It's not every designer whose first collection lands in Maxfield, L.A.'s temple to high fashion. Not everyone gets a full page in Elle magazine right out of the gate either, or creates a scarf -- covered with regiments of skulls -- that's so chic it's been photographed draped over Lindsay Lohan's shoulders and wrapped around Sienna Miller's waist.
But Paula Thomas has paid her dues as a model, stylist and shadow designer, and her new neo-gothic line Thomas Wylde proves it was worth it. In a mere two months, the label has become the must-have for young Hollywood. Alicia Keys, Cameron Diaz and Charlize Theron are also going wild for Wylde.
Sure, skulls are everywhere (on Vans sneakers, on Lucien Pellat-Finet cashmere sweaters and in Luella Bartley's forthcoming line for Target). And rock 'n' roll is being heralded as a big trend going forward into spring. But Thomas' designs are subtle enough to make fans out of the most refined women -- silk caftans and chiffon baby-doll dresses in skull prints, lambskin bolero jackets with detachable sleeves suspended from silk ribbons, whisper-weight T-shirts screen-printed with abstracted blood cells and slouchy leather hobo bags with skull stud work. Prices range from $140 for a T-shirt to $3,500 for a leather jacket.
"We see a lot of rock 'n' roll clothes," says Sarah Stewart, head buyer for Maxfield. "But this line has a feminine edge and a specific point of view."
Stewart said the spring collection, called "Black Summer," shipped in December and is almost sold out. "The bags were gone in a day and a half."
The line has been quickly snapped up by other stores too, including Linda Dresner in New York, L'Eclaireur in Paris, Harvey Nichols in Hong Kong and Browns in London.
"It's kind of a feminine Chrome Hearts," Thomas, 40, says at her Venice studio, which opens up onto a yard with a long, skinny lap pool. She lives in an airy house in back, which she's been renting since last year.
The line is named for Thomas' Welsh grandfather, Robert Thomas, and her great-grandmother Catherine Wylde. Thomas was born in Birmingham, Britain, but she comes across as a tough-talking California surfer chick with a mess of long blond hair, tanned skin, skull print sweat pants and Ugg boots.
Her experience in the fashion business began at age 17, when she was hired to be a Bond girl in the 1985 film "A View to a Kill." A modeling contract followed. She was a cover girl for 15 years, appearing in magazines such as the Face and ID. She even remembers walking the runway in Alexander McQueen's first show.
Thomas befriended the young British designer Julien MacDonald, becoming his muse, then his sales manager and eventually the chief executive of his company. The partnership lasted until MacDonald was hired to head Givenchy in 2001.
Thomas spent two seasons designing for Italian designer Stefano Guerriero but by 2003 was ready to move to L.A. permanently. She had been back and forth throughout the 1990s, when she was married to an aspiring actor.
Most recently, she worked as a stylist for commercials and for the L.A.-based designer Jenni Kayne. Then, last year, the time felt right to launch her own collection. As luck would have it, she met a backer at a dinner party, Houston socialite Valerie Sarofim.
"It's not a silent partnership -- she sells, she comes to Paris with me -- it's a bit like 'Ab Fab,' " Thomas says of her pal Sarofim.
Thomas is as blown away as anyone by her fast success. She believes the key is research. She spent four years developing the prints, drawing and designing on a computer. "That was how I was going to brand the line. I wanted to be able to take the prints through every season, so people could recognize them without seeing the label."
It also didn't hurt that Thomas is a regular on Hollywood's party circuit, especially at Teddy's bar, Amanda Scheer Demme's even more exclusive club at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel.
"Sienna Miller I feel like I know, even though we've never met," the designer says of her first celebrity client. "I sent her everything in a carrier bag and said, 'If you like this, wear it.' She is the epitome of the woman I design for -- rock 'n' roll and sophisticated."
Now Thomas is busy designing some very Georgia O'Keeffe cow skull prints and lambskin boots with black diamond crosses on them. She's also planning for an art installation related to her clothing designs at Ace Gallery later this year titled "Something Wicked This Way Comes."
"I don't think the rock edge will ever die, nor should it," she says. "It's not about what you wear but a spirit in your soul."
A noseful in store
You go out of your way to discover the designer nobody has ever heard of, so why not the perfume?
LuckyScent, a website (luckyscent.com) specializing in hard-to-find fragrances, now has a store called Scent Bar on Beverly Boulevard in West Hollywood. The place stocks more than 90 fragrances, which owner Franco Wright helps customers navigate with the panache of a sommelier.