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The Concept

Does the Runway Play in L.A.?


Fox TV and E! cameras were trained on the runway where guest catwalker Paris Hilton was about to take a spin. Fashion mavens from W, Vogue, Flaunt and Women's Wear Daily sat with pens at attention as Anjelica Huston scurried to her folding chair just a few spaces down from a red leather-clad Suzanne Somers. Cue the lights, music and models. Los Angeles Fashion Week was ready for its close-up.

Or was it?

At one show, a mischievous toddler pounded her fists on the catwalk; at another, a too-high runway revealed masking tape placed on the bottoms of models' shoes to keep them from slipping. There were venues that felt like fire traps; equipment crashed; music started and stopped when it shouldn't have. It was charming in a school play kind of way.

Still despite the glitches, this L.A. Fashion Week, which ended Tuesday night, was the most organized show of local talent in a decade and even scored a big auto sponsor. Quite an achievement considering that the designer lineup for one presentation was up in the air just two weeks before show time. The comparisons to New York's Fashion Week are inevitable but should L.A. even worry about staging traditional runway shows?

The one-of-a-kind aesthetic so many designers here have embraced, perhaps as an act of rebellion against L.A.'s mass market manufacturing, may not need the runway. Local talent has already attracted national interest, thanks in large part to the Hollywood connection.

Designers such as Imitation of Christ's Matt Damhave and Tara Subkoff, Magda Berliner, David Cardona and others have dressed celebrities and managed to show in New York.

The closest thing to Manhattan's Bryant Park setup was the "Audi Presents Designer Collections of Los Angeles Fashion Week." The 300 or so guests had a futuristic, all-white lounge to mingle in, as well as an outdoor area with food stands.

The day of six back-to-back shows held at Tibitz Creative Stages in Hollywood, the GenArt group show at the Los Angeles Theater and Michelle Mason's presentation at St. Vibiana's Cathedral were the week's best-organized, drawing buyers from Fred Segal, Henri Bendel, Paris boutique Colette, L.A. boutiques Curve and Xian, but not from Barneys New York and Bergdorf Goodman as had previously been expected.

Fashion magazines Vogue, Lucky and Allure were represented at many shows, but by regional editors, not masthead heavyweights.

The celeb quotient was also low. Big names such as Janet Jackson and Robert Downey Jr., who publicists said had RSVPd, stayed home. Most seats (and standing room) were filled with L.A.'s omnipresent stylists and funkily-dressed hangers-on.

"I've never seen anything on this level in L.A." said stylist Timothy Snell.

"It's so civilized, it's like a time warp," chirped fashion vet Elizabeth Snead, who was covering the events for Web site Fashion Wire Daily.

But as successful as a few events were individually, as a whole L.A. Fashion Week suffers from an identity crisis, unsure of its headliners, its leadership and its audience.

New York's fashion week at Bryant Park would never have gotten off the ground eight years ago without the participation of Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein and Donna Karan. L.A. has no such troika.

The last time L.A. had an organized effort at a fashion week was in the late 1980s when the principal sponsor was the CaliforniaMart, according to Ilse Metchek, director of the California Fashion Assn.

Designers such as James Galanos and David Hayes presented runway collections at a gala celebration and hosted elaborate parties on their own for editors who traveled from the East Coast to attend.

The CalMart event was discontinued in 1991 because there was not a critical mass of design talent, the economy was tanking and CalMart was having its own troubles. Since then, L.A.'s most successful talents like Richard Tyler and BCBG's Max Azria have been showing in New York, the hub of wholesaling and retailing of designer clothes. L.A., the second-largest fashion business center, continues to be looked to for mass-market sports, surf and junior wear rather than cutting-edge design.

In recent days, the internationally known designer names were in the audience, not on the runway. Paris-based designer Jeremy Scott, who is moving to L.A., stopped by buddy Jared Gold's show, and Tyler came out to support his former design assistant, Michelle Mason. There could be hope for a future marquis act, however. After attending Cardona's show, Kevan Hall, formerly of Halston, said he'd consider participating next season, and Tyler didn't rule out showing here either.

"I think it's wonderful that we're starting to have shows that are pulling the design community together," Hall said.

Although Audi event organizers mounted six strong, centralized shows, and the Coalition of Los Angeles Designers created a much-needed fashion week calendar, the leadership of L.A. fashion week is in flux.

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