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A Change by Design

After 10 Years of Trying to Alter the Fashion Industry's Status Quo, Lat Naylor Has Decided to Move On--to Art


SAN FRANCISCO — Lat Naylor enters his second-floor factory--an old, industrial warehouse with floor-to-ceiling windows--eager to work with his hands. Sewing machines hum. Fabric cutters clip away. A sweater maker waits for his decision on sleeves, necklines, hems: finished or naturally unraveled? The usual.

The clothes from his fall collection will have to wait.

For the moment, the sight of a brown package on top of a massive glass table has taken Naylor, 36, into another world--a world that soon will be his--far, far away from all this: textiles, patterns and what he calls "10 years of 100-hour work weeks."

He rips apart the packing paper, tears at the bubble wrap and exposes the framed contents on the table, awash in sunlight. His face fills with a smile so wide he says it reaches to his heart.

"This is wonderful." His fingers slide across the untitled art piece--crosses fashioned out of Safeway paper bags covered with blocks of thin clear wax--the work of American painter Bonner Hamaker.

Hamaker, meet Lat Naylor.

After a decade of design, a decade of debt and a decade of battling his own ego, Naylor is giving it all up to become a fine artist. No more trips to Italy in search of splendid fabrics. No more collection deadlines. No more New York runways.

This, at a time when many consider his work to be among the upcoming fall season's most innovative and Naylor, possibly, the Next Big Thing.

Naylor will never know. Besides, he says, it doesn't matter. He's got bills to pay, jobs to find for his staff, and a factory to shut down and turn into an artist's studio.


If he had played by the rules, maybe he'd still be in the game, he figures. But he plunged into the business as designer, manufacturer and reluctant marketer with lots of money, lots of pride and no experience. The mistakes just piled on.

It's time to throw in the designer towel.

It's time, he says, to paint.

But first he's having a sale, a very public farewell at his factory, 349 9th St. (an area known as SOMA, or South of Market), June 26-28. Up for grabs at discount prices will be his fall line, Homegrown--one intended for some 30 menswear retailers, including Neiman-Marcus, Barneys New York, Bergdorf Goodman and specialty men's shops like J.C. Hamber in Beverly Hills. Discounts will range from $20 T-shirts to $695 leather jackets.

Until then, the designer, his sweater maker, seamstresses and pattern cutters will be busier than ever.

"I have all this beautiful Italian fabric ready to be sewn," he says. He points to shelves filled with stacked patterns: three-button pinstripe jackets, sleek trousers in wool blends, shirts in the lightest of cottons, brocade vests, cashmere sweaters, houndstooth shirt jackets and gray alpaca walking coats. And this is just a sampling.

Everything is in the upcoming fall colors: black-greens, solid browns and blacks with some in pinstripes, plum, bronze, blue, lemon and grays from charcoal to slate. And then there's Naylor's favorite color, which never sells: orange.

He laughs. And reminisces.

As a rich kid from Baltimore, Naylor remembers a very traditional "really Wasp-ish, nonfashion upbringing." He attended private schools and then Princeton, where he earned a bachelor's degree in urban planning in 1984.

"Throughout my schooling there always seemed to be these very defined ways to dress, dictated by the environment I was growing up in. I made a point to dress as differently as I could," he says.

At 12, attired in private school garb, Naylor made a fashion statement of his own with his bright orange bow ties his mother knitted with leftover yarn from a sweater she had made him.

"I have orange in every line. It never sells, but I have it," he says.

Naylor, a fan of Jil Sander, Dries Van Noten and Antonio Miro, is not one to buy into the latest trends. He gets his inspiration from fabric: its weave, its texture, its feel, its movement. He's completely enthralled by how a garment drapes the body, how the roll of a good collar will just fall across the neckline with nary a wrinkle. His work is known for its spare silhouettes and precise construction down to letting out one-sixteenth of an inch on a sleeve if he's not pleased. He is influenced by his love of architectural design and, above all, the fine arts.

Still, at the start of his career, at 26, he knew nothing of the sort. He had just doubled his money from the sale of a house that his father originally bought for Naylor. He went into business.

He has a litany of mistakes, several that over time have played into his decision to close shop.

His admits that he had "this huge ego factor going on" about doing things his way even if that meant losing money. An example? His black--or nonblack--period, a time when he refused to stitch any black clothes--which sell the best--because "at that stage of my development as a designer I sort of saw it as a cop-out," even though it would have rung up sales.

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