The California Mart's two-day festival of fashion shows, known as Press Week, rolls into motion Monday morning. And the most popular event, Tuesday's Rising Star Show, is the one to watch.
Not only because the 10 little-known designers in the show--Lisa Anne, Melinda and Olivier Besnoin, Trisha Dexter, Farah Ebrahimi, Tak Hau, Cinzia Iaffaldano, Rob Lewis, Tan Pittayasiri, Lee Saelee and Farideh Talebpour--are making their official debut, but because the audience promises to include such career makers and breakers as Kal Ruttenstein of Bloomingdale's; Elin Saltzman of Macy's; Bernie Ozer, vice president of Associated Merchandising Corp., a marketing and merchandising firm, and, among the fashion press, Anthony Mazzola, publisher of Harper's Bazaar, and Wendy Harned, U.S. editor for French Vogue, not to mention the network camera crews.
Five years ago, such heavy hitters were in short supply at this event. And there were nowhere near the number of rabid publicists who plan to descend on the audience this year, pushing designer press kits into every empty hand.
How it all changed, in so short a time, is a matter of some debate.
Most industry insiders give the lion's share of credit to brother and sister David and Susan Morse and cousin Sidney Morse, who own and operate the Mart.
"They've made an all-out effort to tap national media and Eastern store buyers to cover this event," says Sharon House, a vice president for Wilkinson/Lipsman public relations, who has worked on Press Week since 1983.
The sheer volume of publicists who will represent designers at this year's shows is proof enough for House that the Morses' efforts have paid off. "It used to be that hardly any designers could afford publicists," she recalls. "But now, California designers are prospering."
Some believe the increased attention came about mostly because the Los Angeles fashion industry is growing up.
"Five years ago, some really talented designers didn't even have a financial backer or a business partner," says Yvette Crosby, an independent producer of fashion shows. As a result, too many creative designers would go into business one year and out the next, she says. Usually, their problems had to do with production. Often, their failures affected the entire market, reinforcing the city's reputation as the home of highly creative design, but lousy delivery.
"They were in the business for the creativity," Miriana Ojeda recalls about that earlier crop of designers. "They wanted to make things no one had ever seen before. But they couldn't get backers." Ojeda is a sales representative who features a number of newer, Los Angeles designers in her showroom. Several are in the Rising Star award show.
An advance look at the creations by this year's nominees suggests that the city's young design talents are far more realistic than some in recent memory. Not only do they meet the basic criteria--designers must only have been in business for fewer than two years, completed one season and have a fall '89 collection in production. Most also have priced their clothes in the affordable range, from $60 to $200. And those whose prices are higher justify it with couture-quality fabric and intricate tailoring. If their designs aren't fantastic, or even particularly fanciful compared to rising star entrees of the past, it's by choice.
But even their real-world approach to fashion design hasn't freed them from opening-night jitters. Just a few days before the show, only two of the 10--Hau and Talebpour--were ready for the runway. And they had the smug, self-satisfied demeanor of people who file their income taxes in January. The others were verging on hysteria. Yet, they each had enough sane and salable-looking clothes in hand to demonstrate that they're not in this just for the headlines.
The audience Tuesday night will see lace skirts and sheer blouses by Talebpour. Similar styles of hers already hang next to Romeo Gigli designs in some stores. (Her prices are well below the Italian master's wholesale tickets.) Iaffaldano's Indian Raj creations are all made of men's cotton shirting fabric. The halter tops and long skirts of Ebrahimi have the look of '30s couture.
"The clothes are very focused. The designer's aren't in fantasy land," notes Denise Cohen-Scher, the Mart's fashion director.
"The young designers are in it for what sells. They're here for the business," Ojeda says.
Fewer than half of this year's Rising Star nominees were born in the United States. They come from Hong Kong, Thailand, Italy, France and Iran. They all say they were attracted to California for the life style and the growing design market.
Ebrahimi of Iran explains: "Los Angeles is more open to new ideas and nurturing their young desingers."
"Maybe they don't know all the negatives," muses Ojeda about the international group. They've struggled with the language, the schools and finding financial backing. The risks of the business don't seem as insurmountable to someone who has been through all that."
The Rising Stars Award has been bestowed five times. Four of the companies, B. Alan, James Tarantino, Pepito Albert and Laundry, are still in business. The 1985 winner, Daad, a company from San Francisco, has since folded.