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What'd they expect? Nobody walks in L.A.

Fashion Week looming, designers long for local models who can move.

October 15, 2005|Leslie Gornstein | Special to The Times

The model called Olga has long, lustrous brown hair, legs up to her ears, and peaceful, cerulean blue eyes that could tame even the haughtiest fashion editor midtantrum. Los Angeles dress designer Kevan Hall needs 30 models for his spring fashion show and he's gazing wistfully at Olga's glossy photo.

"Please, God," he murmurs on Day 1 of his show's runway casting session, "let her be able to walk."

A gaily clad assistant barks a command from somewhere beyond; Olga trots into the main office of Hall's Beverly Boulevard atelier and flashes those impossibly blue peepers. Hall's shoulders soften. The sun seems to shine a little brighter through the windows. Then Olga demonstrates her catwalk.

To say it's a mix between a trot and a galumph, seasoned with a pinch of frog march, really doesn't say enough. Just know that Hall's face drops and the clouds gather again outside the window.

"Thank you, next," he sighs. Turning to a visitor, he adds, "We'll go through three days of this until we find models who can actually move. I need a glide."

Catwalking: Yes, it's that complicated.

It's Fashion Week in Los Angeles again as spring collections debut Sunday at Smashbox Studios. But in a city stocked with twentysomething women of enviable proportion, designers say they're struggling to find models who can sell a $4,000 gown in less than 60 feet of runway. Unlike New York and Paris, which each boast top-notch gait coaches -- yes, people get paid to teach others how to walk -- designers complain that Los Angeles lacks any runway gurus of real stature.

Compounding the city's strut shortage, stylists say, are the competing fashion weeks in Europe, which siphon much talent away from Los Angeles; the irresistible acting bug, which distracts many local models from taking the time to practice a good glide; and a puny high-fashion economy compared to such meccas as Paris, Milan, London or New York. Unlike the living clothes hangers lucky or talented enough to work in a couture capital, Los Angeles models are often expected to work for "trade," that is, in exchange for clothes rather than cash. And, designers lament, you get what you pay for.

"Slim pickings," New York fashion wunderkind Kevin Johnn hisses of Los Angeles models. Johnn plans to show his new spring collection Monday at Culver City's Smashbox Studios, the hub of L.A. Fashion Week. But despite a sponsorship deal with local agency Photogenix, casting won't be easy, he says. "It's just hard to find girls in L.A. They're less experienced on the catwalk. The walk in L.A. isn't as confident."

As for local models, they say learning a good catwalk can take days, if not weeks, of practice. Even after years of experience on a runway, models say they routinely field acidic complaints.

"Better believe the designer is going to tell you whether you're doing it right or wrong," says Jasmine Dustin, who has modeled full time in Los Angeles for five years and is walking for the L.A.-based J. & Company denim label this season. According to a label publicist, finding decent walkers was so hard this year that the firm had to look within its own circle -- Dustin is the roommate of a J & Company executive.

"Designers will tell you right away, don't do this, don't do that," Dustin says. Not that it gets any easier after all that instruction. Producers routinely post reminders backstage at fashion shows, hammering home the preferred style of walk -- "no hands on hips," "no smiling" or, in the case of New York-based Heatherette, which occasionally shows in Los Angeles, "just have fun," followed by several exclamation points. It isn't that the models are stupid -- though it can sometimes appear that way, as when several hopefuls at the Hall casting session seemed unable to walk in the L shape he repeatedly requested. It's that the often-exhausted women can work a half a dozen shows a day, each requiring a different strut.

Some clients prefer models to place one foot precisely in front of the other, a literal "cat walk." Others like their models to accentuate hips by crossing their legs in front of one another. There's the "horse trot," popularized by towering super-Brazilian Gisele Bundchen a few years ago. There's the unlabeled, bouncier step preferred for casual wear, said to be demonstrated well by model Angela Lindvall. There's the "slouch," which took London by storm last year and left fashion writers bewildered. There's the sulky, grungy walk involving glowering models with almost no hips. And there's "the glide," official gait of the $30,000 couturier.

"I try not to do that whole horse-trot thing," says blond, 22-year-old Dustin, who has never had a walking coach. "Some girls just look like those little poodle dogs. I have no idea where they pick that up.... And some girls look like they've got their heads, like, halfway down their backs, and you're not supposed to do that either."

Physics of the catwalk

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