When Leon Max unwraps his new menswear line in spring '88, his will be the latest name on a lengthening list of L.A. women's wear designers entering men's fashion.
Once considered a dull sideshow to the fast-and-chic female trade, menswear is attracting such innovative L.A. designers as Max, Michele Lamy, Glenn Williams, Emil Rutenberg and Nancy Heller. From vanguard to classic, all five made their names in women's wear; all five are aiming their menswear to the newly adventurous tastes of the baby boomer, ages about 25 to 40.
"Menswear has gathered incredible momentum in style and form in the last couple of years," claims Rutenberg, 38, a South African native making fashion in L.A. "We designers are in a position to ride the pinnacle of that wave."
Leon Max--serious in gesture, stark in attire--would have the American male look "less like an accountant, more like a poet.
"I'm interested in the extremely wealthy bohemian, as a look," Max said from his coolly industrial studio near downtown Los Angeles.
Max, 33, attempts to bring a moneyed yet casual tone to his Max Studio Men collection, which will reach stores next spring, nine years after his first women's line.
"There's an appeal in the look of aristocracy--and of the proletariat," he said. "The boredom comes in when people look decidedly middle class."
Max's spare, neutral, knit sportswear, shown to the trade at the recent California Collections Press Week, hardly connotes suburban ennui. There are drop-crotch Moroccan pants, big T-shirts and soft-shoulder blazers that close high on the chest for a romantic look that reminds him of the French Impressionists.
He calls his approach "sophisticated sweat-shirt dressing."
"This is the most appropriate dress you can wear right now in California. You won't come across as if you trying too hard."
Max envisions an admittedly narrow men's audience: college educated ("probably in liberal arts"), well-traveled, affluent (the line will run $60 to $230).
The loose, drapey quality of the line echoes Max's fluid women's wear, which he designs in four divisions: Leon Max collection, Max Studio, Max Studio Sport Product and the generic pieces of Max Studio Basics. Combined, they gross close to $100-million annually, said Max, who projects more than $4-million volume for menswear in 1988.
"It's easier to predict what men may choose to look like a year from now than women," noted Max, last year named California Designer of the Year by the women's fashion industry. "By the same token, it's more frustrating, because there are only so many shapes a man will accept."
"'With men, it's the harmony of how it's all put together--and then throwing a kink into that harmony--because men don't want to look too put-together."
French-born Michele Lamy--who sports unruly brown hair and a glad rags, clashing mode of dress--believes women should design for women. Men for men.
Which is why she invited longtime friend and stylist Ricky Castro to put his unconventional strokes to her new Lamy Men knitwear line, scheduled for launch in early 1988.
The two share aesthetic tastes, artistic temperaments.
"I like to be in the middle of chaos," said Lamy, her wrists a-clatter with coin bracelets, as she sat amid fabrics in her downtown L.A. studio/warehouse.
"I like to complain. I like to fight," added Castro, who, at 29, already has designed a line of hats and punkish women's fashions under the I Love Ricky label.
Lamy Men looks like a cross between '80s ski wear and '30s swim gear, with a dash of modern dance wear in the mix. Priced $28 to $150, Castro's knits include such outre pieces as leggings and snap-under-the-crotch tank shirts.
"We're not trying to take Wall Street by storm," Lamy said wryly, expecting the line will be categorized as "avant-garde."
Lamy says she gave Castro total freedom with the line, although if designing it herself, she might have added a few baggy pants and more of an East L.A. barrio flair.
Married to performance artist and film director Richard Newton and mother of a 6-year-old daughter, Scarlett Rouge, Lamy, 40, began her career as a jewelry and accessory designer in Paris. She came to Los Angeles in 1978 to open a small Santa Monica Boulevard boutique, first importing clothes, then designing her own.
The resulting Michele Lamy women's knits, which she says will gross $6 million in 1987, are based on her "casual-but-chic" philosophy rather than on trend watching. "I always hope there will be women like me out there," said Lamy.
As to why she's forging into menswear, she responded: "I like beginnings."
"I'm just trying to work with my friends. Ricky's one of my best friends."
Nancy Heller didn't listen when told that a female name on a menswear label is no way to sell clothes.
"Initially, my feelings were, 'Nancy, maybe we should just use the name Heller ,' " admitted her president for menswear, David Rosenzweig.