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FASHION STYLEMAKER: Eddie Rodriguez / An occasional
look at the people who dress us.

A Comforting Presence

The designer refuses to dictate what men should wear. He believes fashion is about freedom of expression--and movement.

November 20, 1998|MICHAEL QUINTANILLA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Eddie Rodriguez is a fashionable picture of comfort. Sunk into a comfy sofa at the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel, he's decked out in his own designer duds: gray, pinstriped, three-button coat, classic white shirt, cuffs unbuttoned because he likes his clothes to be comfortable.

Just the night before, a packed house was applauding the Wilke-Rodriguez menswear fall and holiday collection. The occasion was a Macy's runway fund-raiser at the Beverly Center for the Los Angeles Chicano / Latino Youth Leadership Project.

The Cuban-born Rodriguez, who lives in New York--and is the creative director and CEO of his design house--is a frequent visitor to Los Angeles. He has a year-old boutique at Fred Segal in Santa Monica, and his from-the-street-to-around-the-world inspired creations are on racks at just about every major department store and hip indie shop.

For 11 years, the debonair 43-year-old designer--along with business partner Terry Wilke, who died from complications of AIDS in 1992--has been creating clothes for the urban man that are modern, affordable and, yes, in the comfort zone.

Comfort clothes--like comfort food--are what guys want and what Rodriguez delivers in his fall line of chic, simple velvet blazers, merino wool turtlenecks and Sinatra bomber jackets. His upcoming spring collection features smooth, relaxed looks such as a deconstructed jacket and a black linen and Lycra suit.

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Question: What's the difference between fashion and style?

Answer: Great style is how the wearer conveys what he's wearing. It's not about the clothes wearing the person; it's the other way around. I have a 1940s photograph of Cary Grant in my office, and he's wearing a very simple gray flannel suit with a beautiful wool polo shirt underneath--no tie. And he looks like he's in style today. Style represents one's personality.

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Q: What's the Wilke-Rodriguez style statement?

A: What we do at Wilke-Rodriguez is try to design clothes that give men options. I would never dictate to you that you have to wear only black this season, because that's not allowing for the freedom of expression, of individual style. I want the jacket that you're wearing today to still feel like it's in style five years from now.

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Q: Who do you have in mind when you design?

A: I think in terms of lifestyle, whether a guy is 25 or 55. L.A.'s the perfect example. You see a lot of very hip men in their 50s driving a Porsche going to the hippest restaurants.

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Q: Where do your fashion influences come from?

A: From everywhere and everything. I'm inspired by architecture, by modern culture. If I'm walking in L.A. and I see a kid put together like no other kid I've seen before, that's inspiration. I keep my eyes and ears open, especially in this era of diversity. Our collective culture right now brings influences from around the world.

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Q: Who are some of the designers you admire?

A: I've always been very enthralled with Japanese designers such as Yohji Yamamoto, Matsuda and Kawakubo and their simplicity. For example, the one item that was really the inspiration behind Wilke-Rodriguez was a simple white cotton shirt--and notice that both you and I are wearing one today. To me, it's one of the elements of a man's wardrobe that's essential, and Japanese designers are brilliant at doing it.

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Q: Are you?

A: I think I am. We use a special two-ply cotton fabric--a very, very fine cotton--that's the first important thing. And then I do simple, little details.

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Q: Such as?

A: A rounded collar with a blind stitch, which makes it very clean and modern. The placket is hidden and very narrow. So everything about the shirt is simple with design details. To me, that's what fashion should be about: distinctive design, good quality and innovative features. If I'm going to interest you in buying my white cotton shirt, what would inspire you to do so? There needs to be a certain signature to it, so that when you put it on you feel special. That's what we're about.

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Q: How else are you different from the other guys in the fashion designer pack?

A: We don't jump on the fashion bandwagon. We don't follow the pack. That's not what I'm about. What I would like is for people to become more intimate with the Wilke-Rodriguez message.

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Q: Which is what?

A: Simple, modern, timeless, good quality and, most of all, comfort.

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Q: Are some guys born with a fashion gene, some not?

A: That's a great question. I think what happens is certain guys grow up more keenly aware of fashion than others. And what's happened over the last few years is that more men are feeling more comfortable about fashion than they did in the past.

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Q: Why?

A: I think from a lifestyle point of view more men are into working out, into grooming, into clothes. Fashion, especially in places like L.A., has become an important part of their lives. There's no stigma attached to it. That wasn't the case 10 years ago, when a huge percentage of men's clothes were bought for them by women.

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