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Being unfashionably late

Times Staff Writer

Maybe it was the soggy weather or the temporary power outage at the tents. But L.A.'s Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week, which runs through Friday, has yet to really get off the ground this season. At Smashbox Studios in Culver City, the same oddball celebrities are back (David Carradine?), along with the valet parking headaches. But despite the increasing glut of photographers chasing anyone winding out their 15 minutes of Warholian fame, the event doesn’t feel as if it has grown in size or scope.

Again, the issues are timing and money. After traveling for several weeks to see the European collections, few editors are willing to come to L.A. And most designers completed their spring sales long ago. “We’ve already sold our collection,” Corey Lynn Calter says. “So we wouldn’t see a sales boost from showing. It would only be a press boost, but it’s so late in the schedule that it’s sort of spinning your wheels for not much result.”

IMG, the event production firm that runs the shows here and in New York, has lowered the prices for designers to rent runway space. (“Our $4,000 space here is $42,000 in New York,” says Fern Mallis, who oversees both events.) But even with the more affordable rates, this week’s schedule has gaping holes. Some of L.A.'s brightest talents, who anchored last season’s shows -- including Calter, Michelle Mason and Magda Berliner -- are not showing their spring collections. Others, such as Grey Ant’s Grant Krajecki, are holding presentations off-site.

“There will always be someone who says they can’t show because of financial reasons,” Mallis says. “But my feeling is, if you can’t afford our venues, you probably have no business putting on a show.”

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But not everyone who can afford to show should. The week’s highlights (so far) -- from Petro Zillia’s Nony Tochterman, Kate O’Connor and newcomer Arthur Mendonca -- run the risk of being drowned out by the parade of indistinguishable draped halter tops and ripped jeans from labels such as Lady Enyce, Iron and Single. (Note to designers: You’re not fooling anyone if you have to put a Chihuahua on the runway to hold our attention.)

There may have been driving rain outside the Petro Zillia show Tuesday night, but it’s always sunny in Tochterman’s world. Set against the backdrop of a winding white fence bordered with flowers, the designer’s collection was breezy and upbeat. She was inspired by the finger-snapping, foot-stomping, retro-country swing music of the Ditty Bops. The L.A.-based duo, Amanda Barrett and Abby Dewald, sang and plucked banjos at the show, and their self-titled CD was in goodie bags.

On the runway, the look was carefree with smocked party dresses, full, twirling skirts in candy stripes and Popsicle stick purses. Tochterman has developed a flair for soft, feminine tailoring, on display in a boxy, short-sleeve jacket with rounded, puffed sleeves, and a pink linen skirt with inverted box pleats that swished as the model walked. There were cute details, such as a bow on the back of a sky blue cotton tweed jacket and tiny pompoms dotting the hem of a baby floral silk ruffle skirt. And colorful knit camisoles were emblazoned with such peppy phrases as “Live, Love, Laugh” and “I Love Trees.”

Jeanene Fox, the sister of former Laker Rick Fox, was stunning as she modeled in a finale of made-to-order dresses and ball skirts, one a pinwheel of Ultrasuede panels and overgrown blooms.

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O’Connor, the L.A. designer who helped usher in the poncho craze with her lightweight, blanket striped knits, continues to push the envelope with her craft. For spring, she dabbled in metallics -- a major trend elsewhere on the runways this season -- offering body-skimming wrap pants and leggings, slinky tanks and long skirts in glittery shades of apricot, lavender and gold. Her new version of the now-ubiquitous poncho is a kind of a butterfly shape that goes over the head, with a drawstring in front to allow for full coverage, or a little cleavage.

Mendonca, 29 and a native of Canada, traveled to L.A. to show his second collection in hopes of breaking into the U.S. market. Inspired by a summer vacation at a Greek villa, peasant shirts and dresses in soft cotton fell suggestively off the shoulders and were worn with scarf-tie sandals. A feminine summer shirtdress with a circle skirt was topped by a sheer cardigan sweater reminiscent of Prada, and a silver silk jersey goddess gown was draped over one shoulder and twisted at the waist. His tailored separates were promising too, particularly a shrunken jacket and pencil skirt in a textured fabric that looked almost as if it had been scored by tiny bird tracks.

New York-based Heike Jarick is another designer who seeks out the smaller pond of L.A.. But her spring line lacked the edge that she brought to last season’s collections, and that is so sorely missing in fashion right now. An oversized Victorian bolero jacket cut to a point in the back, with full, slit sleeves, looked clumsy over an organza skirt, while a jersey dress with two very different looking organza sleeves was jarring to the eye. Her best pieces were cut close to the body, namely a white stretch jersey jacket with pin tucking along the back and sharp sleeves.

Kevan Hall has long been the kind of designer that an older woman might go to for a party dress. But with the 1940s era socialite Millicent Rogers as muse, Hall skewed younger than ever this season, offering a perfectly pretty collection accessorized with chunky Verdura jewelry. A sky blue hammered satin gown had a racer back to show off toned arms, and a lavender sleeveless slip of a dress was flocked with whisper-light feathers. Hall even revived Rogers’ puff-sleeve, tie-front blouse, pairing it with a stately ball skirt.

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Erica Davies hasn’t progressed much since her last collection of floaty dresses and tops in sherbet shades, other than to leave behind the hammered nail and grommet detailing that were becoming a strong signature.

At Single, Galina Sobolev could have used an editor. Trekking through the Cote D’Azur, Jaipur, Phuket, Thailand; St. Bart’s and Ibiza, the show had more than 60 looks. The vibe throughout was that of a rum-soaked happy hour at a spring break resort -- sheer chiffon skirts slit up the sides, coin belts, frayed denim minis, knit beach cover-ups and drawstring pants with embroidered Indian accents. The clothes may have been wearable for a certain set, but they were not runway worthy. And by the time actress Bai Ling, in a lime green slip, Elvis glasses and a skunk-like hairdo, finished out the show bumping and grinding with a male model, more than one front row guest was crying out for mercy.


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