"What's your sign?"
Accessories designer Al Beres has been hearing that question a lot lately, since he launched the Zodiac Collection--12 silver belt buckles, each sculpted in the shape of an astrological sign.
There's a buckle with a ram's head for Aries, a curled-up scorpion for Scorpio and a crab for Cancer. Now when people ask what his sign is, Beres can point to the buckle with the lion's head, for Leo.
"Boy, am I a Leo," Beres says. "Confident. A leader. Always the center of attention."
It's that Leo self-confidence that prompted Beres, 52, to launch the Zodiac Collection in February as the official kickoff for his new accessories company, Big Al by Al Beres in Costa Mesa.
Without that confident and independent nature, Beres might have abandoned fashion altogether after enduring a string of health and business setbacks.
Fate has played an unusual role in his career. Beres enjoyed great success as an accessories designer in the '70s and '80s. Celebrities, including Bruce Springsteen, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tom Cruise, Sylvester Stallone, coveted his sleek "contemporary western" belts.
"They were the first [western-style] belts designed to be worn with a suit," Beres says.
In 1994, however, serious neck and back problems stemming from a 1985 automobile accident finally caught up with Beres. The designer underwent back surgery--one of many operations he's had over the years--and took a yearlong hiatus from the business, an eternity in the fashion industry.
"I spent most of '94 in bed," he says.
Meanwhile, his original accessories company, Al Beres USA, had been taken over by a large corporation in a forced buyout. Beres, showing a typical Leo's disdain for sharing power, got out. He joined forces with his current partner, Elsa Matthews, and together they started Big Al.
"I called the company what I've always been called since I was little Al--Big Al," he says.
Beres, who once had a showroom at the California Mart in Los Angeles, moved his operation to a quiet office complex in Costa Mesa, bringing along his trademark collection of toys: a stuffed possum, rattlesnake and other dead animals, rubber lizards and snakes, model cars, vintage pinup girls and a fake eyeball.
"I took my son on a trip to Arizona, and I told him, 'While we're here, let me get some new lizards,' " Beres says, showing off his latest scaly acquisitions.
In this creative atmosphere, Beres began designing new belts for Big Al, starting with a silver buckle shaped into an eagle's head--symbolic, he says, of his newfound freedom.
"I've always done contemporary western belts, but I wanted to get away from that. I wanted to do sterling," Beres says.
Beres was aiming for the high-end belt market. His first collection featured buckles designed after the Ninja Turtles, not a surprising choice given Beres' love of toys.
"The Ninjas had cool names like Donatello and Raphael. We did them in sterling, and they were very successful, but not as successful as I wanted," Beres says. Demand for a sterling Ninja Turtle belt wasn't great.
Eventually Beres' search for a new collection of high-end designs led to the cosmos. In November 1994, he met with an executive for Neiman Marcus who was so devoted to astrology that he wouldn't talk to Beres until he knew his sign. The executive suggested Beres design belts with signs of the zodiac, and the designer went to work.
Leos are known to be loyal, and Beres sought out two friends to assist him on the project: Valiant Naona, a Huntington Beach artist, came up with sketches of the Zodiac buckles, and Andrew Valdez, a sculptor from Arizona, brought the drawings to life by making models of each buckle.
"Each buckle tells a story," Beres says. "They're alive."
The buckles have a tip and loop adorned with the astrological sign and are worn on American alligator or Italian leather straps. They're made by hand out of sterling or 18-karat gold plate over silver, and they're heavy, each weighing 7 to 9 ounces (two to three times heavier than most buckles). Small wonder they cost about $800 to $1,800 each.
"Now I don't even hear the word 'western,' " Beres says. "You can wear these with a suit."
The limited-edition buckles will be numbered, and only 1,000 of each sign will be made. The Zodiac belts, along with other Big Al designs such as the sleek, western-inspired buckles in his Classic Collection, are carried at more than 100 stores nationwide, including select Saks Fifth Avenue stores (in South Coast Plaza, Costa Mesa), Falconhead in Los Angeles, hotel boutiques and galleries.
"We don't need to sell to everybody," Beres says. "We have to be a little selective. I don't want my belts to be with 50 others in a case."
From his New York childhood, Beres appeared destined for a career in design. He's always had a flair for sketching. He worked briefly as a cartoonist before his other talent--singing--earned him a spot with a vocal group called the Marvelons.