"We were working hard to get the place clean, at least," Marcella Lindeberg says. She is standing in a gutted studio with her husband, Johan, surveying their new design dominion a few blocks from Staples Center and directly above the rumbling Blue Line. Inside, there are high ceilings, exposed beams, chipped paint and stains of indeterminate origin on the brick walls. Depending on the designer, the disrepair could be on purpose. But with these two, you know they've got a swank showpiece in mind. Once they unpack.
The Lindebergs are new to Los Angeles, though they've been fixtures at the Chateau Marmont whenever they've visited from New York. They finally moved here full time in late December as creative directors for William Rast, the L.A.-based denim line launched in 2005 by Justin Timberlake and his childhood friend Trace Ayala. Goodbye, four-story town house in Greenwich Village. Hello, midcentury modern digs off the 13th hole of the Bel-Air Country Club. The previous owners favored yellow and red walls, acres of carpet. Marcella ripped it all out and painted the walls matte black.
"I'm very happy in that house, though I never thought I'd be living on a golf course," she says, laughing.
"But she's got a good swing," Johan adds. "She hits it hard."
"Well, that's true."
They are here, this Swedish designer and his Italian wife, to refine a growing fashion brand founded on the connection -- however tenuous -- between Hollywood chic and Tennessee grit (Timberlake and Ayala hail from Memphis). Which makes two Europeans an unlikely choice to be holding the reins. But both are veterans of the Italian jeans juggernaut Diesel, where Johan served as chief executive of U.S. operations from 1990 to 1996. He is also creative director for J. Lindeberg, a clean-cut men's line known for its tailored suits and Scandinavian minimalism. And, coincidentally, a golf wear collection.
"We're a strong denim line, but we also wanted our [nondenim] collection to go hand-in-hand," says Colin Dyne, chief executive of People's Liberation Inc., the parent company of William Rast. "Johan and Justin are so eye-to-eye, but we felt we wanted the design team out here so they can understand the heritage of the brand."
Judging by their style, the Lindebergs are already at home. He's sporting the sort of vintage motorcycle jacket that would be a once-in-a-decade find at the Rose Bowl Flea Market, styled with paint-splattered jeans, an Ann Demeulemeester necklace and a bushy beard easily mistaken for the latest in hipster affect, except that he's worn his for two years. She has the look that starlets often attempt, with varying degrees of success: a black peak-lapel blazer, loose T-shirt, leggings and leather ankle boots covered with black fringe. The kicks are from William Rast, though the brand has yet to release its footwear collection. "Any kind of woman, any age -- they all stop me and ask where I get my shoes," Marcella says. "Sorry! You can't have them yet. Soon."
It's tough out there for a celebrity fashion brand. Venus Williams' EleVen label and Sarah Jessica Parker's Bitten line are in retail limbo since the budget apparel chain Steve & Barry's closed its doors. Russian heiress and Paris Hilton favorite Kira Plastinina shuttered all her U.S. stores in December, after only seven months. And new men's lines from Charlie Sheen and Toby Keith -- set for fall launches -- are the epitome of bad timing, given an economy in which American wallets aren't exactly sympathetic to vanity projects.
But William Rast is no celebrity whim, and Timberlake is not a sorta-designer. Instead, he's the spokesmodel and muse who exclusively wears Johan's chunky lapel tuxedo blazers, studded leather jackets and other Rast pieces in performances and public appearances. Women's clothing is actually the majority of business, however. Marcella's $220 embroidered pocket jeans, washed leather bombers and military trenches are found in major department stores such as Bloomingdale's, Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus.
Colette, the influential Paris boutique on rue Saint-Honore, is now said to be buying from William Rast's fall 2009 collection, which debuted last month at New York Fashion Week. Judging by the show's attendees, it was a watershed moment for the Lindebergs. The usual young Hollywood suspects sat in the front row, but so did Anna Wintour and Carine Roitfeld ("My holy moment," Marcella says of meeting the French Vogue editor in chief).
Many L.A. premium denim companies emphasize their expanding collections -- some to the point where the five-pocket jean is bridesmaid to a broader fashion agenda. The Lindebergs take a different approach. "We ourselves are denim people, and we love it, but we like to mix it with sharper silhouettes," Johan says. "We also want to tap into American culture, to have vintage inspiration but to give it a modern tweak."
Denim is a good place to start, and William Rast showed plenty of it for fall, the Lindebergs' third season with the brand. Patchwork denim jackets. Jeweled denim skirts. Even acid-washed jeans, that '80s trend that's creeping into stores such as American Apparel. "I just love the texture," Marcella says. "Just two days before the show, I said, 'Let's do a couture jacket out of acid wash.' . . . I'm just an '80s person. 'Flashdance' is in me."
The Lindebergs say their ultimate goal is to create a denim brand with international appeal -- and the rabid following that European denim competitors such as Diesel enjoy.
Neither worries about a lack of inspiration as they adapt to L.A.'s more prosaic elements.
Their design work used to be based in their Manhattan home, for one. Now it's a 15-mile commute downtown.
Luckily, they prefer the way Angelenos eschew the conventional and are open to taking a gamble on style. West Hollywood's Maxfield is one of their favorite boutiques in the world. So is Ron Herman. "In terms of taste, L.A. is between Paris and Tokyo. For me, those are the three references," Marcella says.
Um, and New York?
"New York is trapped in this conservative shell now," she says. "Which is annoying, because it was never like that before."