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L.A. Fashion Week

Buying Into Hometown Style

Veteran retailer Shauna Stein goes in search of local talent and is pleasantly surprised at some of what she finds.

April 19, 2002|BOOTH MOORE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Faint rays of early evening sun filter through the palm trees in the courtyard of the historic Los Altos apartment building where guests are arriving for the first runway show of L.A. fashion week. Veteran retailer Shauna Stein is sipping white wine out of a plastic cup and soaking in the scene. In her 25 years in the fashion business, the co-owner of the On Beverly Blvd. boutique has made the runway rounds in Milan, Paris and New York, but never here.

She meets a stylist named Kristen with big, permed blond hair, who's wearing a turquoise tennis sweater, red gym shorts, yellow fishnet stockings and pink Converse high tops. It's a carefully calculated mix of cool that intrigues the 51-year-old Stein.

The "mix" is one of her favorite buzzwords, because to keep her advantage as a small retailer, Stein is constantly interpreting, editing and combining designer looks for her customers. She's earned a reputation for being able to pick apart a collection and find clothes that are edgy, but not so edgy as to be unwearable.

She's also known for her personal touch. Stein claims more than 200 loyal clients, who occasionally call her at home to ask what top to wear with a bottom. "I don't always remember names," she says. "But I do remember what's in everyone's closet."

In the courtyard of the Los Altos on Wilshire Boulevard, Stein has gathered an audience, and the first of many fashion musings flow: "Shopgirls in Europe look better than the richest women in L.A. because they understand from an early age to buy less and buy better."

It was her first trip to Italy in 1972 that changed her eye forever. "I saw a way of dressing and mixing clothing that inspired my career," says the always animated Stein, whose sentences tumble out rapidly, often punctuated at the end with an infectious, high-pitched, open-mouth laugh.

The crowd files into the lobby for Rami Kashou's show. His elegant, bias-cut jersey gowns dazzle Stein, who sizes up the fabric, the finishing, the fit. "Soft dressing is going to be very important," she says.

After the presentation, it's clear that the designer has won her over. "He's so cute, he's delicious," she coos, her enormous green eyes opening even wider. "I didn't expect to like an L.A. fashion show."

Women have been looking to Stein for style advice since the 1970s when she was a buyer for Ron Ross on Ventura Boulevard and the late 1980s when she owned her own store at the Beverly Center, introducing such designers as John Galliano, Dolce & Gabbana and Moschino to the legging-wearing L.A. public.

Buying was easier back then. Each season brought a few trends that women followed diligently. Hems went up and down and wardrobes followed.

These days, fashion moves so fast that Stein herself has trouble keeping up. "The Internet has brought us to this place where you really have to do your homework so you're not caught up in trends that are going to be over in 20 minutes," she says.

Stores typically buy clothes twice a year, for spring and fall. But now, trends change so quickly that Stein feels like she has to restock every 60 days to stay current.

The fall show schedule began back in February in New York. But by the time those clothes hit stores, Stein fears they could be out of date. So this season, she vowed to check out her hometown offerings for the first time.

Because L.A. fashion week is last on the international calendar, attending the shows here could give Stein an opportunity to buy fresher looks.

Stein has been lost for 40 minutes trying to find the factory space in Culver City where Richard Tyler is showing. "I wound up at the marina," she says, arriving uncharacteristically late. She checks any frustration at the door, remembering how difficult it was to get to Gaultier's shows in the '80s, which were held outside Paris. "You took your life into your hands."

As the lights go down, she pulls out a notepad. Short jackets, sheer skirts and sexy dresses parade by as Stein's eyes play fashion tennis, darting back and forth along the runway.

"That bag!" she says excitedly, pointing to a brown leather saddlebag on a model's shoulder. "This is extremely salable for L.A. He really knows his client."

Whether it will work in Stein's store--which has everything from $75 T-shirts to $5,000 coats--is another story.

She has to consider her clients, who span three generations.

The Tyler collection is young and tightfitting. "Skinny is the biggest part of the culture in L.A.," says Stein, who has a fuller figure herself. "But I'm not a [size] 4, 6, 8 store; I'm a [size] 6, 8, 12 store. I try to allow more medium-sized women to buy fashion."

After making two U-turns on Cole Avenue in Hollywood, Stein spots number 1051. "You can go to some of the creepiest places and find clothes," she says sizing up the dingy building. "You should see where I found Galliano in London. I went up six flights of stairs in the grimiest walk-up."

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