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INNER LIFE

Fashionably extreme

If house and owner can be kindred spirits, then clothing designer Sue Wong and her gloriously restored Cedars estate were destined to find each other.

October 12, 2006|Valli Herman | Times Staff Writer

TWO black-clad women crouch uncomfortably beneath a silver lighting reflector, angling the morning glow onto a glittery chiffon dress.

"Give me a seductive smile," says the director to the model, who affects the perfect cocktail-hour allure here in a cactus garden. "Now chin up just a little bit. Hold it -- go!"

Since sunrise, Sue Wong has directed an eight-person team assigned to capture the vintage glamour of her namesake line of beaded cocktail dresses and ball gowns. They've woven tall hairpieces, worried over accessories and pinned lanky models into a handful of the new spring 2007 dresses. For all the meticulous planning, one part of the shoot was easy: finding backdrops.

Wong brought the crew to her Los Feliz mansion, a place so grand and glorious it could be the subject of its own Hollywood comeback story. Wong would star in the tale as the determined heroine who, in record time, rescues the grand dame of Golden Age Hollywood style from a long sad decline.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday November 18, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 105 words Type of Material: Correction
Sue Wong's estate: An Oct. 12 Home section article about fashion designer Sue Wong and the renovation of her Los Feliz estate, the Cedars, quoted Zoltan Papp, who redid the ceilings of the home, as saying that they hadn't been "touched in 80 years." The article also said that the previous owner was a professor who had ignored the upkeep of the home since purchasing it in 1969. In fact, the estate had been sold to another party a few years prior to Wong's purchasing it in 2004, and that owner had done some renovation work, which included the ceilings, before selling it to her.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday November 23, 2006 Home Edition Home Part F Page 5 Features Desk 2 inches; 103 words Type of Material: Correction
Sue Wong's estate: An Oct. 12 Home article about fashion designer Sue Wong and the renovation of her Los Feliz estate, the Cedars, quoted Zoltan Papp, who redid the ceilings of the home, as saying that they hadn't been "touched in 80 years." The article also said that the previous owner was a professor who had ignored the upkeep of the home since purchasing it in 1969. In fact, the estate had been sold to another party a few years before Wong's purchasing it in 2004, and that owner had done some renovation work, which included the ceilings, before selling it to her.

Now, after nearly two years of nonstop work, Wong is ready to open the doors for a rare viewing of the brilliantly revived $5.3-million mansion, just in time for Los Angeles Fashion Week. Wander the halls of this mansion with its 16 rooms and six baths and you'll find beneath the gilt a home that is the architectural equivalent of Wong's signature dresses. Each dress is a spangled and embroidered history of 1920s and '30s glamour gowns.

"It's the first house I've had that is a natural habitat for the clothes," Wong says. "The mood, the romanticism, the opulence, the period feeling, it really works with the clothes."

LOS FELIZ neighbors call the 1926 hilltop villa the Norma Talmadge estate after the silent screen actress who reportedly once lived here. Jimi Hendrix, Dennis Hopper, Lou Reed and late rocker Arthur Lee also were former inhabitants, during some of their most creative years.

Before the 15-acre estate was cut down to less than 1 acre, it was said to be the glamorous hideaway of Hollywood icons such as Bela Lugosi and Ralph Bellamy. Years later, Johnny Depp stayed there as he was channeling Ed Wood. But Wong calls it home, one of three she owns.

For three seasons now, she's photographed her sirens, goddesses and enchantresses twinkling and fluttering in their beaded silk gowns throughout the house and grounds. To give her creations a back story, she's assembled the photos into an image book and will distribute it Sunday at her eighth consecutive appearance at L.A.'s Fashion Week -- an unprecedented run.

As the design head of a $60-million business that spans 23 countries and sells to Saks Fifth Avenue, Macy's and Neiman Marcus, Wong is one of Los Angeles' most enduring and successful fashion designers. She has built a fortune, an international empire and a celebrity following for her richly decorated party dresses, but lately it is here that she keeps her creative fires burning.

Surrounded by the house's imposing majesty, her dresses appear like gentler illustrations of Wong's color palette, design motifs and retro inspiration. Her dress designs are intricate works of art, with an aesthetic that informs her restoration of the Talmadge estate, also known as the Cedars.

The nearly 9,000-square-foot mansion had been a high-speed construction site as workers restored the many carved and gilded ceilings, some adorned with thousands of tiny gilded cherubs. Meanwhile, Wong ordered antiques from around the world, commissioned artwork and designed custom-beaded curtains, lamps and furniture.

"This is the quintessential vintage Hollywood home," says Wong as she begins a tour of the five-bedroom structure, patterned after a 17th century Venetian palazzo. "It's like a movie set, a fabulous one."

Indeed, it's easy to imagine a progression of stars and their admirers dancing in the ballroom, sunning in the solarium and, during the house's hippie heyday, rock stars, sloshed and supine, staring at the many elaborate ceilings -- one a solid stretch of carved acanthus leaves covered in gold leaf, framed by painted scrollwork and dozens of roaring, golden lion faces.

Wong frequently hears tales of the parties, large and small, these walls contained. She even dedicated a purple, Moroccan-themed bedroom suite to Hendrix, who reportedly wrote "Purple Haze" in the violet bathroom.

"Having bought the house, I felt it was my responsibility to be its chatelaine, to be its guardian or caretaker," she said. The effort made the place uninhabitable for a year and a half and cost, says Wong, "in the hundreds of thousands."

Ironically, Wong wasn't looking for a decorating project when she and her business partner and longtime companion, Dieter Raabe, bought the house. They wanted a simpler life and a faster route to their downtown L.A. offices.

"Dieter still considers our house in Malibu our main residence," says Wong. "We found we were losing 80 hours per month for commuting."

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