In three years, James Tarantino has built a reputation for sexy suits and dresses that take women from the office to a late-night dinner at Spago. The L.A. designer, 29, is not yet a household name, but that may be changing.
The Kashiyama company, known for handling some of the most avant of avant-garde designers (Jean Paul Gaultier in Paris and Marc Jacobs in New York), is giving Tarantino a shot at the big leagues.
With their distribution, the designer hopes to quadruple last year's sales of $300,000. For Kashiyama, Tarantino delivers "understated sophistication and a definitive point of view," says Robert Duffy, vice president of the U.S. division.
Easily wearable (if you're thin and watch your diet), Tarantino's clothes are close fitting and tailored, but always with a twist. A jacket for fall is double-breasted on both the back and front.
His all-linen spring line got rave reviews from judges in the recent International Linen Promotion Commission contest, co-sponsored by Details magazine. Annie Flanders, Details' founding mother, said: "You get about four times more for your money with what he's doing than with clothes from anyone else."
The bright-colored outfits are sprinkled with signature Tarantino details like back bows and cutouts. There are no pants because, he says, "I like skirts and I like looking at legs." His spring prices range from $120 to $435 at Arabesque on Melrose and Alexio in the Beverly Center.
Tarantino and his sister, Lisa, 27, work out of the designer's live-in studio, a former mill in downtown Los Angeles with a high concrete ceiling. When things are tense, James turns to the electric piano in the corner and fills the room with music. "It's my therapy," he said.
The partners finish one another's sentences. "In the beginning, I did production, shipping, . . ." said James.
"Everything," inserts Lisa.
"Eventually I would have burned out," he continued, "so my sister came into the picture . . . "
"I wear about 20 different hats," she said, "receptionist, janitor . . . "
"Oh, give me a break," finished James.
Born in San Francisco, he went to Parsons School of Design in New York while working as assistant to designer Chester Weinberg. But New York was not the place to start a business. Most beginning businesses, which don't usually own the equipment necessary to produce a line of clothes, have to contract out production work.
"Costs out there are three times as high as here," he explained, "and trying to find a contractor to work with a relative no-name is just about impossible."
Tarantino says L.A.'s casual approach to dressing and designing didn't exactly coincide with his tailored look. But persistence paid off when his structured linens won the 1986 annual Rising Star award (given jointly by the California Mart and the Costume Council of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art). "From that, people started to understand where I was coming from."