Times Staff Writer

A Pussycat Dolls lingerie show, a photo op with former porn star Jenna Jameson and the runway debut of “The Hills” star Lauren Conrad’s new collection can mean only one thing: Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Los Angeles is back at Smashbox Studios.

Like a television network shuffling its fall lineup for maximum effect, event organizers IMG Worldwide and Smashbox continue to dispense with the drama in favor of sizzle. The result? A week long on sex and celebrity, but short on the sort of bankable -- or even recognizable -- designers needed to give the week resonance beyond the next cycle of supermarket tabloids.

The shows, which start today in Culver City, include a return engagement by socialite/designer Nicky Hilton; the second collection of Whitley Kros, co-designed by Marissa Ribisi, the sister of actor Giovanni Ribisi and wife of musician Beck; and a curious cameo by the Paris-based, 1960s-era chain-mail king Paco Rabanne. Outside the tents, former adult film actress Traci Lords will be among the models on Jared Gold’s runway at Union Station in downtown Los Angeles.

Closing out the five-day, 22-show week will be the platinum-album-selling, sexpot reality show juggernaut known as the Pussycat Dolls, whose performance signals the launch of a namesake brand of lacy underthings.


Oh, and Jenna Jameson. She will unveil her PETA ad in the Smashbox lobby, following last season’s example set by “Jackass” star Steve-O.

Missing this season are some of the L.A. shows’ designer stalwarts: Kevan Hall, Eduardo Lucero, Louis Verdad, Christian Audigier and Sue Wong. The overall number is slightly down, too: There were 23 shows in the last round of fall shows at Smashbox.

“This season is always the hardest for L.A.,” said Davis Factor, co-founder of Smashbox Studios. “And I think we have taken a bit of a hit from the writers strike. It affected a lot of people in our business. But as long as we still have a table, we can put food on that table, and that’s the important thing.”

Factor expects Rabanne’s involvement to be one of the highlights of the season. “I’m pretty excited -- we worked on getting him to come here for six months,” he said. Rabanne is scheduled to appear as mentor and consultant to a 28-year-old up-and-coming Ukrainian designer, Veronika Jeanvie, whose collection makes its U.S. debut Monday.

Last season, show organizers stopped trying to ape other cities’ approach to Fashion Week and embraced its strong suit: a close proximity to a never-ending supply of bold-face names, even if they aren’t always A-list. But the serious designers who opted out this year say the new approach isn’t the reason they are showing elsewhere, or not at all.

Hall, who has shown at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week for the last six seasons and is a regular among the red-carpet crowd (he dressed Ruby Dee for the Oscars), was the highest-profile name on the preliminary schedule. He decided last week not to return. At the last minute, up-and-comers Elmer Ave were lured away from the competing BOXeight shows to take Hall’s place.

“I just moved into a new atelier,” Hall said, “and I’m in the middle of renovations.”

Lucero, according to a representative, will be showing March 29 at Palm Desert’s El Paseo fashion week and at Acapulco fashion week shortly after that.

Verdad, another veteran of the L.A. circuit, said the economic climate contributed to his decision to sit this season out. “I support fashion week here,” he said. “But because of the economy, it’s time to focus on the right direction of my company.” Verdad says he hopes to return to the runway (perhaps in New York) for Spring 2009.

He did express concern at the departure of the more established L.A. designer base. “I look at the lineup, and unfortunately I don’t recognize a lot of people,” Verdad said. “Where are the Kevan Halls and the Petro Zillias? Where is everybody? They were the ones that were fighting for designers here to be taken seriously. I know IMG has a strategy, but I don’t understand it.”

The competing fashion week runway event BOXeight is also leaner this season. Last fall, it padded its seven runway shows with art installations, film shorts and dance performances. Now it has trimmed down to a two-day event featuring just four designers (the three confirmed at press time are Endovanera, Mike Vensel and a line called Ur Not In Fashion), two live bands and DJ sets that will be open to the public at 11 each night.

Last season, BOXeight shows were in the former St. Vibiana’s Cathedral. This time, BOXeight shows will be held Friday and Saturday in the group’s 4,000-square-foot headquarters at 1446 E. Washington Blvd.

Wong is the only designer on the official Smashbox calendar every season since 2002. This time, she is hosting a masquerade party for 250 in her Los Feliz home, the former Norma Talmadge estate known as the Cedars, along with a presentation of Fall 2008 highlights on models and a selection from her archives on metallic mannequins.

“I’m not a renegade,” she said. “I fully intend to return to the tents next season.”

Wong explained that since her restoration of the Cedars is now finished -- including custom furniture, textiles and hardware she had designed -- it was an opportunity to show it to the public. “I thought it would be fun to present my collection in the place that really inspires a lot of it.”

Curiously, Wong’s party is being sponsored by IDG World Expo, organizer of the annual San Francisco geek fest known as the Macworld Conference & Expo, among other tech events. IDG World Expo’s chief executive, Mary Dolaher, is scheduled to make an announcement “in support of the Los Angeles fashion market,” at 9 p.m. Friday.

Could this mean yet another player is jumping into the L.A. fashion fray? Maybe there’s still a little drama left after all.