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In London, spurning runways for the real deal

Times Staff Writer

Snowstorms on the East Coast may have kept some U.S. buyers away from London Fashion Week, but not those from the L.A. boutique A. Mason.

Owner Andrew Mason and his partners, Sam Lauachus and Wendy Vaughan, had never attended the shows here before. But when fashion week organizers approached them late last year and offered to pay for their trip, they couldn’t refuse. Their airfare and hotel expenses were covered by Britain’s Department of Trade and Industry, which has a budget to pay for a handful of buyers to travel to London each season. It’s all part of an effort to promote the British designer fashion industry, which had an export value of more than $1 billion in 2001, 10 times that of just a decade before, according to a study done by the department.

A. Mason, which has branches on Robertson Boulevard and on Montana Avenue in Santa Monica, was singled out because it already stocks clothing by several British designers. In the past, the buyers have discovered new London lines by reading British Vogue, then tracking down the businesses on the Internet. “They’re names you’ve never heard of with fabulous vision, which is what our store is all about,” said Mason.

But from the time they hit the ground last weekend until they left Thursday, they didn’t see a single fashion show. “How can you judge how something is going to look on a 6-foot gliding swan?” said Lauachus, who is married to Mason. Instead they’ve been working the designer showrooms -- the nuts and bolts of fashion week -- where they can see and touch the clothes, try them on and place orders.

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Tucked away in a grimy office park in Chelsea, behind an unmarked door, 1912 is the showroom that represents Frost French, a funky line designed by actress Sadie Frost, estranged wife of Jude Law and British tabloid fodder du jour, and her childhood buddy Jemima French. A. Mason has been carrying Frost French since 2000, when it was a line of underwear. It has since expanded into a full clothing collection, which Lauachus and Vaughan had an appointment to see on Wednesday.

Poring over racks suspended from the ceiling, the women plucked a celestial blue dress in a cherub-print chiffon and a pair of black net leggings flecked with stars. Off went their coats as they began trying the clothes on for size, evaluating the collection for more than an hour. “The lining for this dress is too tight,” Lauachus offered, adding, “It’s better to find out here than after it arrives in the store.”

Vaughan focused on pieces for the Robertson location, which she manages, selecting a gray wool kilt with suspenders that brought lederhosen to mind, and a pair of ankle cuffs that can be buttoned over pants to create a blouson effect. “I don’t want to say it’s a younger shopper, but they are more adventurous. On Robertson, shopping is a sport.”

The Santa Monica store is more conservative. “It’s by the beach, so [we sell] lots of oversize sweaters and more casual looks,” said Lauachus, holding up a glittery pink-and-brown knit tunic, which she suggests wearing with tall brown suede boots and jeans.

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For each piece selected, the buyers request a full size range -- which in designer parlance means 2 to 10. They must pay 50% of the wholesale price for the clothes now, and the remainder after delivery in August. The store also placed orders with a half-dozen other London designers. “So far, our trip has exceeded our expectations. It’s like nothing we’ve ever been able to see before,” said Mason, who was also invited, along with his partners, to attend the upcoming Australian Fashion Week for free.

But will they be back to London? Lauachus put it simply: “Whether I pay for the trip next time myself or not has a lot to do with how these British designers sell.”


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