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A Modern Object Lesson : How Mario Tamayo and Jef Huereque Brought High Style to the Lower Reaches of Melrose Avenue

June 25, 1989|BARBARA FOLEY | Barbara Foley, former West Coast fashion editor of Women's Wear Daily and W, is a free-lance fashion writer

MODERN Objects was a small, 2-year-old art gallery on the unhip eastern stretch of Melrose Avenue when entrepreneur Mario Tamayo decided last October to team up with men's fashion designer Jef Huereque and transform the gallery into a clothing store. They both wanted an unpredictable, hip but homey kind of place.

"We love color, we love all kinds of people and elements working together, and we love humor," begins Tamayo, 31, who also owns Cha Cha Cha and Cafe Mambo, a couple of high-energy Caribbean restaurants in the same East Hollywood neighborhood as Modern Objects.

"I believe in classic, comfortable shapes: easy shirts, pleated pants, sort of traditional suits," adds Huereque, 36, who does the designing while Tamayo runs the business. Huereque's retail experience comes from having worked at two other highly influential and successful Melrose Avenue shops, Maxfield and Roppongi. He honed his craft while doing custom designs for clients such as rocker Charlie Sexton, magician David Copperfield, former Fleetwood Mac member Lindsey Buckingham and the rock band Chicago.

At Modern Objects, Huereque says, "we go wild with the fabrics, colors and patterns. This is meant to be a store for men who know what they want but can't always find it and who aren't afraid to stand out."

Roomy shirts, which retail from $75 to $200, are made in ultra-bright shades of pleated voile, chiffon or Jacquard-pattern silk. Turquoise, yellow, fuchsia, red and royal blue are a few of the hues; polka dots, exotic florals and black-and-white Dalmatian spots are some of the prints. There are pleated gabardine trousers in baggy '40s proportions to match the oversize shirts and a more subdued selection of trouser shapes and fabrics in linen, priced from $125 to $145. Boxer shorts, starting at $25, in printed rayon or silk Jacquard, are big sellers. A custom suit can cost $600 or more. All of the clothes are tucked into grand French furniture.

The ambience, as one might suspect, is founded on traditionalism--with more than a touch of rule-breaking spirit.

"Being here is like going through a friend's closet and discovering things that you have to ask about," Huereque says. "We want interaction with our customers."

Although the clothes are sold mostly to men--such as rock star Adam Ant, photo stylist Raymond Lee and Chicago band member Robert Lamm--Tamayo and Huereque say that women, including Beverly Hills cosmetics maven Gale Hayman and actresses Talisa Soto, Denise Crosby, Winona Ryder and Donna Dixon, also wear Modern Objects menswear.

As colorful and nonconformist as the clothes, the store is a monument to contemporary artists. The exterior features a brilliant violet-and-marigold chevron mosaic by David Carver. The floors are painted turquoise; the walls are bright gold. Chinese-motif wallpaper covers screens that conceal the window displays, balancing the decor's bold color, delicate turn-of-the-century French furniture and a gun-metal gray, rococo-style chandelier. The ceiling is a heavenly sky painted by Teddy Sandoval.

Local artist Annie Kelly painted a vivid mural showing elements of an atelier--scissors, fabrics--on the jewelry case, which houses the works of designers such as Hilary Beane, Robert La Haye and Michael Bayes. A Phil Garner lamp, perched rakishly atop a stiffly coiled electrical wire, throws light on a red cowhide chair by Larry Totah. Paintings by other local artists, including Robert Gil de Montes, Jim Klein and Mundo Meza, adorn the walls.

Blue velvet drapes cover the entry to the dressing room, which has been silver-leafed by Rick Gildart and furnished with a Neptune-mosaic tile bench by Merle Fishman. A cross made of bottle caps by Jon Bok hangs on the wall across from a full-length, baroque-framed mirror.

Presiding over it all is an enormous, gold Romanesque head, garnered from a movie studio and crowned in twinkling lights.

"We want the store to be stimulating and zap people with energy," says Huereque, who created the store's look with Tamayo. "It's unique, colorful, personal, and the work of local artists is very important to the feeling."

Many credit Tamayo with having ignited a burst of energy on Melrose near Vermont when he opened his first restaurant, Cha Cha Cha, three years ago. Other small businesses followed, and now the neighborhood is peppered with artistic commerce: Livestock, Judy Cameon's jewelry and clothing boutique; Jocelyn Winship's design studio; the God Help Us thrift store; a Mexican curiosity shop called Y-Que; Romp, a vintage-clothes store; Goodman & Charlton, an interior design studio, and many artists' lofts.

"Our success lies with our accessibility," Tamayo says. "We go everywhere, try to see everything and really believe in supporting our friends, so our friends support us. If you stop letting all kinds of different influences in, you kill the magic."

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