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Designer Spotlight

Richard Tyler, Bound for Anne Klein, Presents Fall Trunk Show in Costa Mesa

June 04, 1993|ROSE APODACA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

COSTA MESA — Despite Southern California's billion-dollar fashion industry, few people to the east consider Los Angeles a source for couture. But clothes horses need not travel to New York or Paris. Designer Richard Tyler, his business partner and wife, Lisa Trafficante, and her sister, Michelle, have quietly tailored a haute house of style on Beverly Boulevard in Los Angeles over the last decade, setting a new standard for American designers that is as much about classic workmanship as it is about innovative clothes.

The Tyler label is not as well-known as, say, Donna Karan's. With price tags starting at about $500, few women could boast they have a Richard Tyler anything hanging in their closets. But that will change soon. Tyler will take the helm at Anne Klein to replace longtime design head Louis Dell'Olio, who after two decades announced his retirement last month. The appointment made fashion history because it put a Los Angeles-based designer in charge of a New York fashion house.

What's the big deal? Actually nothing, except that now Seventh Avenue will have to contend with someone who didn't follow the usual path.

Tyler didn't attend fashion school. In the '70s, he made clothes for Rod Stewart, Elton John and Cher. And he doesn't plan on moving lock, stock and barrel to the Big Apple. Instead, he will turn to bi-coastal commuting, continuing to design his signature line from Los Angeles and visiting the East regularly.

As for the L.A. versus New York issue, he considers it moot.

"For one thing, I'm Australian, then Californian," Tyler said recently, during a trunk show at Nordstrom South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, where he was presenting his fall collection. "Our store is off the beaten track," he added, referring to the 6-year-old boutique, Tyler Trafficante. "We're not on Rodeo."

Still pretty woman Julia Roberts found her way to Tyler's store (he designed her wedding dress that never made it to the altar). So have Anjelica Huston, Madonna, Susan Sarandon, Geena Davis and Kim Basinger. Demi Moore posed in a painted version of one of his dandy suits for Vanity Fair.

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Designers such as Giorgio Armani and Gianni Versace court celebs with flowers and freebies so they'll wear their wares on Oscar night, but Tyler's trouble has been keeping up with the last-minute requests for that something special his famous clientele demands.

"We're lucky we have paying customers," says sister-in-law Michelle Trafficante. "They seek us out."

Despite his Hollywood cachet, Richard Tyler is no Bob Mackie.

There are no sequins, no opulent glitz. His forte is impeccably tailored suits, sublime in their styling. Up to 15 hours of labor can go into one jacket. A "secret" pocket inside one suit jacket is trimmed with hankie point detailing and known as a Chinese wedding pocket. It's there for good luck. Patterns embroidered into the lining are there only for the wearer to spy.

On a medieval-inspired panel dress in silk velvet for fall, each panel is laced together and each hole takes 12 to 15 minutes to hand-stitch. There are 450 holes.

One almost has to carefully examine a Richard Tyler garment under a microscope to fully appreciate the Old World craftsmanship involved.

Tyler's staff of seamstresses has doubled in the last year to 100. Regardless of their experience, each one had to take a test--sewing a delicate welt pocket--before being hired. They are also not permitted to work on the clothes until they've learned the ropes. According to Trafficante, fashion students constantly offer their sewing services gratis just for the chance to learn the craft under Tyler's watch.

"We adopt our employees into our family," she said. "We do treat everything like family, with Richard as the vision and with us as his support."

It was the Trafficante sisters who worked out the deal with Anne Klein. Tyler met Lisa in the spring of 1987 and soon after canceled plans to return to Australia. That fall, the newlyweds launched Tyler's first menswear collection. Michelle was soon invited aboard as a partner, and they opened the Beverly Boulevard boutique. Increasingly, women were frequenting the store requesting suits tailored to their size; so in 1989, they introduced a collection for women.

Like other couples who go to the office together, Tyler said he and Lisa "can't get away from work." But he added that couples should not avoid the setup.

"It's not difficult working together. We'd argue in the early days over pricing. She wanted to up it. She was right; that's why I let her handle the business."

But don't think of Tyler as some artist with his head in the clouds. Since he was just a young lad growing up in Sunshine, Australia (an industrial town he compares to Compton), he knew he wanted to tailor beautiful clothes. He spent long hours at his mother's side watching her stitch elaborate costumes for the Tivoli Theatre's operas. He picked up his flair for the dramatic and theatrical now so associated with his clothes from these early experiences.

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