestyle infused Development's sportswear separates. Twenty-eight-year-old designer Phillip Lim's low-key but trend-savvy pintucked pants or military jackets were the kind of simple-but-distinctive garments that allow for personalization. Similarly, the menswear by Bobby Benveniste, 32, and Kiernan Lambeth, 25, of Eisbar (polar bear in German) was cool without trying too hard. Faded, distressed and creased denim pants form the basis of their casual sportswear.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, Josh Grenell and his wife, He Yang, both 31, create the complex fiber mosaic fabrics that make up their Josh and He Yang fitted jackets and patchwork pants. The almost random feel of the fabrics gave their tailored jackets a feeling of being simultaneously finished and unfinished--an intriguing effect. But the flimsy white fabrics in the avant-garde looks of MartinMartin, by the husband-and-wife team of fashion pros Eric Martin and Diane Moss-Martin, drained their wrapped, ripped and unfinished silhouettes of strength. The clothes strongly recalled a dressmaker's under-construction muslin pattern, rather than a fully realized artistic work of fashion.

Shawn designer Yohanna Logan, 26, started her career by refashioning T-shirts. Now she's moved on to vintage men's shirts, which were cleverly transformed into halter tops or cut up almost in the way a cubist refigures a face. The collection avoided looking too homemade when Logan mixed in a few pieces of slashed leather tops and tailored denims.

L.A.'s vintage culture also has kept the life in retro dressing, though even remakes can look costumy. Corey Lynn Calter's peppy prints, pinks and lacy trims on girlish dresses were innovative and often prom-dress fun. Yet the 33-year-old former costumer at times seemed to be dressing characters from Heidi to Gretel, not present-day women.

Such weaknesses in beginning designers are common. It takes time and experience to reconcile their personal vision with one that can be interpreted by a wider audience.

V.H.C.

Coalition of Los Angeles Designers

"I think that every season is a training ground for us," said Nikolaki co-designer Nick Verreos, 34. "We're all learning, but I want to make money, too." Verreos and his partner, David Paul, 34, were among 10 up-and-coming designers who participated in the high-spirited, if chaotic, Coalition of Los Angeles Designers show at the cramped Racer Photography Studios on North La Brea Avenue. Blown fuses, a two-level room frightfully packed with about 400 guests added to the confusion and poor sight lines.

With one exception--Shana Rocheleau's appealing Standard + Riche collection of cutting-edge leather and pinstriped career wear, the young CLAD designers didn't step beyond the look of funky jeans and sexy tops common to their demographic.

Two of the most promising collections, however, advanced themes indigenous to L.A. For his Rojas label, Freddie Rojas, 28, reworked vintage football T-shirts into a sweet, lace-covered mini-dress and, via a removable lace collar, allowed a mesh top to convert from innocent to seductive. The Nikolaki collection made denim distinctive, a challenge in this era of jeanswear glut. The designers took denim upscale with bright silk scarf tops, crisp construction and intricate details such as rows of hooks and eyes the edged seams and jacket fronts.

Jeans, T-shirts and one-of-a-kind customized casual clothes were common to other CLAD participants, including the printed and dyed T-shirts of Anita Arze's Talking to Angels; Lauren Reynold's TEN:02 skinny jeans and swingy scarf tops; Coco Kliks' (her real name) arty topstitched tanks; and Maria Basaldu's reconstructed Victorian-sleeved, vintage Celtics T-shirt for her Ynnub line.

V.H.C.

David Cardona

David Cardona's flair for fabric and fit was evident in a finely tailored collection of silk houndstooth halter dresses, how-low-can-you go wool pants and sinfully soft one-shouldered leather gowns.

"It's all about sex," Cardona said about his edgy creations after the show, adding that he stuck with a mostly black palette--and body-revealing silhouettes "because it's about showing and not showing" some skin. "A woman can reveal and at the same time still exude some mystery."

Among the his best looks: hand-finished Mad Max dominatrix-style leather tops, including a turtleneck leather one, crinkled leather and silk skirts and a showstopping silk tuxedo frock coat with floor-sweeping tails.

Mostly, the designer's inspiration comes from the weave and texture of fabric, especially the way it moves as in a one-shoulder evening dress--this one in silk with a pleated underskirt that floated effortlessly across the runway.

Cardona showed his keen attention to detail, down to the hand sewn buttonholes on jackets and silk linings. The designer, who has outfitted Janet Jackson, the Backstreet Boys and Cher for various shows and tours, created costumes for performers with the Latin-inspired "Circo Fantastico!" playing at the Pomona Fairplex.

M.Q.

Cornell Collins

Long Beach designer Cornell Collins likes to "take things and twist them" said the 27-year-old designer of his collection of silk and taffeta evening wear and several prairie girl looks inspired by TV's tattletaling Nellie Oleson from "Little House on the Prairie."

Collins' pioneering spirit took the form of a variety of calico print skirts, some with tulle-tiered overlays that showed the designer's knack for reinventing something old; others were flouncy, pleated, gathered and beautifully smocked at the waist and came in shades of ecru, ivory and soft blue hues.

Other pieces didn't fare as well on the runway, in particular an organza and taffeta skirt with feathers encased at the hem, an idea that may have looked spectacular on paper, but did not compute on the catwalk.

Still, there were some outstanding pieces including a Victorian-inspired black silk evening skirt gathered at the knees and then layered in flared ruffles to the floor. It was teamed with a sheer silk, tulle top. Another clever creation was what the designer called a prayer jacket with capelet and a swirling, ruffled scarf down the front.

"Being raised in somewhat of a heavily religious family, well, you carry those themes with you in life and that's part of what this collection was about," said Collins, who has been designing two years.

M.Q.

Petro Zillia

They may have two small children at home, but that didn't stop Petro Zillia's hip husband-and-wife design team from hitting a half dozen Southland raves in the past year. Yosi Drori, 37, and Nony Tochterman, 35, said the nocturnal scene--fluorescent light sticks, lasers, homemade outfits and all--was a bottomless well of inspiration.

Flowing devore skirts, harlequin-patterned halter dresses and striped tube tops in a kaleidoscope of colors were playful if not a bit dizzying, and a few of the hems could have used a more careful hand. For the low-tech but crowd-pleasing finale, the house lights went down on models rocking out to electronic beats while dressed in denim capris and halter tops with dangling strands of pink, orange, yellow, green and blue yarn that glowed in the dark. Winning more raves than the clothes, however, were the designers' one-of-a-kind platform sandals and Puma sneakers customized with silk flowers, feathers, beads, shells and other artsy-craftsy trim. Sorry kids, they were only for the runway.

B.M.

Eduardo Lucero

Eduardo Lucero, 33, has been designing party dresses for L.A. lovelies for more than a decade, but he hit a new high with a focused collection that combined refined elegance with restrained Latin touches.

The models looked as pretty as holiday packages draped in matte jersey blouses and dresses that tied at the back of the arm or on the shoulder, with the ends trailing off suggestively. Lucero proved the possibilities of lingerie as outerwear have yet to be exhausted with a glorious tan beaded shirtdress worn over an undergarment that was a combination corset and hot pants. A crocheted gown similarly hugged every nook and cranny. Tops were paired with taffeta trousers or lace matador skirts, and for those unfortunate enough to actually have thighs, there were ball skirts and flowing crepe trousers in rich shades of cream, peacock blue and cardinal red.

"The look is very clean; it's not about looking messy. Deconstruction is out," Lucero said. And the red, white and blue theme that emerged? An unplanned show of patriotism. The fabric was ordered pre-Sept. 11, he said, though some design changes were made to account for what he called the newly chaste cultural climate--higher necklines and less beading. Lucero described the collection as "a statement against mass production." The pieces, he said sweetly, "have more of an artisan feel--like someone's hands and someone's minds actually touched it."

B.M.

Jared Gold

By now the nostalgic, Edward Gorey-esque world of Jared Gold, 27, is familiar to those who have followed his past few collections. But this season, the former Fred Segal salesman came into his own. He revisits his misunderstood Victorian ladies, retired furniture and antique table-setting themes but manages to produce a collection that is strange and wearable.

A robin's-egg blue T-shirt with an architectural print, a black secretary skirt decorated with gold calligraphy and a mineral green miniskirt with drawings of chairs around the hem are different, but not too different to be worn at the office. Gold also presented his new lower-priced Black Chandelier line. Sweatshirts and tote bags decorated with sketches of Victorian ladies or sayings such as "Merci No!," along with peachy puff-sleeve polo dresses and short skirts with tromp l'oeil pockets, play out Gold's fractured fairy tale for the Urban Outfitters crowd.

B.M.

Michelle Mason

Emerging from behind the candle-lit altar with their feet hidden in clouds of dry ice, the models seemed to almost float on the hems of their silk chiffon dresses and bias skirts. The hauntingly beautiful St. Vibiana's Cathedral, with its peeling gilt walls and blown-out windows, felt like the right place for a show in light of current events, said designer Michelle Mason, 30. (The 1876 cathedral at the corner of 2nd and Main streets downtown, due for restoration after narrowly escaping the wrecking ball, was opened just for the event.)

Thankfully the winning collection, which mixed a romantic, ethereal sensibility with crisp, modern tailoring, lived up to the setting. A delicate French lace apron top was expertly draped across the bosom, anchored by just a few well-placed strings over the back. And a coquettish chocolate and nude silk chevron print halter wrap dress was as pretty as anything a woman could hope to put on her body. When Mason departs from her neutral palette, the results are less successful. A dress with three tiers of turquoise silk chiffon and another with a lemon yellow smocked bodice are reminiscent of frothy 1960s nighties.

But Mason always tempers her ruffles and lace with a little masculine edge. A portrait collar jacket made from variegated panels of sand and coffee-colored stretch wool hugs every curve. And apron pants are a fine alternative to traditional suit trousers when paired with a sexy, stretch wool jacket held together across the bare chest with three buttoned panels of fabric. Sitting front row and center, Mason's mentor, Richard Tyler, said it best: "She hits the spot."

B.M.

Ina Celaya

There's nothing like a good crowd, a decrepit setting and the promise of some sexy clothes to raise expectations. But from the first awkwardly draped toga takeoffs to the last garter-belt and breast-baring ensembles, Ina Celaya's show at the creaky El Dorado Hotel amplified what's wrong with avant-garde fashion. Cutting-edge fashion must relentlessly explore new ideas and then propose answers to the questions it raises. Otherwise, the clothes have no meaning beyond their few seconds on the runway.

Most of her ideas were so far-ranging that the collection lacked focus and purpose. In a retrospective of her collections since 1998, she explored everything from quilting (in bulbous hems stuffed with exposed cotton batting) to layering (harem pants under a long, bow-backed apron under a capelet) to abstractions of deconstruction. Halter tops were made only of wiggly silk fringe and limp felt bands, while a dress looked as if it was composed of scraps from the piecework factory. With more restraint and an emphasis on her more refined items, such as a patchwork jacket of semicircles, the collection could have revealed talent, not just bare bodies.

V.H.C.

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