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Capasa's Coming to Town

The risk-taking Italian designer believes he can find a niche in Los Angeles.


Ennio Capasa has come to Los Angeles to shop.

The designer of the 12-year-old Italian high fashion company Costume National is scouting Los Angeles to find a location for his small but growing chain of boutiques.

With his first U.S. store already in New York's SoHo district, Capasa is eager to establish a presence in a city that he says understands him.

"This city is full of creative people, perhaps more than anywhere," he said. "They are very quick to know what is special."

Among fashion designers of his age and stature, Capasa is a rarity. At 39, he's old enough to understand the capricious nature of his industry, but young enough to take risks in spite of them. It's clear that he, too, is an artistic soul who finds motivation in creating beauty, but of an unconventional sort.

"I think the main point of fashion is to make people happy. I hope it's like Prozac," he said. "You go into my shop and if you feel sad, you put on a jacket and you feel better."

The Costume National collection has grown into a $70-million business by operating on the fringes of mainstream fashion trends. For years, his clothes sported the kind of sleek, spare lines that have come to define minimalism, the predominant look of the late '90s. Earlier collections also bore the mark of his mentor, Japanese designer Yohji Yamamoto.

After graduating as a sculpture student from Milan's Fine Arts Academy in 1982, Capasa traveled to Japan, thinking he might apply his skills to automotive design. An acquaintance who knew Yamamoto suggested that Capasa prepare a portfolio for a design assistant position. It was good enough to land him the job.

"I didn't think to be a fashion designer. But with such a master like Yohji, I learned a lot," he said. The basics that he didn't learn in school--pattern cutting, draping, tailoring--he learned in the famous designer's atelier.

"He encouraged me to be a designer," he said. And by 27, he was, when he launched the first Costume National collection and showed it in Milan. To this day, he's still proud of that collection, even though he was afraid to give it his own name, mostly because he hadn't formally trained in fashion.

"What if it was a catastrophe? Now I regret it a bit," he said. Days before the show, his brother, Carlo, brought him an antique book bearing the title "Le Costume National." "I liked it."

Until 1994, Costume National remained a small family business, with $3 million to $4 million in sales and with his brother as business manager. The birth that year of the first of his two children coincided with a creative and financial surge that has put the company on the international stage.

"That is when everything started to happen," he said. Now his women's clothing accounts for just 40% of the business, while the Costume National Homme menswear line and the accessory and shoe lines each add another 30% to revenues.

A Changing

Fashion World

Success stories such as his aren't as likely to happen today, however. He looks at designers coming up behind him, and those ahead of him, and sees a fashion world changing drastically.

"The generation of Versace or Armani, there was much more optimism, more possibility to grow by yourself," he said. "Now if you want to start, you need lots of money. It's a little bit dangerous for the generation after me.

"I'm a little bit concerned if you are a young designer now. You can't do it without major money."

Increasingly, institutional investors are backing young designers in a sort of Faustian pact: The designers get a head start on reaching a huge market, but "in two or three years, [investors] want their money back." Numerous young designers have paired up with bigger companies lately, including Alexander McQueen at Givenchy, Narciso Rodriguez at Loewe and Marc Jacobs at Louis Vuitton. Some younger designers have recently had to close or modify their operations, including Isaac Mizrahi and Todd Oldham.

Risks Can Be Both

Costly and Beneficial

Capasa said the race for profits can compromise creativity: "It does push you to be more commercial and flat." He said that taking creative risks helps young designers learn which clothes will sell and which will advance fashion and their reputations as innovators--and also secure their futures.

Too often, a kind of cruel Darwinism creeps into the creative process, he said. The bigger, stronger companies feed and capitalize on the risks younger designers dare to take, though the designers themselves don't always profit from them.

But Capasa has a secret weapon--the independence that comes from being a family business, albeit with a minority institutional investor, one that allows him freedom. His brother still manages the business, contributing knowledge he learned as a partner to designer Romeo Gigli in his most influential years, and at Gucci in the early '90s when it was reemerging as a fashion power.

With his brother, Capasa hopes to build the business into an independent maison, a design company that offers items not solely for their profit potential.

"I'm more interested in giving a fresh vision to people than to be huge. I don't want to do glasses just to make money. With our shoes, I did it because it felt right. And now it's 30% of our business. I feel good with this direction. I want to do it when I'm really sure, when I have something to offer.

"I think possibly the people in this business are obsessed by money. I'm obsessed by making good things."

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