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Verdad’s moment of truth

Times Staff Writer

The dressing room is ready. A gold armchair is draped with gloves, long and short, in leather and fishnet, magenta and mustard. A coffee table is stacked with fedoras that look as if they were snatched from the set of “Casablanca.” Nearby, rows of fantastical cloth flowers in red, purple, black and brown lie in neat rows, waiting to be pinned on lapels. Eighteen pairs of diva shoes line the baseboards, with heels so high and sharp they could serve as deadly weapons in the hands of the right woman.

It’s Monday morning, the beginning of Los Angeles Fashion Week. In designer Louis Verdad’s studio on London Street, in a very Latino section of Silver Lake, models are arriving for fittings, one an hour. Verdad, a short man with a soul patch and a baby face, rushes from room to room, pins in his mouth, cellphone ringing in his apron. A producer, a stylist, a pattern cutter, an intern, a reporter and a photographer trail behind him, trying to keep up.

Model Brandise Danesewich teeters by in a gorgeous sheath of a dress made of a woolly purple and brown plaid that looks like it was cut from your grandfather’s favorite old suit. A crazy fishtail of a ruffle swishes out behind.

“Ven. Ven,” Verdad says, endlessly going back and forth between English and Spanish.

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This, he explains, will be the season of the sexy tweeds. He drags his guest to a rack of clothes and pulls out dresses, pants, ponchos, jackets. Boucles, wools, plaids. He holds up a floor-length evening dress, swirling with ruffles. “I am using plaids in a very different way. It’s like a blanket, almost.”

Verdad’s clothes are sexy, commanding. Their tailored looks and traditionally male fabrics allude to authority figures, but the cuts are supremely feminine, all curves and ruffles. If a diva/dominatrix were looking for a designer, Verdad would be it. “I want to dress women who have power. She could be a housewife, or president. I glorify women. That is the reason we are here. My clothes empower women. To me, that is one of my biggest rewards.”

Louis Verdad, 37, established his own label two years ago. He had his first independent show last fall. But suddenly he is the name on everybody’s lips. He feels like an inevitable hybrid, who could have emerged only from the disparate influences that clash in this multicultural metropolis. He was born in Chicago, raised in Guanajuato, Mexico, and returned to America to pursue his dreams. His tailored, feminine styles evoke ‘40s movie star glamour, with a romantic Spanish twist.

He has dressed Cate Blanchett, Jennifer Garner, Sarah Jessica Parker and J.Lo. Madonna wore a Louis Verdad tux to the 2003 MTV Awards (the night she kissed Britney Spears). Fashion shark Joan Rivers pronounced Maria Bello one of the best-dressed women of the evening when she wore Verdad’s sultry cream satin column gown to the Golden Globes in February. After Verdad’s show last fall in Los Angeles, Anna Wintour, editor of Vogue and high priestess of fashion who has the ability to make or break careers, bestowed her mark of approval. She summoned him for a private meeting. You have talent, he said she told him. You will have a big career.

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His ready-to-wear line is sold at Saks Fifth Avenue, Henri Bendel, Nordstrom and a host of other boutiques nationwide. He or his fashions have been featured in nearly a dozen magazines in the last few months, from Cosmopolitan, Elle, Harper’s Bazaar, InStyle and GQ to Flaunt, People and German Vogue. His much-anticipated show on Friday is the finale for L.A. Fashion Week.

Still, he has yet to show in New York, Paris or Milan. He may be the new boy wonder, but his show in many ways will be a test. This time, everyone is watching.

“It is a lot of pressure. He really does need to put out a smart, sellable line Friday night,” said Rose Apodaca Jones, West Coast bureau chief for Women’s Wear Daily. Apodaca Jones said a designer no longer needs to show in New York or Paris to become a fashion star. Today, media are lightning fast and buyers and consumers can see the next big thing in Europe within hours of a show, with just the click of a mouse. What Verdad does have, Apodaca Jones said, is an A-list celebrity following, which a lot of fledgling designers in Paris and New York don’t.

“If his collection isn’t great this Friday, people might go on to the next big thing,” she added. “Fashion is a very fickle arena. The bottom line is you are only as good as your last collection.”

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Number four in a family of 10 children, Verdad moved with his family to Mexico when he was 4 but spent summers in the U.S. As a child, he said, he didn’t know he wanted to be a designer but friends always asked him for clothing advice.

“I was a trendsetter at my school. I was the first one with bell bottoms, and I was the one with the highest platform shoes.”

His mother, who is flying in from Mexico for his Friday show, said she doesn’t see herself as his inspiration, but she did wear a lot of hats. And the women of Guanajuato, she says, are reputed to be the most beautifully dressed in all of Mexico. He was always curious about clothes, she said.

“One day, when he was small, I went out to do some shopping,” Carmen de Verdad recalled by phone from the family home. “I came home and he had my wedding dress out with a pair of scissors and he had cut it all to pieces to figure out how it fit together.”

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He got a scholarship to the Ray Vogue Collection of Design, but he never finished school. He refined his designing skills in Atlanta. Then, in 1991, a brother persuaded him to come to Los Angeles. He found work with a men’s shirting manufacturer and then branched into other clothing. He did part-time product development for a Wal-Mart contractor and dreamed of breaking out on his own.

His big break came last spring. That’s when celebrity stylist Arianne Phillips saw his show at Gen Art, an arts and entertainment organization that finds emerging talent in fashion, film, music and art.

“As soon as he came out on the runway she said, ‘I need to meet him,’ ” recalled Apodaca Jones, who was also there. “Within a few weeks she dressed Madonna in Louis Verdad.”

It’s only 11:30 a.m. and there is a shoe crisis. Amazonian models are trying to squeeze their feet into too-small heels.

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“Things are not coming together because we do not have our shoes,” wails Verdad, throwing his hands in the air. “They are Christian Louboutin, from Paris. I don’t know if they are at the airport, or stuck in New York, but they are not here!”

Then the diamonds arrive. Jeweler Neal Lane has collaborated with Verdad for his coming show. Millions of dollars’ worth of diamonds -- dangly earrings, necklaces, cufflinks, broaches and rings -- arrive with their own security detail. One model has brought a tiny dog, which scampers about underfoot. Verdad’s frustrated pattern cutter follows the designer down the hall trying to get his attention, dragging a mannequin with her.

A month ago, Verdad confessed the pressure was on. “When stuff happens fast, it can go away really fast,” he said the morning the Oscar nominations were announced. But this week he seemed to be more comfortable with fame that may be fleeting, or enduring.

“I am very excited to show my collection,” he said. “We have longevity. We are not just smoke.”

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