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A Man of Leisure

Designer Richard Tyler's new casual line is in sync with the more relaxed lifestyle he has adopted.


In an artfully rehabbed former factory in Culver City, internationally recognized fashion designer Richard Tyler calmly negotiated the controlled chaos that buzzed backstage Friday at his first major Los Angeles fashion show in 15 years.

As hairdressers combed, TV cameras pointed and seamstresses sewed last-minute hems, the shaggy-haired 54-year-old designer cheerfully guided visitors through the racks of sleek jeans, nipped jackets, gauzy knits and sexy dresses that make up Tyler's first venture into contemporary sportswear. He practically apologized that some of the interior seams were finished with machine overlock stitching, not his usual finicky and costly seam-binding techniques.

With most pieces in the collection priced at $300 or less, nearly 10 times less expensive than his signature line, the designer is poised to expand his business internationally by targeting a much wider range of customers.

With a $15-million business, beautiful homes in South Pasadena, Palm Springs and New York and experience at major fashion houses, the designer could relax. Instead, the collection is challenging the former rock 'n' roll costumer to design his first denims, new kinds of knits and to aim for a place in the hotly competitive, fast-turning contemporary fashion business. If he is highly successful, however, the line could ultimately derail the Australian's hopes for a settled, family-centered lifestyle.

Coming in the middle of L.A.'s struggling fashion week, the debut was a milestone for both Tyler and the local fashion scene. The designer had noticeably slowed the expansion of his bicoastal, couture-based business. He and his wife and business partner, Lisa Trafficante, have simplified their personal and professional lives in recent seasons. They downsized their New York shows, sold their 37-room Gramercy Park mansion in Manhattan last year for a reported $13.5-million profit, set up smaller digs in the meat-packing district and turned down offers to design for other companies. They still operate a Beverly Boulevard boutique, manufacture couture bridal wear and sell a licensed scarf and shoe line.

Yet for the first time in his career, the famously independent designer took his runway bow with a co-designer, Erica Davies, a 30-year-old freelancer. Together, they distilled Tyler's signature tailoring into a casual, streetwise style that Tyler called "the essence of L.A." This week's showroom sales to about two dozen stores, including some from Britain and Mexico, indicated that the sportswear is headed for a strong launch.

The new collection also helps legitimize the L.A. look, which has been derided as nothing more than jeans and T-shirts, though Tyler's view includes sophisticated tailored pieces. (See accompanying review.) His choice to debut the new sportswear line locally also endorsed L.A. as a viable alternative to New York, the capital of American fashion.

Just three years ago, however, the designer swore he'd quit the business and take up gardening rather than make cheaper clothes. "Never say never, right?" said the designer last week at the 86-year-old South Pasadena Italianate estate that he's lavished with landscaping, marble tables and religious art. "I'm so excited," he said happily. "I haven't been so excited about something for a long time."

The events of last Sept. 11 forced Tyler and Trafficante to rethink the meaning of his signature collection, which offered $2,000 jackets that sold at stores such as Bergdorf Goodman, Barneys New York and Neiman Marcus, and as often as not, to celebrities and socialites. "Couture clothing felt frivolous," he said. "I think that's when we really decided to do this new line. The timing just seemed appropriate."

Though they expect to reach only $1 million in sales in their first year, the couple sees Tyler generating nearly $50 million annually by 2005, nearly three times the yearly sales of his couture and bridal lines. The sportswear collection is potentially more profitable because the simpler clothes are less complex to manufacture, sell and show.

"It's a sign of the times," said Tyler's former assistant, Los Angeles designer David Cardona. "You either change with the times or you disappear." Cardona, like many designers, would like to be able to launch a secondary line, "because the second line is the one that makes profits. It's the upper line that gets you the exposure, and from there you do business. Most profit at the high end anyway isn't the high-priced clothing. It's the handbag, or the perfume or the shoes."

Though Tyler has skipped his usual New York fashion shows for two seasons, preferring instead small-scale presentations to select editors there, the designer insists he's not abandoning the couture line, just the hoopla.

"You begin to make a product that's contrary to what you believe in," he said, noting how pressures to remain "editorial" and trendy sometimes diffused his own look. "It's not the way we wanted to work anymore."

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