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Designs for everyman

Pierre Lafaurie's pieces are hot with hip shoppers.

December 24, 2002|Valli Herman-Cohen | Times Staff Writer

Paris — Paris

At the precise moment that Pierre Lafaurie aimed his motorcycle for the cobblestone sidewalk, hopped the ancient curb and sped around a large stalled truck, it became clear how he could bring a sense of adventure and spontaneity to something as elementary as a poplin shirt.

Moments later, a policeman at the summit of Montmartre, home of the Sacre Coeur basilica, is asking for his driver's license, which is duly presented with a smile and some clever banter that avoids arrest. Curbs, laws and even national borders are no obstacle for the emerging French men's clothing designer.

It's that ready-for-anything spirit that has captured the attention of an international set of shoppers from Santa Monica's Montana Avenue to the Place des Vosges, in Paris' Marais district.

They come to his Emile Lafaurie shops for the affordable pieces that mix easily into dressy-casual wardrobes and that are designed to travel as easily between countries as they do between business and social settings. One of those frequent shoppers was Sean Cassidy -- not the teen idol, but a young former marketing director for Scholastic Inc.

"This one store had everything," Cassidy recalled of his love-at-first-sight encounter with Emile Lafaurie, the fictitious name the designer gave his store and collection. Cassidy, a frequent Paris visitor, bought nearly all of his clothes from Lafaurie's cozy boutique on Rue de Birague in the Marais.

"Every time I saw him, I said, 'You should open a store in New York so I don't have to come to Paris to buy clothes,' " Cassidy recalled while visiting Los Angeles earlier this month. Nearly 10 years after that first meeting, Cassidy and Lafaurie have become best friends and business partners. They have opened more shops in Europe (where they are known as Emile Lafaurie) and in the U.S., where they are called Sean and carry the Lafaurie label exclusively. This month the partners are celebrating the first anniversary of their Montana Avenue Sean store, the fifth of five in the U.S. (There are three in New York, one in San Francisco.)

While the clothing business at large continues to suffer from sluggish sales in the U.S. and Europe, Cassidy and Lafaurie's collaboration upends the notion that menswear is a static field, that independent retailers are outmoded and that French and American fashion are fundamentally at odds.

The partners have discovered a style common not to an age, a nationality or a budget, but to a spirit and a need. Such utilitarian touches as button-out linings in coats, zippers in cardigans and an ever-evolving palette keep wardrobes fresh.

It's telling that Cassidy, 36 and single, and Lafaurie, 37 and married with two children, live very different lives on distant continents, yet share the same fashion aesthetic.

Lafaurie, whose long blond hair makes him look like a California surfer, was an only child raised in Paris by his lamp-maker mother, aunt and grandmother. After military service in the French navy, he traveled the world doing odd jobs and lingered in Southern California's sun and surf, experiences that have become lasting inspirations.

Cassidy, lean with a shaved head, grew up in a family of five in Winslow, Maine, population 7,700, where he became an avid reader to explore more exotic worlds. After earning a business degree, he landed in New York at the children's book publisher Scholastic Inc., where in a span of nine years he became director of marketing. He started going to Paris regularly to relax. His parents, who worked in newspaper advertising, were part of a large extended family, and he often shepherded dozens of unruly younger cousins.

It's a skill he says helps him "manage Pierre." Measured and steady, Cassidy is the business mind that corrals the high-flying energy of Lafaurie. He's what Barry Schwartz is to Calvin Klein, or Pierre Berge to Yves Saint Laurent -- the counterbalance, friend and advisor.

Given their differences yet similar style sensibilities, a wide variety of shoppers also can tune in to the duo's classic but contemporary clothing. Cassidy recalled with pride the moment when two shoppers, one 60 and the other 28, emerged from the dressing room in the same suit.

The bestselling item on both continents is a boxy patch-pocket jacket inspired by a coat worn by French painters. In cotton it's $98; in wool, $160; and in suede it's one of the most expensive items in the collection at $450. Paris architects have adopted the painter's coat as a sort of uniform, while in L.A. it's collected by creative types, including producers, writers and a string of actors such as Alec Baldwin, Luke Wilson and Kevin Spacey.

"When I started the company," Lafaurie explained in his slightly fractured English, "I have a vision of the customer. I decide to make a choice of the customer I knew well -- he is artistic and business oriented."

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