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Designs on L.A.

Times Staff Writer

Fashion designers could face some hometown competition when it comes to the Golden Globes gown derby this year. Local talent Kevan Hall has been quietly adding to his stable of starlets over the last few years, dressing Felicity Huffman, Virginia Madsen, Debra Messing and others for the red carpet. And now, Paris transplant Lloyd Klein has opened up a couture castle of his own, complete with turrets, just blocks away from Hall on Beverly Boulevard.

Klein, 39, gained notice on the Paris runways in the early 1990s as head designer for the venerable house of Madame Gres before launching his own business. More recently, he’s attracted attention for his unusual muse and constant companion Jocelyne Wildenstein, the plastic surgery enthusiast who split from her art dealer husband in 1997 and was dubbed “Catwoman” by the tabloids for her increasingly feline features.

Klein’s clothes are also a bit sauvage, as they say in France, with draped silk jersey gowns in electric blue or cocoa, with leather insets and straps. He also makes a nice tailored jacket with epaulets lending a military feel and his signature sleeves cut on a slant. But the most exciting thing he has going now is a new line of sweater-knit gowns in earthy colors with fishtail trains. Nubby silk knits cling to curves deliciously and look great paired with the low-slung belts, horn-handled purses and ebony beads he also stocks in the store. Prices range from $4,700 for a knit gown to $24,000 for a paillette-embroidered one. Jersey tops start at $180 and suits at $3,600.

“When I was in Paris and I opened the newspaper, the only thing I would see was stars in dresses,” said Klein. “Everyone was reaching for those stars to generate sales. So I said, I’m going directly to the source. Nicolas Ghesquiere, Olivier Theyskens, they just had one dress on Madonna and the pictures went all over. Information from L.A. goes all over the world. Information from France stays in France.”

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In planning the extensive renovations of the store, it helped that Klein had a background in architecture, which he studied up until the day he attended his first runway show in Paris at the invitation of a model-friend. The designer was Hubert de Givenchy, Audrey Hepburn was in the front row and the experience, he says, was architecture in motion.

Klein began studying fashion, presenting his first runway show on stage at the Opera Comique in 1994. Soon after, he was named head designer for Madame Gres, where he learned his draping technique. He left after five seasons to start his own label, which he moved to the U.S. in 1998. The store on Beverly, close to La Brea, is his first since franchise boutiques in Europe in the 1990s.

“My friends and customers told me they like to go to Rodeo Drive, but they would not shop there because it’s too touristy and the product is not very insider,” said the soft-spoken Klein, who wore a navy blue velvet suit and pointy black leather shoes. “As a designer, I like to be able to project a little bit, so I said Beverly Boulevard is the next place.”

The 1928 building, a city landmark, was constructed using bricks from L.A.'s original City Hall, Klein said. The decor was inspired by George Cukor’s 1939 film “The Women,” with lots of Art Deco gilt and Neoclassical touches. Klein wanted to create a place for women to hang out and gossip, just as they did in the film, which he said he has seen more than 30 times.

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Save for the gorgeous etched Italian mirrors on the walls, the inside is draped entirely in gray ultrasuede, even the vaulted ceilings. “I thought since we are a fashion house that I would dress the walls,” Klein explained. “And there is a lot of real work of couture in the seams.”

The floors are carpeted in the same gray, creating a neutral surface for the clothes displayed on shiny black mannequins. There are several rooms in the boutique, one showcasing accessories, scented candles and a stunning glass mural of astrological signs by David Harriton that was original to the building. There’s a husband’s waiting room with overstuffed chairs, an atelier in back for alterations and fittings, and a space for Klein’s archives dating to 2000.

“We had to start from scratch,” said John Arguelles, president of Lloyd Klein Couture since 2000. “Not one electrical thing was correct -- 176 recessed lights, and I remember each and every one of them.”

Upstairs in the designer’s office, a distinguished black cougar stands watch. Klein calls the statue his “baby.” It was a gift from Arguelles, a special events planner for 17 years in L.A. before he met Klein at a dinner party in Paris seven years ago. Arguelles had celebrity connections and Klein was looking to dress celebrities; it was a perfect match.

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Klein hired Arguelles, moved his business office to L.A. and began showing in New York. But he kept his studio in Paris.

Then, en route to the Paris airport in 2004, on his way to New York Fashion Week, Klein was in a car accident that left him critically injured. The show was canceled and Klein spent several days in a coma. He recovered to show an ill-conceived jungle-themed collection a few weeks later at L.A. Fashion Week, where the runway was awash in dizzying leopard print, sequins, bustiers and tulle skirts.

Back in New York the next season, a more understated collection of elegantly draped dresses was better received by the fashion press.

But L.A. was calling, and when the building on Beverly opened up, Klein decided it was meant to be.

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His taste has continued to mellow since that L.A. show. And now Klein is less about flash and more about the mix, pairing red-carpet gowns with leather bags handmade by the Masai in Kenya. It appears to be paying off -- among those stopping by at his shop recently were Christina Aguilera and Faye Dunaway.

After a break from the runway, Klein plans to show again next season. But he’s more excited about L.A. as the new home base for his made-to-order couture and bridal business.

“It is fabulous to do factory clothes, but I think couture is intellectual. It is considered a true art. And it’s important for me to be able to say L.A. is the inspiration.”

booth.moore@latimes.com

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