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Bohemian Rhapsody

Monah Li's Los Feliz Look Put Her on The National Map--Will Her Cult Follow?

February 25, 2001|IRENE LACHER

Monah Li never thought she'd end up in a downtown office building. Not long ago, Li's natural habitat was bohemian Los Feliz, where her romantic mixed-fabric dress designs made her the local hero of Vermont Avenue. The location fit her edgy image: She dates, off and on, literary bad boy Jerry Stahl ("Permanent Midnight"), whose past addiction to heroin was portrayed on screen by Ben Stiller. And she once did time in a mental hospital for her own drug problems, long since vanquished.

Now Li begins her days rushing past the woman who sells watery coffee at the entrance to the Cooper Building, a creaky stalwart of L.A.'s Garment District, where she has a new, 5,100-square-foot studio on the 11th floor. The building is filled with mainstream fashion types--and now Li is one of them.

"I never wanted to be a garmento," she says, competing with the noise of drilling from another floor. "I didn't want to be downtown. I didn't want to do stuff that was fashion-fashion. I never even looked at magazines."

A few feet from her desk, pages torn from fashion magazines litter a drafting table, more evidence that she has evolved into the fashion executive she disdained becoming. After establishing her name with hand-dyed and hand-painted creations, Li has shuttered her Los Feliz store and joined hipster clothing giant Bebe Stores Inc. as a designer, opening the first L.A. office for the San Francisco-based company.

Her trajectory from rising maverick designer to foundering business owner is a familiar story in the rag trade. In Li's case, talent, a cult following and packed fashion shows in her own store were not enough to offset bad luck and a shaky business sense in an unforgiving industry. "Just because you're a great designer and a great person doesn't mean that you've got a good head for business," says Laurie Pike, editor of Glue magazine, which covers L.A. fashion and culture. "Every season a great fashion designer goes under. It's a lot tougher than having your own restaurant."

Hobbled by debt and weary of the pressures, Li found relief from a most unlikely source--a mass-market manufacturer of trendy clothes aimed mostly at twentysomethings.

Li's transition, which began in November, has been tricky because Bebe's mission is a bit of a Zen riddle for her. Known for its sexy but accessible styles, Bebe wants Li to help it jump on trends as they leave the gate and quickly translate them into moderately priced clothes. At the same time, her bosses hired Li specifically for her sense of style--which eschews trendiness in favor of fluid lines, feminine embellishments and richly colored fabrics, often a mix of textures.

"Bebe's stuff is supposed to be sexy, modern and sophisticated--and I know I have the sexy part down," she says. The modern part is turning out to be more of a challenge. Although she gave Bebe some of the big-band-era chiffon dresses and pinstriped suits that she designed for her last Monah Li spring line, she's had to pick her way gingerly around Bebe land. Her first attempt to channel the Bebe mind-set resulted in sparkly mini-dresses that mixed denim with silk charmeuse, lace and feathers. However, Bebe executives decided they were too flashy and declined them. "They said, 'Go back to designing what you like to wear,' " she says.

"It's a great matchup in a lot of ways," Pike says. "I think of those [Bebe] clothes as being a little too young and slutty. But if Monah Li designs for them, I'm going to watch it. If they want to pull ahead of their competition or appeal to slightly older women, Monah Li could be very helpful."

The most striking creation of the refreshingly blunt Li is probably herself. Even her name is her own creation. Born Monah Schmid in Vienna 42 years ago, she became Lila--as in lilac--to her friends in the late '70s because of her fixation with purple. She didn't like the sound of Monah Lila, so she shortened it to Li.

She remembers wanting to be a fashion designer as early as age 7. "I loved clothes. I just believe that clothes can fix you. Whatever is wrong with you on the inside, when I wear the right thing, I feel good."

She studied art and fashion in Vienna. Her art professors told her to go into fashion. Her fashion professors told her to go into art. "I never really fit," she says.

After making a stir in German Vogue with a line of clothes made from painted silk, Li joined her psychiatrist mother in Los Angeles. Briefly, Li did silk painting for Trashy Lingerie. A short stint at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising followed, but by then Li was bored with school.

"I was really partying and taking drugs," she says. "I was so messed up. I could have died here."

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