The Wearing and Tearing of Richard Tyler

Shawn Hubler is a West senior writer.

Richard Tyler pads through his Italianate dining room, Diet Coke in one hand, antibiotics in the other, a slender convalescent in a big white turtleneck. It is late morning, and he has been out of the hospital for five days. His long hair hangs in waves of salt and pepper. His 59-year-old face, which has been compared to those of various debauched British rock stars, is a study in glorious past excess.

But on this particular weekday, in this tall, sunlit room filled with objects of beauty, he is clean-shaven and fresh from a week’s mandatory bed rest. “So sorry,” he apologizes, rummaging around the marble furnishings and the base of a sweeping staircase. The designer, who has dressed everyone from Diana Ross to the Desperate Housewives, can’t locate his shoes.

Then he smiles and makes eye contact. The effect is a sudden, almost irresistible impulse to help him, even for someone who has never met him, even as he is already shrugging and deciding to make do with his argyles. “One of fashion’s nicest guys,” those in his industry have called him, and to meet him is to understand the intense personal loyalty that he has inspired over the years. Or as he puts it: “I’ve always had people who believed in me.”

For much of last year, those believers had also been worrying about Tyler. A scant decade ago, he was a bicoastal fashion star, honing the cutting edge of cool with his exquisitely tailored suits and gowns—proof that serious fashion could so exist in Los Angeles. But last May, he laid off all but four of his remaining employees, a close-knit workforce that had once numbered more than 200. Then he shuttered his landmark Beverly Boulevard boutique, once so popular that celebrities treated it as an after-hours hangout.

In New York, the talk of the runways that spring had been the extent to which his show was underwritten by Delta Airlines. Corporate tie-ins and design deals may have been the new thing, but Tyler, stubborn in his independence, had been seen as the least likely to sign up. “Did that show make you as sad as it made me?” the San Francisco Chronicle quoted one retailer tsk-ing, even as critics were raving about the clothing.

In L.A. fashion circles, there were similar laments. Tyler had been proof that rules could be broken—that the top rungs could be yours even if you didn’t live in New York or kiss up to investors or go corporate or matriculate from some fancy design school. Now it appeared the master tailor had been overtaken by—what? Bad luck? Bad timing? Bad taste? (“Good taste is dead,” is how one longtime local retailer summed up Tyler’s scale-back.) Inevitably, there was gossip—that he was retiring, that he was depressed, that the stress had sundered his marriage and that he had separated from his business partner and wife of 17 years, Lisa Trafficante.

Then, in early December, Tyler scaled an 18-foot ladder to saw off a tree limb that was overshadowing a hedge in the sideyard of his home in South Pasadena, lost his footing and gave the metaphor of his past year a literal and nearly lethal interpretation.

“How stupid, dying this way, so stupid,” he remembers thinking as he plummeted toward the manicured earth beneath him. Had the branch broken the way he’d intended, he would still have been standing on top of the ladder. In the garden of the peach-colored villa, marble sculptures of the Four Seasons stood sentry as the shy, sweet Australian who’d risen to fame as the Godfather of L.A. Fashion hit the ground, hard.

First you’re a nobody, then you’re a somebody, then, after a while, you’re somebody who used to be somebody. Occasionally, there’s the comeback. Everyone knows how fame works. In fashion—as in show business, politics, media and other such preoccupations—the arc is a given, nothing personal, a natural law of the A-list universe.

Fame, however, is not to be confused with real life, as anyone who has ever been famous will tell you. Or with real art. Or, for that matter, with real success. Those are more complex, more about who you are and what moves you and where you came from and how you end up, and Tyler—who spent the better part of December recovering from a ruptured spleen and a related bout of pneumonia—says he has been thinking a lot about them lately.

“One thing about fashion,” he says, “is that I’ve never taken it that seriously. I’ve always taken it as a job. My mother did it, and I followed in her footsteps. But my father was a factory worker. I could just as easily have followed in his.”

This isn’t to say he is any less interested in his profession. “The news of my death has been greatly exaggerated,” he told Women’s Wear Daily on the day he announced that he was downsizing, and in fact he and Trafficante have continued to operate his eponymous couture business and bridal collection out of their South Pasadena atelier.

Private clients still fly in from around the world for his handmade gowns and suits and tuxedos, still so perfectly wrought that they could be worn inside out, as a Chicago retailer once famously marveled. In May, Delta Airlines will debut the chic new uniforms it commissioned from him, along with a line of luggage. Australian filmmakers are asking him to do costumes. Celebrities still crave him. (“I love Richard Tyler, omigod,” laughs Diane Keaton. “He cuts a suit and literally transforms your body. Also, have you seen him? He’s stunning.”)

But Tyler, in a departure from the usual kiss-kiss shallowness of the fashion business, says the past year has been a lesson in what does and doesn’t matter.

“I have wonderful sons whom I love, and they love me. I have a wife who has been so supportive,” he says. “I want to be a granddad. I want to do all the normal things. And you know, this is the first time in my life I’ve been able to say that.”

When Tyler is asked where he was born, he says he’s from Sunshine, Australia. The name, to Americans, evokes kangaroos in sunglasses and surfin’ Down Under, but in fact Tyler grew up in a tough industrial suburb. His mother, he says, was a strong-willed Roman Catholic who made ballerina costumes for the Tivoli Theatre and embroidered priests’ robes for extra money.

“She worked hard,” Tyler says, settling onto an antique love seat with his Yorkie Poo, Violet. “I can remember going to bed and waking up in the morning and she was still sewing. Big ashtray full of cigarettes. Still sewing.” He was 5 when he started sewing too.

His memories are almost cinematic: The day his mother finished a bridal gown at the last minute, wrapped it in plastic and threw it over the handlebars of his bicycle with orders for him to take it to the bride as quickly as his pedals could go. The neighborhood boys who, when they found out he could sew, didn’t beat him up but instead hired him to peg their pants for 10 shillings. The time a troupe of Japanese geishas came to town, and his mother took him backstage to see the beautiful women with white-painted faces.

“I saw all these other worlds, all these women, all this fantasy,” he says. In his teen years, when his parents learned he’d been ditching school and demanded that he declare an ambition, he looked at his mother and blurted: “I want to do what you do.”

He dropped out of school to become an apprentice. “One job was cutting corsets. Another was cutting shirts. Another job was cutting swimwear.” He ticks off the assignments on lumpy fingers, scarred by industrial fabric-cutting blades. From factory to factory he went, until by the mid-1960s he and his mother were able to open a boutique featuring his designs and her sewing, and then a second shop, with even more outrageous fashions.

“My favorite designer back then was Ossie Clark,” he says of the Liverpool Brit who defined the swinging look of ‘60s London. Mick Jagger and Twiggy wore Ossie Clark; so did Jimi Hendrix. It wasn’t long before Billy Thorpe, the Australian rock star, discovered Tyler’s dandyish, hand-tailored jackets. He was followed by other visiting rock ‘n’ roll acts.

Meanwhile, Tyler got married, although he wasn’t yet 20. “She was the cutest girl in the clubs,” he recalls of his first wife, Doris Taylor. “Big frizzy hair, big false eyelashes.” She got odd jobs in beauty salons and public relations and, eventually, in rock ‘n’ roll too, as a secretary in Rod Stewart’s entourage. The couple traveled and met people—artists, musicians. But they were young and unformed, Tyler says now. When his father died in 1971, they moved in with his mother. Four years later they had a son, Sheridan, not because they were ready, in Tyler’s opinion, but because “mum wanted us to have children.”

When his mother died after a long heart ailment, the marriage unraveled, and so—almost—did his future. “I was devastated. I was totally lost,” he says. “I started drinking.” Taylor went on the road, leaving him alone for long stretches with the business and the baby. “Sheridan used to sit in his little bouncy thing and watch me sew.”

His friends and clients, however, had bigger dreams for him. Rock producer and manager Nigel Thomas, a dashing Englishman with a Rolls-Royce and an apparently endless supply of Dom Perignon at his disposal, offered to back him in a new store. Tyler rallied, and after a year or so had the contacts and confidence to pack up his baby son and his portable sewing machine and move, first to London and then, in 1978, to Los Angeles.

Tyler describes those years as a blur of hand-to-mouth and high life. One day he was crashing in a house in the San Fernando Valley, the next he was partying with Andy Warhol. “I’d stay up until 5 in the morning and Sheridan would come with me—not a very good father,” he says. “But if I went to Le Dôme, he went to Le Dôme.”

Sharon Osbourne remembers meeting him in 1977, when he was designing stage clothes for rock bands she managed. Even then, she says, his promise was striking: “I can honestly say it was the first time I had ever met a true tailor.” He’d conceive the costumes, “sew them and bring them in the next day.” Diana Ross flew him to New York in 1978 to do her press tour wardrobe for “The Wiz” after she saw Rod Stewart in a jacket Tyler had made. He recalls his star-struck astonishment when the diva turned to him at a fitting and asked, “What do you think?”

Still, money was always short, and life didn’t get any more stable. When Sheridan reached school age, his mother took him back to Australia. Tyler relocated with a girlfriend to Norway for a while, then returned to L.A. He moved into a mid-Wilshire apartment filled with drug addicts and rock musicians, living on cheap wine and white-bread-and-Worcestershire-sauce sandwiches while his unpaid rent accumulated. “The manager liked me, and finally I ended up in the broom closet in the basement,” Tyler remembers. “He let me stay there for free.”

He supported himself with tailoring jobs and alterations, and designing clothing for clients as diverse as Dodi Fayed and the neighbors down the hall. And with time on his hands, he began to develop his aesthetic—not spandex stage costumes, but Savile Row-style suits, vaguely Edwardian-looking, that were part Ossie Clark, part Jimmy Page, part his old friend Nigel.

He took a design job in San Francisco with a Chinese garment wholesaler he’d met at a party. One day the wholesaler’s mother—an elderly woman who spoke little English—was called in by the FBI and worriedly asked Tyler to come with her. “They pulled me aside,” he recalls, “and said, ‘What do you do?’ I said, ‘I’m a clothing designer.’ They said, ‘This company is not what you think.’” As it turned out, the wholesaler was running a cocaine ring.

It was now 1987 and he was 40 years old. Worn out and discouraged, he says, he decided to go back to Australia, though friends were still trying to capitalize on him in L.A. One, an actress, wanted to back him in a boutique. Another, a producer, wanted to find him design jobs (for a percentage). One night, not knowing that Tyler had already bought himself a one-way plane ticket home, they invited him to a dinner party at Helena’s, the hot private club of the moment.

What happened next would become lore, both in Tyler’s industry and in his household:

His beat-up car broke down and he wandered in late, having walked most of the way there. He sat down next to a pretty blond actress his hostess had recruited to fill out the table. She was sorry she’d come, she would later recall—she had been game for a party, but the men seemed so aggressive that she didn’t even want to take off her jacket. She was 32, a Bay Area native who had moved south with her actor boyfriend. But the relationship had long since ended, and the glitz of L.A. wasn’t doing it for her either.

Then Tyler materialized, hair in his face, apologetic. Lisa Trafficante says she vaguely remembered her host’s description of the guest of honor—brilliant, “so shy he can’t answer the telephone” and “not for you.”

“You must be hungry,” she stammered as Tyler smiled and made eye contact and asked what she thought he should have for dinner.

Entranced, she picked up a menu and ordered for him.

“Alot of people look at us as a business in which there was a marriage, but that’s not how it was,” Lisa Trafficante is saying. “First, we fell in love.”

She is sitting with her husband, her loose blond hair in need of a touch-up, her bare feet, unpedicured, tucked beneath her, a black sweater thrown over some pinstriped pants from one of his old collections. Those who have worked with Tyler describe her, with varying degrees of amusement, as his business end, as his bad cop; many complain—though never on the record, for fear of retribution—that she is mercurial to the point of creating problems for Tyler. One longtime associate credits her with “whipping Richard into shape,” though another calls her “controlling” and says her negotiating tactics over the years have left “a tide of ill will.” Yet another recalls her as perpetually “stone-faced, tapping on her watch.”

But on this weekday morning, that heart-shaped face, now 51 and devoid of makeup, is anything but stony. Trafficante lights up like a young girl as she talks about her early years with Tyler. When they met, she says, she had been on her own for more than a decade, having left her parents’ San Mateo home at 16. Like Tyler, she had skipped college; like him, she had drifted.

“We felt like twins, like similar people. And neither of us had ever expressed what we could do in the world,” she says. “People generally thought of me in those days as this very artistic but fragile person. When I met Richard, I was really surprised at how much strength I had.”

At his behest, she began sitting in on his business meetings and examining his contracts. Someone wanted him to do a line of branded MTV clothing, but lacked the rights to the MTV name. “Oh, and remember there were going to be ‘Dynasty’ clothes, like the TV show?” she asks Tyler, rolling her eyes. “He would sign things he hadn’t even read.”

One day she asked him what he wanted. “And he laid out his dreams,” she remembers. “He said, ‘I want to have a business, see my clothes on Fifth Avenue in the store windows, sell in Bergdorf Goodman, win a Coty Award.” It became clear, she says, “that his dream wasn’t ‘Dynasty’ or MTV clothing. It was Richard Tyler clothing. I said, ‘How would you get there from here?’ ”

They gathered all the samples he’d made and threw a party. “The excitement was phenomenal,” she says. “You’d put this clothing on people and it had a magical effect.”

Soon Tyler and Trafficante were on a plane to New York, cold-calling department stores and boutiques. When a SoHo shop finally placed an order on the condition that they deliver in two weeks, they had to scramble for tailors; one after another declined, saying he hadn’t seen that kind of construction and that much handwork since the 1930s.

Within a year they had a small factory in L.A.'s garment district and a plan to open a store of their own. Trafficante brought in her sister Michelle as a partner and pulled the equity out of a property she owned with her old boyfriend, telling him that she planned to go into business with her new boyfriend.

“I said, ‘Where does this guy live?’ ” the ex, Gordon DeVol, recalls. “And she said, ‘In a friend’s backyard.’ I said, ‘What kind of car does he drive?’ She said, ‘He doesn’t have one.’ ” Then Tyler loaned him one of his overcoats—a long, black, powerful-looking garment that made DeVol feel like Darth Vader—and a Mercedes full of hipsters nearly ran him down outside a club, demanding to know where they could get coats like that.

A few months later, in December 1988, the Tyler Trafficante boutique opened on Beverly Boulevard near La Brea.

“All these people would come in—Lou Adler and Daryl Hannah and Jack Nicholson—and they’d say, ‘Richard! We wondered where you’d been!’ ” DeVol says. Though Tyler’s line then was exclusively for men, everyone who was anyone of both sexes suddenly wanted to wear him, drawn by the classically hip cut of his jackets. “I have this robe that he made, like a smoking robe that he did also for men, that was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” says Details magazine founder Annie Flanders, who was among the first to tout him. “Royal blue velvet. Quilted. Big rolled neck. I still wear it everywhere.”

Tyler and Trafficante married in 1989, first in a civil service and then at one of his runway show celebrations. He developed a women’s line and became known for his hospitality toward clients, following his friend Nigel’s adage: “The only aperitif is champagne.” He also developed the look—swashbuckling yet classy, expensive yet funky—that would put L.A. on the fashion map in a way not seen since James Galanos, and that would inspire a generation of young L.A. designers.

By the mid-1990s, his old wish list had begun to look modest. He debuted to rave reviews in New York. Anjelica Huston and Julia Roberts and Diane Keaton showed up in his clothes at the Oscars. Anne Klein & Co. tapped him to be head designer, a post that had launched Louis Dell’Olio and Donna Karan. Lisa gave birth to a son, Edward, and they moved into a 1927 Hollywood Hills mansion that had been built for Dolores del Rio (and that they would later swap for another grand old estate, the Tanner-Behr House in South Pasadena). In 1993 the Council of Fashion Designers of America named him—at age 46—"best new talent,” the first of three awards he would win from the organization in as many years.

Even when the Anne Klein gig fizzled—his take turned out to be too edgy for the company’s core clientele of executive women—Tyler didn’t break stride. In fact, he and Trafficante lived larger, declining offers by outside investors and plunking down $3.5 million in 1995 for the 37-room Stuyvesant Fish-Benjamin Sonnenberg house in Gramercy Park, one of Manhattan’s last great private mansions. DeVol, who by then had become chief operating officer of Tyler Trafficante Inc., remembers “just about having a heart attack” as they toured the dusty white elephant of a property, which had been on the market for 12 years.

But the couple were brooking no backtalk, he says, and in fact the purchase and subsequent renovation would prove prescient: Five years later, they sold the house for $16.5 million, just in time to satisfy their creditors.

They started losing momentum as the millennium turned.

By 2000 Tyler had, as Susan Rolontz, executive vice president of the retail newsletter the Tobé Report, put it, “pinned the tail on the donkey.” In addition to the Beverly Boulevard boutique, he and Trafficante were running a couture business that earned more than $14 million annually and a manufacturing operation with more than 150 employees. They had also licensed a line of shoes and accessories and a posh ready-to-wear line, the Richard Tyler Collection, that was made in Italy and sold at Bergdorf, Neiman Marcus and other stores.

But changes were rattling the foundations not only of their business, but also of the fashion industry in general. As department stores consolidated, store buyers were becoming more risk-averse. The culture was becoming more casual. The demand for traditional couture was dwindling, along with the number of people willing to spend tens of thousands of dollars on a made-to-measure ensemble.

Tyler’s seamstresses and tailors were among the best in the local workforce, and they were expensive. Unlike many in the garment industry, they had health benefits and 401(k) plans. Needles flying, they supplied the impeccable craftsmanship that was Tyler’s trademark, hand-finishing buttonholes, hand-embroidering bodices and hand-crafting the welts on the inside breast pockets of his coveted jackets, tiny triangles of silk that created a jagged edge, like a miniature saw blade.

“Very beautiful—and very labor-intensive,” remembers L.A. designer Michelle Mason, one of many Tyler protégés who went on to become fashion stars.

In this environment, even the smallest miscalculation mattered. When the Italian manufacturer of the ready-to-wear collection went bankrupt, for example, Tyler and Trafficante tried to manufacture it in-house—at great cost, he says. A new lower-priced sportswear line was, again, more costly to produce than they had anticipated, and ran into fit and delivery problems. Critically, Tyler’s work was as well-received as ever, but that wasn’t reflected in the market or their margins. Suddenly, fashion was all about hip-hugger jeans and layers of tank tops. The virtuoso tailoring that had made Tyler famous suddenly seemed, to his disbelief, passé.

“I hated what I was doing,” he says bluntly, making a face at the memory. He began cutting back on his New York shows and musing provocatively about retirement to fashion writers. He even found himself snapping at nit-picky clients. “They’d be, ‘Well, it’s niiiccce, and, well, I’d buy it if I can have thaaat,’ ” he recalls, mimicking them. “Well then, get the [expletive] out.”

Within the industry, Tyler’s frustrations were heard as the refrain of the fashion survivor. “This isn’t the easiest business,” says longtime Los Angeles boutique owner Shauna Stein. “What happened to Richard Tyler is probably the same as happened to a lot of designers who had good taste. It used to be this whole thing of looking rich and important, and now it’s just trends, everybody chasing to look like, or be like, or wear the same dress as Mischa Barton. Look at the magazines.”

But others say it wasn’t just about trends or changing tastes.

Rolontz, who watched Tyler’s company as a retail analyst, cites Trafficante’s lack of formal business training and the 3,000 miles from Los Angeles to New York. “I think she was a very clever girl and had great ideas, but she probably needed a business associate to help her,” Rolontz says. “I don’t know what her talents were. She certainly managed him well . . . .

“Designing clothes is one thing,” Rolontz adds. “Manufacturing and delivering them on time is another, and you are not successful unless you can get that going. Managers in stores get mad. Easily. And unless you’re a powerful force like, say, a Donna Karan, you lose out. Stores tie up money or budget, and after a while they can’t do it anymore unless you have a distinct following, which I don’t think Richard ever got in the East.”

The couple began telling reporters that they wanted more family time together. Their son Edward was in grade school. Tyler was in his mid-50s, and his doctors were chiding him about his health. Though by all accounts his work had never suffered for it, “I was a decadent drunk,” he says with a laugh, claiming that he could knock back as many as eight bottles of Moët & Chandon White Star a day during a big show (an exaggeration, his wife insists). In late 2002 a traffic jam fender-bender earned him a drunken-driving charge. The DUI was dropped, but six months later he quit, and says he hasn’t had a drink since. “I decided I’d had enough,” Tyler says. “I was bored with it.”

He designed a new line, eveningwear “for the downtown debutante,” and took the Delta commission. At the Golden Globes, his couture gowns were worn by Felicity Huffman and Marcia Cross. Publicly, he enthused, but privately he was grieving the loss of his beloved employees. Much of the staff had already departed, first through attrition, then layoffs, a task that DeVol says fell to other managers because Tyler found it so painful. By last May, when the final downsizing was announced, only about 30 people were on the payroll.

Tyler and Trafficante say their personal lives were not immune from the stresses.

“I had lost the business,” Tyler says. “I had lost the people I’d trained for 17 years. It was like losing a family.”

Unmoored, he says, he drifted into an affair.

“It didn’t make sense to me,” says Trafficante, sitting next to him, hugging herself tightly. “Richard thought that once he had done that I couldn’t forgive him, and that he’d destroyed us. But I said, no, I don’t think that’s true. I think a marriage is more than that, and you can recover from things like that.”

“I’d said it was lost,” Tyler says quietly.

“But it’s still there,” says Trafficante. “It’s like something was almost swept away, and you hold on through the torrent, and it comes through that much richer, and it’s still there.”

Tyler is on a cellphone, striding down a cold street in Manhattan. It is a week later. He’s well enough now to travel to a fitting and “style clinic” for Delta employees. It’s the sort of work, he says, that he hopes to do more of—as it turns out, flight attendants and ticket agents find his clothes transformative too.

He’s also hoping to resurrect his Richard Tyler Collection, which he expects to be manufactured by D.P. Textile & Apparel’s Don Park, his longtime fabric dealer and an old friend.

“I feel much more confident than I did 10 years ago,” Tyler is saying. “My life has been totally crazy, hasn’t it? But I fought hard.”

He pauses, the city honking and roaring around him.

“It’s a tough business, but all businesses are pretty tough, aren’t they? And you have to go through it. I’m lucky. I’m still around.”