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This Double Take Isn't Funny

The CalMart Awards Won't Get Respect Until Some Nominees Innovate, Not Imitate


The most telling moment at the CaliforniaMart Designer Awards ceremony at the Beverly Hilton on Sunday night wasn't when this year's winner, the popular and talented Trina Turk, strode to the podium to accept her crystal trophy. Nor was it when Ron Herman shared an award for the impact his Ron Herman Fred Segal Melrose store has had on fashion in Los Angeles.

In an evening rich with signs of artistic risk-taking and entrepreneurial bravado, when many of the presenters and recipients spoke about the growing importance of home-grown creativity, it was a segment of the fashion show displaying the work of the Designer of the Year nominees that sent a chill through the veins of anyone who took the proceedings seriously.

Models wearing body-hugging gowns of shiny silver Mylar hand-painted with flowers swept fringed shawls behind them. The gowns, by the design team of XOXO, were striking, featuring the clever clash of modern materials and folkloric accessories. They were just the sort of bold styles that set trends and win awards. At least, they did when near-mirror images of them first appeared in a Dolce & Gabbana show in Milan more than six months ago.

The team's presence, even only as a nominee, provided a clear demonstration of why the CaliforniaMart Designer Awards continually battle for respect and attention. The CaliforniaMart awards do not have the status of New York's Council of Fashion Designers of America annual awards or the upstart VH1 Fashion Awards, which, with their emphasis on pop culture, reach out to a wide audience.

The CaliforniaMart awards aren't just the victims of a perennial fashion second-city complex plaguing Los Angeles (although there is some of that). They aren't crippled by price snobbery dictating that designers are people who make expensive clothes (although that attitude is persistent in some quarters).

It is the inclusion of commercial considerations in the selection of nominees that diminishes the awards' ability to bring recognition to deserving California designers.

No one would argue that the XOXO dresses should not exist. With $100 million in annual sales, the company has built a following by delivering fresh styles faster than a teenager gets over a crush. When these Italian look-alikes appear in stores, priced less than a Dolce & Gabbana sock, they will make many a girl's day. But they are unabashed imitations--in spirit, shape, fabrication and detail.

Nominations going to such facile mimics are what have kept the California awards in their place, so to speak, by perpetuating the idea that innovation doesn't live here.

"For a struggling new designer to see that with all that company's resources, all they can do is such a blatant rip-off is really depressing," said one young designer, who voiced his reaction on the condition of anonymity. "It really lowered the standard of what the awards are all about. The awards are a wonderful opportunity to recognize what's going on here, and it's important that the people who represent California be the right people," he said.

The awards were inaugurated in 1983, abandoned in 1990, then resumed in 1994 with a new category for rising star. No grandiose vision of fashion world domination attended their conception.

"The awards exist primarily to promote West Coast designers, to give some of the people here the credit that they deserve," said Corky Newman, former CEO of the CaliforniaMart. "We just wanted to be what we were, not to compete nationally."

A National Boost for Local Designers

California designers do compete in the national marketplace, however, and in a multistep process, they hope the awards can help them hold their own against peers based in Europe and New York.

Experience has shown that when editors of fashion magazines read about the awards in trade publications, they're often moved to seek out a new designer. They might feature some of the designer's clothes in their pages. Then store buyers, impressed by what they see in Mademoiselle, Elle or Vogue, make the effort to visit the designer's showroom.

"From the nomination, you get a lot of attention you wouldn't normally get," award winner Turk said. "Most of it is from trade publications, but the more people see the name, the more it helps it to register, sooner or later. We've had a store look at our line five times, and then they see us in a magazine. That seems to legitimize us, and finally they place an order."

Sometimes the effect of a nomination is less direct. But William Beranek, whose William B line was nominated for Designer of the Year in 1997 and 1998, confirmed, "Every bit of press attention that you get helps."

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