MORE Los Angeles designers than ever are migrating east for the fall runway shows, which get underway in New York this weekend. From contemporary sportswear to raucous denim to couture-level gowns, the array of locally grown talent showing in New York is a testament to how diverse the fashion community has become here. To say that L.A. fashion is just about jeans or worse, knockoffs, is just not true anymore.
Even casual wear designers, who have defined L.A.'s Fashion Week, are heeding the call of Seventh Avenue. Perhaps none is as surprising as Erik Hart, of the skull-and-Victoriana laden Morphine Generation -- a label that so far has made its success on foil-printed T-shirts.
Other first-timers worth noting are Cynthia Vincent, who is showing her contemporary Twelfth Street line; stylist-turned-designer Pegah Anvarian, who built her name on jersey pieces but has chosen New York to debut her more sophisticated separates; and Geren Ford, who graduates this season from L.A.'s Gen Art, bringing her first full collection to New York’s Gen Art.
It’s a frequent flight pattern. Over the last five years, a growing number of L.A.'s most prominent labels continue to be designed here -- but shown in New York, including Rodarte, BCBG Max Azria, Monique Lhuillier, Jenni Kayne, Jovovich-Hawk, Rock & Republic and Grey Ant, all of them seeking a bigger spotlight.
Last week, I caught up with four of the latest runway runaways to talk about their expectations and their inspirations.
Can you imagine spending months painstakingly cutting, stitching and fitting a garment only to trust it to the FedEx gods? That’s exactly what Rodarte’s Kate and Laura Mulleavy are doing. These sisters, who still live with their parents in Pasadena, have charmed editors and buyers with their outsider approach and their couture-level technique. They have dressed celebrities such as Cate Blanchett, landed in the pages of Harper’s Bazaar and the world’s most exclusive stores, including Colette in Paris and Joyce in Hong Kong, and recently had their garments requested for the permanent collection of the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York -- and all without any fashion training. (They studied at UC Berkeley, Laura majoring in English and Kate in art history.)
But opinions were split over last season’s over-the-top presentation of beribboned-and-bowed pannier dresses dotted with hand-sewn roses. I thought their vision got the best of them, and the collection was romantic to the point of being cartoonish. Store buyers were more enthusiastic, and sales tripled from the season before, the Mulleavys say. Regardless, the stakes are high for this next collection. To achieve real staying power, and real relevance in the fashion industry, the designers need to strike more of a balance between the creative and the real world, and they need to show more than red carpet dresses.
Perhaps sensing the kind of pressure they are under, the Mulleavys didn’t reveal much about next week’s show as they were pinning pleats at their fashion district loft space last weekend. They did say they would take risks, even if that means poor reviews, because that’s how they believe they can build a brand. That means continuing to push their design signatures -- flowers, hand pleats and the gently undulating waves that ran down the front of a cream cocktail confection worn by Blanchett at the AFI Awards in December.
“It’s important for us to have our clothes signify something,” says Kate Mulleavy, 26, who does much of the work by hand with her sister, with occasional help from a pattern-maker or intern. “The reason Chanel is such a great model for us is that it signifies something -- a pearl necklace or a camellia flower.
“We knew our last collection wasn’t going to be crazily commercial and that we couldn’t make 100 of those rose gowns. But the designers that we admire continuously go out on a limb. Down the line, there’s room for diversification.”
Incidentally, they did sell one of the rose gowns, priced at $35,000, to a private collector. Not that they are living the high life. While they are in New York, the Mulleavys will be working out of an unfurnished short-term rental apartment and sleeping on air mattresses.
While Rodarte is close to couture, the Twelfth Street line is more about ease, that buzzword that describes so much of what West Coast designers do best. Designer Cynthia Vincent built her business on separates that may not be instantly recognizable as hers but are indispensable wardrobe pieces, such as the velvet boudoir jacket and the kimono sleeve sweater. A 15-year veteran of the industry, she graduated from Otis Parsons, worked in fashion in London and then in 1998 became one of the founding members of CLAD, the Coalition of Los Angeles Designers, an organization created to support L.A.'s independent designers before there were so many successful ones.
She owned a retail store, Aero & Co., with her friend Alisa Loftin and worked under several other designers before launching her collection at L.A. Fashion Week in 2003. She has seen sales rise from $3 million her first year to $15 million last year. Twelfth Street is a mainstay at Shopbop.com and has its own section on the third floor at Neiman Marcus in Beverly Hills, not far from Vince and Tory Burch.
And now Vincent is ready to be recognized for it. She wants people to know there is a face behind Twelfth Street, named after the street she grew up on in Laverne. New York, she says, is the place to get her name out.
At her studio on Broadway, her 7-month-old daughter, Fiona, is crying in the crib behind her. Although Vincent may be the picture of the modern working mom, her fall collection was inspired by 1950s shapes, particularly the watteau back. She brings the swingy shape up to date on cashmere sweaters and a marvelous caped hoodie. Dresses, such as a dusty rose design with copper thread shot through, are light as a feather but manage to have a formality to them. Instead of jeans, she’s done flannel pants based on the skinny jean. There are some chic accessories too, including metallic short boots, a cross between a jazz shoe and an Oxford, and crinkled patent leather bags with doorknocker closures.
The appeal of her clothes doesn’t often become apparent until you play with them. A top can be belted, worn open or closed, layered or not. Vincent says she’s trying to translate that quality to the runway. “I work hard to make things look appealing, but I don’t want to sacrifice ease. I’m not making design school clothes. For me, it’s thrilling to know someone went out and spent money on one of my things and loves it.”
A few blocks away, Geren Ford is preparing to pack up her collection in suitcases and board the red-eye. She’s hoping the Gen Art runway show in New York will give her the exposure she needs to expand her company internationally. The Northern California native worked in advertising for years before a pair of drawstring pants she made for herself started her new career. She wore the pants into the Beverly Boulevard boutique Beige and the owner offered to buy them on the spot. Ford officially launched her line four years ago with three pieces. Last fall Barneys picked it up, and soon Cameron Diaz came calling.
Still, Ford works hard at giving the impression that she is above the thrill of celebrity exposure. “I got a call from someone who said Jessica Simpson bought my kimono dress and I almost died. I don’t want to be the girl who did the kimono dress that Jessica Simpson bought. It taints the perception of what you could be.”
Diaz and Simpson aside, Ford is earning a reputation for her custom prints, like the swirling design on a tunic dress for fall, inspired by marbled paper. Striving also for ease, she designs skinny pants with elastic waists, T-shirts in cotton cashmere with subtle pleating as embellishment and a simple blouson jacket in silk jacquard.
Doing business in L.A. is easier than in New York, Ford says, noting that the hours commuting in her car keep her focused. Production is better and faster at the factories here too. But when it comes to showing, she says L.A. is not worth the trouble. “I just don’t know if there is that much room to grow here.”
Designer Pegah Anvarian says her fall line was inspired by a love of astrology (not as bad as it sounds), and she’s hoping her New York turn will land it in a department store, preferably Barneys. Celebrity stylist Rachel Zoe created some buzz when she stole the cropped leather bubble jacket off Anvarian’s back at a party, then ordered one in every color. But that does not a business make.
A former stylist whose proudest moment was making costumes for a B52s music video, Anvarian rose to the top of L.A. Fashion Week with her jersey creations. Eager not to be defined by one thing, she decided to take a break last year and make a fresh start with a more high-end collection. Local boutiques Curve and Des Kohan bought into her new, edgier look. Taking a break from shooting her fall look book at Quixote Studios, she points out a few of her key pieces for fall: tissue-thin washed wool turtlenecks in star prints, draped half-coats fastened with oversized safety pins, jersey dresses with half bodices, and biker jackets with circular seams and super fitted sleeves -- all in autumnal hues of eggplant, olive, brown, gray and black.
“L.A. was the test to see if I could do it,” Anvarian says. “But to me, New York is the real show.”