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Former Winner Still Skirting the Mainstream

September 15, 1989|RICHARD ROUILARD

One look at Pepito Albert--"just Pepito, puh-lease," the designer requests--is a quick study in fashion trend. His shiny black hair drapes carelessly down to the middle of his back. His outfit--a brilliant green knee-length blouse, palazzo pants and black bedroom slippers--is shocking, to say the least, by most standards.

Especially because he wears it to work. In the morning, as he wafts through the California Mart to his showroom, passers-by stop and stare. Pepito, just Pepito, doesn't even see them. His attention is fixed on the fringe.

He built his business on fringe, as in design concept and as in client list. From his first collection, Spring 1987, he's draped and dangled it on some of the most curve-conscious, abbreviated, not-for-every-body ensembles seen since they closed Cafe a Go-Go. And young, thin, tall, trendy Angelenos scooped them up faster than he could whip them out.

It won him the Rising Star award that year, presented by the California Mart. He has since worked his style into a small, but growing, concern (sales were $800,000 last year). And he is getting to be better known for his particular talent. But he's far from the best-known or the best-selling designer label in Los Angeles.

So why are so many Eastern--and Western--fashion magazine editors uttering his name with more than passing interest? What makes Pepito the current West Coast darling of the fashion press?

It started a year ago, during Los Angeles press week, when Kathleen McGillivray, then a market editor for Vogue, now an independent fashion consultant, and Jane Satterthwaite, a market editor for Glamour, "discovered" him. Within a few months, his styles appeared in both publications.

In Vogue, his fringed cocktail dress was featured alongside outfits by Jean Paul Gaultier, Romeo Gigli and Franco Moschino, the hottest of the hot Europeans. Elle magazine, L.A. Style and Exposure magazine picked up on Pepito too. He had arrived, on both coasts.

"He gives the press something to write about; he's doing something different." That's how Joie Davidow, L.A. Style editor and executive publisher explains Pepito's appeal. "And the Eastern Establishment fashion press likes him because, to them, his clothes are what California fashion should be. They're very rock 'n' roll, very MTV. They fit the cliche."

"Things are happening out there that haven't happened before," admits Satterthwaite, who is based in New York. "We're shooting fashion layouts there all the time. Five years ago, it wasn't like that."

"The world is definitely shifting its attention to Los Angeles," McGillivray says. "But it's wait and see right now."

Pepito isn't waiting for anyone. He's out on the town nearly every night, subtly hawking himself and his designs at the chichi-est parties in town. One night recently, he sashayed from dinner at Cafe Mambo to Chaya Brasserie to check out some of model-maven Omar's new models who were dining there.

Then he was off to celebrity photographer Greg Gorman's chichi 40th birthday bash at Tramp's, and then on over to the Love Machine nightclub, where he merely observed.

"I'm a little tired," he sighed at 1 a.m. from the balcony overlooking the dance floor. "No dancing." His day began at 8 a.m. at his downtown studio.

Frivolous and decadent as all this clubbing and socializing may seem, it is in good part the foundation of Pepito's success and a necessary function of the unusual marketing strategy that has made him such a hot ticket.

He's been perfecting his technique since his first runway show, which he staged at the then-popular Stock Exchange nightclub in downtown Los Angeles. His second show was at the Park Plaza, a cavernous mid-Wilshire trendatorium at which several clubs operate and some very hip parties are held.

Pepito's too-cool audience at the Park Plaza cheered one fringed spectacle after another as his clothes swept, dangled and dragged across the runway. That wild second collection--of 18-inch-long black, silk fringe sewn on torso-gripping outfits, with insouciant pompons and wanton wisps of chiffon or organza flying off shoulder straps, bodices and skirts--translated into immediate recognition. And Pepito kept the prices far lower than the designers he has since appeared with on the pages of Vogue. Most of his styles still range from $150 to $800.

He came to Los Angeles from his native Manila in 1977 to study architecture, not fashion, at USC.

After three years, he quit. "Boring, boring, boring," he now declares. "All those straight lines. No movement." He went to the L.A. Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, but only after he convinced his parents (who flew over from Manila the minute he changed direction) that his future was fashion.

His father, an exporter, backed his first solo collection.

"Families stay together in the Philippines. When mine is here, we're always together. They give me a lot of support."

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