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Breaking Into the Big Time

For 25 lucky local designers, Manhattan retailer Henri Bendel's first Los Angeles casting call could turn out to be that crucial entree into fashion-world stardom.


At 8 a.m., two hours ahead of schedule, designers began trickling into the W Hotel Los Angeles in Westwood to show their work to buyers from Henri Bendel.

By 8:30, designers were everywhere--nibbling on danishes and cheese cubes in the ballroom waiting room, spilling out into the lobby and hanging out in the hotel restaurant.

More than 350 local designers showed up Friday for the first "open see" call in Los Angeles by the upscale Manhattan retailer.

There was anticipation, excitement and competitiveness at the prospect of rising from obscurity if selected by Bendel buyers, who were searching for merchandise for the Fifth Avenue store. Anna Sui and Todd Oldham were discovered at a Bendel casting call; the calls have been held annually in New York City since the 1960s.

So designers here wore and lugged around their one-of-a-kind creations in canvas suitcases, extra-long garment bags and even Louis Vuitton weekenders. Stashed inside were items such as handbags, jewelry, women's sportswear and evening wear and home decorations.

One by one, designers--some waited as long as five hours-- were paged and then escorted out of the ballroom into the Alcova room next door to show their goods to one of the seven Bendel buyers.

Bendel is attracted to L.A.'s "seasonless" designs and what Bendel vice president and general manager Ed Burstell called "a deconstructive thing--vintage taken apart and reconstructed . . . looking at the picture in a different way." He added that some L.A. designs are more feminine, "not as androgynous as in New York City. The designers, too."

At 2:30, Cheryl Gaskill and her business partner Leslie Hoskulds were called to show their "2 of a Kind" T-shirts. By the time they were called, a camaraderie had developed among the waiting designers. Everyone clapped and cheered and yelled, "You can do it!"

"Urban white trash chic" is how the designers described their T-shirts, decorated with embroidered single patches bearing words such as "shalom," "candy" or "pervert," and rhinestones. "They are like the work shirt with a patch the gas station attendant wears, but on a tee," Hoskulds said.

By 3 p.m., they learned that their design would be sold at Bendel. The women went into the lobby, hugged and cried. "Surreal," said Hoskulds. Gaskill was speechless. She said she couldn't breathe.

At another table, Yael Aflalo's Ya-Ya line was being checked out. "I'm totally lost and completely naked," a model said while she dipped behind a table to change into the designer's leather top. Bendel went for the Ya-Ya leather line and jean jackets reconstructed from used jeans.

Other items picked up that day included: Brightly hued, tie-dyed, long-sleeved T-shirts in soft double mesh net; purses made out of cigar boxes painted or covered with material; beaded jewelry; a water spray for the face.

Michael Rosen brought his one-of-a-kind Victor Peter Ltd. throw pillows. "It was a great experience. Just watching the people interact. It was like show and tell. So much energy. It was the open auditions for fashion, what you would find in Hollywood for actors."

"Talk to me. Tell me what I want to hear," Burstell said to Rosen, who explained that the pillows were made of antique or vintage silk kimonos. "I'm taking these immediately for the holidays," Burstell said. "I knew the minute I saw them."

Bendel was done by 3:30, having picked 25 local designers whose work would be given a "two-season chance." The event was an apparent success, because the retailer is considering another "open see" in L.A.

As they were leaving, Hoskulds and Gaskill said they had always wanted to break into the New York market but thought it was unobtainable.

Not in L.A.


Candace A. Wedlan can be reached at

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