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The taste of success

Times Staff Writer

For Pamela Skaist-Levy and Gela Taylor, the duo behind Juicy Couture, success wasn’t achieved by inventing the sexy tracksuit, now a wardrobe classic in the same league as the little black dress. It wasn’t achieved by dressing all of Hollywood, or by selling their company to Liz Claiborne Inc. last year for an undisclosed multimillion-dollar sum. It wasn’t even achieved by opening their first boutique last weekend at the Caesars Palace Forum Shops, and chartering three planes to fly celebs here to help celebrate.

No, for these designers, success came when they were immortalized as Barbie dolls, now in stores, Skaist-Levy dressed in a ruffled mini and Ugg-like boots, and Taylor in a terry tracksuit with Tink, her fawn-colored Chihuahua, peeking out of a miniature Juicy bowling bag.

“It’s mind-boggling,” Taylor says. “Just the pinnacle.”

Poster girls for L.A.'s singular casual luxury look and fashion icons in their own right, Taylor, 43, wears jeans cut off to the top of high black suede boots, Juicy Couture tube socks and a fur coat, while Skaist-Levy, 41, sports the same jeans with black stilettos and a Chanel tweed jacket. Both women are tiny, with long manes and crocodile Hermes Birkin bags.

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“The biggest change was when we started this, we would hit a certain number of dollars and then hit a plateau. Now we have grown up,” Skaist-Levy says. “Having the store and licensing, doing accessories and swimwear, and expanding on our collections, it feels like we are on the way to what we want to be -- the next amazing American brand.”

“But we are working harder than we’ve ever worked and our office is still the same dump,” she says, referring to the warehouse space in an industrial section of Arleta where Juicy Couture is headquartered.

Before the Vegas store opening party Saturday, they took time out to chat in the lounge at the Hotel. Ordering a frozen margarita to share and giggling about the wait staff’s Barbie-sized uniforms, the two could have passed for sisters.

“I saw your tushy!” Skaist-Levy says, kidding the waitress, before whispering to others at the table, “Who would wear that?”

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“They are like little pornographic Donna Karan outfits,” Taylor responds.

So why would a brand that so epitomizes West Coast style open up shop in Las Vegas first? “We have such a sense of loyalty to the stores that made us, like Fred Segal, that we couldn’t think of any place in L.A. that wouldn’t step on their toes,” Skaist-Levy says. “When we started talking about a store and Vegas came up, we both just started laughing because Vegas is fun and Juicy is fun. And it really is like O’Hare airport here. Everybody in the world converges.”

Built on star power

Located in a new wing of the Forum Shops, the store is lively and bright, decorated for the party with silver Mylar P and G balloons (Pamela and Gela). In addition to such Juicy Couture staples as $62 “Juicy Loves Martha” T-shirts, $425 shocking-pink fur capelets, $197 crocheted cashmere mufflers and $220 ruffled velvet tube dresses, there is special merchandise not available elsewhere, like the $55 Jackpot Charm for a charm bracelet that’s a working slot machine.

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Juicy Couture was founded in 1994 as an upscale T-shirt line. It expanded into denim and sportswear, and in 1999 the designers introduced their signature low-riding drawstring pants and form-fitting zip-up hoodies in an ever-widening array of velour, terry cloth, cashmere and now fur. Men’s and children’s collections have since been added, and last year after the Liz Claiborne deal went through, former Vogue accessories director Michelle Sanders was hired to handle new licenses for jewelry, handbags and swimwear. The designers are now co-presidents of the company.

Much of the brand’s success was founded on celebrity relationships. Early in the company’s history, the designers hosted a suite at the Chateau Marmont and invited young Hollywood to stop by for free clothes. Having Madonna, Jennifer Lopez and Cameron Diaz, as well as countless others, photographed in their tracksuits proved invaluable, and the oft-imitated business model has been chronicled in Advertising Age.

Even so, they never could have anticipated the power of the simple yet sexy leisure suits.

“People didn’t want to take them off,” Skaist-Levy says. “A large part of the popularity had to do with Los Angeles. People on the West Coast are not afraid to be casual. Now, you see it in every city.”

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Today nearly every clothing line, including several celebrity labels, has a version of the tracksuit. But the designers don’t worry too much about the copying or the competition. “That’s happened to us, and you know, J.Lo still wears Juicy. And Posh Spice, who just started a line, does too. Mandy Moore is a big Juicy fan and she has a line. But celebrity dressing is still a big part of who we are because of where we are.”

Timepieces and tiaras

Now they produce six women’s, six children’s and four men’s collections each year. When they begin the design process, they start with a concept such as Valley of the Dolls or Scottish baronial, before moving into color and fabrication. Currently, Palm Beach Prep is filtering into stores in the form of cropped argyle cashmere sweaters in Juicy colors, designed to be layered over T-shirts.

More stores are slated to open, but the designers aren’t aiming to be in every city. They are more interested in expanding the Juicy universe into fragrance, cosmetics, timepieces and home furnishings.

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“And gowns and tiaras!” Taylor says. “The first season, before anyone knew us, we did ball skirts and T-shirt twin-sets that were on the cover of Women’s Wear Daily,” Skaist-Levy says. “It was our first gig. And you know what, it still holds true. I would still wear that.”

High-end designer collaborations could be in the works too.

“It’s so great to have other designers admire and want to collaborate with you -- people like Alber Elbaz from Lanvin and Gilles Mendel from J. Mendel who are totally opposite from what we are. But they are inspirational to us and us to them,” Taylor says, whipping off her J. Mendel fur jacket to show off a stitched message on the lining inside: “Avec toujours l’amour -- Gilles.”

The two are enthusiastic consumers of all fashion labels, not just Juicy. Taylor attended the Giorgio Armani show in October in Milan with her husband, John Taylor, and his Duran Duran bandmates. (Armani is outfitting the group’s tour.) She also hit the Marni show, “because I love it,” she says.

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Both are moms who put more family time at the top of their holiday wish lists, but Saturday night they were living the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle.

At the store, they sipped champagne and nibbled on P- and G-shaped chocolates with new couple Rebecca Romijn and Jerry O’Connell, Chris Kattan, Courtney Love, Anthony Kiedis, Colin Quinn, David LaChapelle, Lara Flynn Boyle, Jacqui Getty, Tracey Ross and others.

At the after-party, they were joined by John Cusack, Nicky Hilton, Pamela Anderson and Jason Alexander, who helped them christen the Vegas outpost of Ivan Kane’s burlesque bar Forty Deuce. For the final striptease of the evening, dancers were clad, albeit briefly, in the designers’ jeans and fur coats.

As Skaist-Levy says, “The world just keeps getting Juicier!”

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