TWO black-clad women crouch uncomfortably beneath a silver lighting reflector, angling the morning glow onto a glittery chiffon dress.
“Give me a seductive smile,” says the director to the model, who affects the perfect cocktail-hour allure here in a cactus garden. “Now chin up just a little bit. Hold it -- go!”
Since sunrise, Sue Wong has directed an eight-person team assigned to capture the vintage glamour of her namesake line of beaded cocktail dresses and ball gowns. They’ve woven tall hairpieces, worried over accessories and pinned lanky models into a handful of the new spring 2007 dresses. For all the meticulous planning, one part of the shoot was easy: finding backdrops.
Wong brought the crew to her Los Feliz mansion, a place so grand and glorious it could be the subject of its own Hollywood comeback story. Wong would star in the tale as the determined heroine who, in record time, rescues the grand dame of Golden Age Hollywood style from a long sad decline.
Now, after nearly two years of nonstop work, Wong is ready to open the doors for a rare viewing of the brilliantly revived $5.3-million mansion, just in time for Los Angeles Fashion Week. Wander the halls of this mansion with its 16 rooms and six baths and you’ll find beneath the gilt a home that is the architectural equivalent of Wong’s signature dresses. Each dress is a spangled and embroidered history of 1920s and ‘30s glamour gowns.
“It’s the first house I’ve had that is a natural habitat for the clothes,” Wong says. “The mood, the romanticism, the opulence, the period feeling, it really works with the clothes.”
LOS FELIZ neighbors call the 1926 hilltop villa the Norma Talmadge estate after the silent screen actress who reportedly once lived here. Jimi Hendrix, Dennis Hopper, Lou Reed and late rocker Arthur Lee also were former inhabitants, during some of their most creative years.
Before the 15-acre estate was cut down to less than 1 acre, it was said to be the glamorous hideaway of Hollywood icons such as Bela Lugosi and Ralph Bellamy. Years later, Johnny Depp stayed there as he was channeling Ed Wood. But Wong calls it home, one of three she owns.
For three seasons now, she’s photographed her sirens, goddesses and enchantresses twinkling and fluttering in their beaded silk gowns throughout the house and grounds. To give her creations a back story, she’s assembled the photos into an image book and will distribute it Sunday at her eighth consecutive appearance at L.A.'s Fashion Week -- an unprecedented run.
As the design head of a $60-million business that spans 23 countries and sells to Saks Fifth Avenue, Macy’s and Neiman Marcus, Wong is one of Los Angeles’ most enduring and successful fashion designers. She has built a fortune, an international empire and a celebrity following for her richly decorated party dresses, but lately it is here that she keeps her creative fires burning.
Surrounded by the house’s imposing majesty, her dresses appear like gentler illustrations of Wong’s color palette, design motifs and retro inspiration. Her dress designs are intricate works of art, with an aesthetic that informs her restoration of the Talmadge estate, also known as the Cedars.
The nearly 9,000-square-foot mansion had been a high-speed construction site as workers restored the many carved and gilded ceilings, some adorned with thousands of tiny gilded cherubs. Meanwhile, Wong ordered antiques from around the world, commissioned artwork and designed custom-beaded curtains, lamps and furniture.
“This is the quintessential vintage Hollywood home,” says Wong as she begins a tour of the five-bedroom structure, patterned after a 17th century Venetian palazzo. “It’s like a movie set, a fabulous one.”
Indeed, it’s easy to imagine a progression of stars and their admirers dancing in the ballroom, sunning in the solarium and, during the house’s hippie heyday, rock stars, sloshed and supine, staring at the many elaborate ceilings -- one a solid stretch of carved acanthus leaves covered in gold leaf, framed by painted scrollwork and dozens of roaring, golden lion faces.
Wong frequently hears tales of the parties, large and small, these walls contained. She even dedicated a purple, Moroccan-themed bedroom suite to Hendrix, who reportedly wrote “Purple Haze” in the violet bathroom.
“Having bought the house, I felt it was my responsibility to be its chatelaine, to be its guardian or caretaker,” she said. The effort made the place uninhabitable for a year and a half and cost, says Wong, “in the hundreds of thousands.”
Ironically, Wong wasn’t looking for a decorating project when she and her business partner and longtime companion, Dieter Raabe, bought the house. They wanted a simpler life and a faster route to their downtown L.A. offices.
“Dieter still considers our house in Malibu our main residence,” says Wong. “We found we were losing 80 hours per month for commuting.”
When Wong brought Raabe to see the house two years ago, he unenthusiastically said, “Oh, no. Do we have to do this?
“Now, I’d like to take back the ‘oh, no,’ ” says Raabe, who is president and chief executive of Wong’s company.
Wong, a youthful 57, personifies glamour as she glides through the villa, one day dressed in stitched and knotted scarves and Art Deco jewelry, another day in one of 52 turquoise bracelets she bought in a spree, or in one of the dozens of black kimonos that are her everyday uniform. As always, her hair is slicked straight and shiny, her eyebrows dramatically stenciled, her lips vivid red. This house and its new owner seem destined for each other.
LIKE a Ziegfeld Follies set, every room of the Cedars seems more elaborate, more storied and glamorous than the next. The centerpiece is the expansive ballroom, furnished with plush textures and deep couches that soften the baroque details. At times, it’s overstimulating.
Look up to an 18-foot ceiling of stenciled rustic beams adorned with more gilded, roaring lions. Look down to a herringbone-pattern mahogany floor. Turn right to two nearly life-size lions resting atop a walk-in fireplace that’s fronted with a golden grapevine-pattern screen. Look left to the gilded and painted Corinthian columns framing archways illustrated with Rococo portraits.
Green velvet chairs from the ocean liner Normandie anchor the solarium, while French Art Deco chairs in glossy Madagascar ebony flank the largest of six fireplaces.
There are thrones here, actual, centuries-old thrones from some forgotten European royal family. Their shoulder-high frames are carved with faces and flora, coated in gold leaf and upholstered with deep blue velvet.
Wong designed the throne’s embroidery pattern and shipped the panels to the Chinese factories that also embellish her gowns. The elaborate, scrolled-leaf upholstery was embroidered by hand -- with 14-karat gold thread.
“Simple is really not my M.O.,” says Wong. “Intricate, yes.”
It took Wong and countless artisans nine months to produce the ballroom’s most fanciful flourish -- six hand-beaded, 22-foot burgundy velvet curtain panels embroidered with gold and silver that frame her vast view of the Hollywood Hills. They make the place palatial. The curtains are, of course, Wong’s design, and are so finely crafted that they make the quite pricey but machine-made textiles elsewhere in the house look like poor imitations.
The curtains are another example of Wong’s designer wiles: She built visual unity into the home’s decor by repeating the motif on bedroom curtains, bed covers and pillows. It’s no coincidence that many of the same themes are reinterpreted throughout her clothing collection.
Wong had her own Michelangelo, Zoltan Papp. He’s the European-trained expert who restored the ceilings, walls, furniture and those throne frames. Papp, owner of Artisan Restoration in Los Angeles, practically lived at the mansion for a year and a half while he and a crew cleaned every surface, replaced the gold leaf, repainted the missing areas and burnished their work to match the patina. The grimy ceilings were the biggest challenge.
“They hadn’t been touched in 80 years,” says Papp, who considered that a blessing. “Because of the buildup, 99.9% underneath was original.”
Armed with obscure chemicals, imported materials and lots of gold leaf, Papp and his crew turned blackened posts into gleaming columns, scrubbed arches to reveal intricate paintings and brought thousands of cherubs carved into the foyer ceiling to a high-wattage gleam.
He carved sphinx table legs, repainted portraits on top of gold leaf ceilings and even created a replica of a circa 1495 chair so Wong could have a matched set.
The house had been used, and ignored, by its previous owner, a professor who bought it in 1969 for $43,000 and then used it to hold his books for almost 35 years.
Lately, it had been rented for intermittent movies and parties. Then in 2002, a local developer updated the plumbing and electrical systems before listing it for about $7 million. But according to Wong, “he didn’t address the beauty. I’m a beauty addict, so the first thing I did was hire Zoltan.”
NOW the house is alive again with the original gilded chariots racing across the library ceiling, lovers swooning across the dining room and lions roaring everywhere you look.
The restoration and furnishing of the house would have been overwhelming to a novice, but Wong is a practiced interior designer, having designed her corporate headquarters and her contemporary houses in Hawaii and Malibu, each in a style distinct from the Cedars.
She’s not one to agonize.
“I visualize everything in my third eye before it comes together. Whether it is clothes, furniture or interiors, I see everything completely realized in my mind,” says Wong, who says she sometimes dreams of gowns and their bead and stitching details.
What Wong didn’t hold in her vivid memory she compiled into 12 volumes of resources, prices and estimates. “I’m very systematic and organized,” says the designer, who creates 500 dress designs each of five seasons a year.
“There wasn’t much time to devote to this,” says Wong, who runs the business with her son, Josh Homann, 29, and Raabe. “I did it with stolen moments.”
Having now built the Sue Wong label into a worldwide enterprise, she’s exploring licensing deals to create designer furnishings.
“Sue has this innate desire to create three-dimensional items as her art,” says artist and friend Jayme Odgers. “This house has brought her to a really high level. It’s so her. She’s a diva.”
Many in Wong’s inner circle, particularly Raabe, came to understand that the house isn’t a vanity project but a new application of her fashion design abilities.
“It reconfirms my belief in Sue’s unlimited reservoir of talent to create new environments,” Raabe said. “I think that ultimately she could create more visible and lasting examples of her talent.”
She’ll have more opportunities. To expand her international reach, Wong has just opened a New York showroom in a fabled Garment District building. The couple has also expanded their 8 1/2 -acre property in Hawaii with the recent purchase of 35 acres that Wong plans to turn into a botanical garden.
She’s still not quite done with this house, which her son says is typical: “Every house we’ve lived in is a work in progress.”
“This is an old gal,” says Wong as she finishes the tour, “and she’s definitely, definitely high maintenance.”