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James Reva's styles appeal to fashion's forgotten women

July 19, 2002|MICHAEL QUINTANILLA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Here they sit in white plastic lawn chairs sipping Evian--women in their 40s, 50s and 60s, immaculately coiffed, manicured and exuding class. From across Los Angeles and Orange counties, even Las Vegas, they have gathered in a Los Angeles backyard that needs new grass, with trees that could use a clip job.

But none of that matters. Their attention is riveted on models their age who emerge from the kitchen, strolling across the yard onto an elevated runway.

The guests applaud, point and talk to one another about their favorite looks in James Reva's new fall collection that the L.A. designer says is for "the forgotten woman." She is an older, mature, fit woman--still active, still sensuous and craving stylish clothes. But she doesn't want to dress like a teenager or look like the ubiquitous Twiglet models in shredded sheaths and dirt-rubbed jeans splashed in magazines.

Reva's clients--ladies who lunch, lawyers, estate planners, schoolteachers, volunteer moms who fund-raise and businesswomen--say they just want to look their age in classic, modern styles without looking matronly--a frustrating pursuit amid the midriff-baring, low-rise trends that flood a youth-obsessed clothing market.

"No matter where our waistlines have gone--and believe me, they have shifted--James knows how to design for a woman that doesn't have the Britney Spears body," says 20-year Reva client Terre Thomas, daughter of Danny Thomas and a fund-raiser for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn. "Besides, we don't want to chase that trend. We want to look our age, but we also want to look hip and good and with it."

"What older woman wants to go into a store that is a hip-hop shop?" asks Marshal Cohen, co-president of the Port Washington, N.Y.-based market researcher NPDFashionworld. "This is a very ignored market" he says of the nearly 40 million women 35 and older who spend $45 billion annually on apparel. That accounts for 51% of all women's apparel sales in the U.S. last year compared with 14% spent by the junior market. Yet, he says, older women these days often "feel like their figures are not what designers and retailers care about" and they are the ones with the real spending power. "Where do they go?"

In L.A., on a recent Tuesday morning, it was to Reva's Fairfax Avenue studio, a two-story home the designer converted into a showroom and factory 10 years ago. Here the women prefer the intimate, private setting--despite the occasional barking dog and roaring motorcycles--that Reva's biannual backyard fashion shows provide, a concept so retro (think Avon) that it's forward.

Reva takes it all in, pingponging from one customer to another, answering questions about fabric and cut, mixing and matching, accessorizing and the oft-repeated query: "How do I look in this, James?"

"You know," the 62-year-old designer says, "you can tear apart a T-shirt and sew it inside out and upside down, but that doesn't give you a career. Listen to what women want. That's the key."

He caters to his clients because he knows "they are money in the bank." Indeed, Reva's personal touch, his endurance and evolution in the cutthroat world of fashion, has served him well. While contemporaries such as David Hayes has participated in L.A.'s fashion week with a star-studded front row and Peter Cohen just opened a new shop within the last year, Reva takes a different route.

Twelve years ago he took the specialty-store concept of trunk shows--small, exclusive showings where orders are taken on the spot--into private homes where women can select garments in the $200-to-$650 price range from current collections and shoes, handbags and jewelry from local designers. He also began his backyard fashion events.

Today, Reva has a network of 10 commission-earning full-time fashion directors and another 10 part-timers who bring clients to his studio. The directors also coordinate weeklong one-on-one fittings between customers and the designer whose Wardrobe Dressing Inc. nearly hit $1 million in sales last year.

Making Them Look Good

"If anything, a woman wearing a James Reva garment will be remembered--not forgotten," says longtime client Rita Amendola, who owns a Santa Monica company that plans estate sales. For three decades she and other clients have counted on him to make them look good by hiding and highlighting their changing bodies.

"I have big hips and small shoulders but I can still wear size 8 and can squeeze into a 6 because James knows how to conceal and bring out the best in me. That's why we love him," Amendola says while taking in the show of comfortable ribbed knits, sexy ruffled tops and fluted evening skirts floating down the catwalk.

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