Even as major players in the fashion industry were falling to their knees--Anne Cole, Marc Jacobs, Adolfo, Bob Mackie and Carolyne Roehm--scads of would-be Los Angeles designers blithely started their careers.
Only a handful would survive.
"A successful business takes more than a dream and a sewing machine," says Alan Millstein, publisher of the New York City-based Fashion Network Report, a trade publication.
It takes money.
So accessory designer Carrie Forbes sold the ruby ring her grandmother left her to buy the leather for her first collection of handbags.
She and the other designers profiled here have managed to tread treacherous waters for the past few years in Los Angeles, where a shrinking number of stores have taken fewer risks on new talent. "The average fashion-design business lasts three years. If (one) lasts for five, it is considered a roaring success," says Millstein.
Daniel Norzagaray did time on a junior line called Jigsaw before his backers gave him the chance to create higher-priced women's clothes under his own label.
Pamela Barish toiled quietly for years in New York before moving home to Los Angeles and becoming "a 22-year overnight success," she says.
The Lews, Michael and Doris, moved in with her grandmother when their fledgling menswear business sucked up every last penny.
Some day, their tales may eclipse the one about Calvin Klein.
According to fashion lore, Klein was making polyester clothes by day and designing his own line at night when he met a Bonwit Teller executive who encouraged him to make an appointment with the New York City retailer's fashion director. Rather than risk wrinkling his coats and dresses on the seat of a taxi, Klein pushed his garment rack, with a broken wheel, 20 blocks to the store.
In a few years, the telling will probably include three feet of snow on the sidewalks Klein traveled. That's the way humble-beginnings stories grow.
A Surprise 'Serious Business'
LABEL: Carrie Forbes
DESIGNER: Carrie Forbes
STORES: Neiman Marcus, Barneys, Bergdorf Goodman, Nordstrom, Fred Segal, Ice, Madison
PRICE RANGE: $100 to $400
Carrie Forbes used to be a flak. In the late '80s, she was the public-relations professional behind Jerry Seinfeld. But she found her job at a Los Angeles P.R. firm wanting. "It wasn't very satisfying trying to catapult (clients) to stardom," she says. Had she hung around, Forbes might have enjoyed the rocket-ship ride with Seinfeld, but the L.A. native deplaned in 1989 to make silk scarves. Intending to begin her fashion career with a line of handbags ("I could never find one I really liked"), she says she lacked the know-how and the funds to buy leather in quantity. Forbes took the ruby ring her grandmother had left her to Christie's auction house. The $7,000 in proceeds allowed her to make the jump from regular paycheck to entrepreneur.
She made scarves and evening bags and, 18 months into her new career, had a hit with crocheted handbags. They were either teeny-tiny or satchel-size and sold at Barneys and Madeline Gallay.
Donna Karan took a liking to Forbes' work and asked her to do handbags for her resort collection, now in stores. Forbes has since declined to work with other designers--"even though the association gives cache," she says--so she can focus on her own label.
"I never thought it would turn into a serious business," she says. "I just knew I didn't want to work for anyone else."
'It's My Only Passion'
LABEL: Cielo by Daniel
DESIGNER: Daniel Norzagaray
STORES: Nordstrom, I. Magnin, Barneys, Bergdorf Goodman, Henri Bendel
PRICE RANGE: $80 to $200
Daniel Norzagaray's first job after graduation in 1986 from the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles was designing large-size T-shirts and maternity wear. Not exactly his dream job, \o7 but\f7 , he says, "I was one of the lucky ones. Most graduates don't get the opportunity to design for quite a while."
He inched up the design ladder, from maternity smocks to club clothes for juniors, "those tight Lycra dresses with doodads hanging off them. Well . . . they were popular once," he says.
Norzagaray wanted to do a line of contemporary women's clothing and, after a year of designing Jigsaw, a dressy junior line, he was rewarded. His backers, Chyan Inc. owners Jim Sauer and Marlen Horn, let him loose. His first efforts were picked up by Barneys and Henri Bendel.
"I take the Euro look and translate it for a more American type of retailer. It's simplified. I see Karl (Lagerfeld) doing softer dressing with clean and simple lines and I do the same, but I drop the corselets. Americans don't want or understand corselets," he says.
The 27-year-old Los Angeles native is fairly obsessed with fashion. "It's my only passion; it's all I think about," he says. "I've even followed women in restaurants as they've walked to the bathroom, just to check out their hemline."
'I'm the Rock 'n' Roll Chanel'
LABEL: Pamela Barish
DESIGNER: Pamela Barish
STORES: I. Magnin, Maxfield
PRICE RANGE: $180 to $570