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A New Class For L.a.

Meet the young designers who are changing the city's dress code. And they don't do denim.

March 18, 2007|Mimi Avins | Times Staff Writer

NOT everyone's gotten the memo yet, but the dress code from Echo Park nightclubs to Culver City galleries is changing. A renewed elegance is replacing L.A.'s relaxed signature style, thanks in part to a rising school of designers bent on creating clothes as sophisticated as they are beautifully made.

The city's restaurant, architecture and art scenes have grown up, motivating women who once would have gone everywhere in jeans to up their game. For some, the price of spiffing up is not a problem: Los Angeles now has the most millionaires of any county in America -- four times as many as New York.

"This is a much more cosmopolitan place than it was when I was a kid, when there were horse stables on La Cienega," says designer Jasmin Shokrian, one of the standouts. "Many of my clients are Hollywood producers who have impeccable taste. They're in strong professional positions, and they want what they wear to tip people off that they're risk takers."

Shokrian is among L.A.'s young design sophisticates, along with Monique Lhuillier, Kate and Laura Mulleavy of Rodarte, Juan Carlos Obando, Katy Rodriguez, Rosetta Getty of Riser Goodwyn, Jenni Kayne and Stephanie Schur of Michon Schur.

Each has caught the attention of retailers and fashion editors around the world.

"We're seeing some true designers emerge from Los Angeles," says Beth Buccini, co-owner of the trendsetting New York boutique Kirna Zabete. "The Rodarte sisters are leading the pack with intellectual, incredibly designed, well-executed collections." Paradoxically, the members of this classy new class of designers -- individualists, all -- have so much in common that it suggests there must be something in the water. They all say having a life in Los Angeles is important to them, and the city influences their aesthetic. They maintain that quality and craftsmanship are key. They think like artists, and don't see their work as disposable. "I want to make something that will last," says Schur, "that you can have in your closet for 20 years."

There were always California designers who made clothes so timeless they are still coveted by collectors. James Galanos, Rudi Gernreich, Holly Harp and Richard Tyler set up shop here, and refused to move their headquarters to New York or Europe. Shokrian shows her line to buyers in a hotel suite in Paris twice a year. Lhuillier, Schur, Kayne and the Mulleavy sisters acknowledge that participating in New York Fashion Week has been crucial to their commercial success.

"When I started my business 10 years ago," Lhuillier says, "the buyers I was trying to reach and the pool of fashion editors weren't here to see my work and put it in the magazines. I kind of felt isolated." Her company, the most established of the bunch, projects sales of $25 million in 2007.

Obando's collection kicks off Fashion Week at Smashbox Studios today. It will be his fifth L.A. show, but he isn't necessarily staying: "I'd like my collection to develop here before I show it in New York."

Extraordinary attention to detail and fine fabrics elevate the cost of these collections. With price tags from $450 to $2,000-plus come an exclusivity the designers welcome. After all, they never set out to design for everyone.

"It starts with what I want to wear and what I can't seem to find," says Rodriguez, echoing her peers. "I wanted grown-up clothes that were still cute." Cute, yes. Also pretty, feminine, refined, even edgy. Sporty? Casual? Not so much. Time to retire the charge that California girls never get out of their yoga pants.

Don't hate them for being well-connected. Schur's husband, Jordan, is president of Geffen Records. Getty is married to Balthazar Getty, one of the stars of ABC's "Brothers and Sisters," and a great-grandson of industrialist John Paul Getty. Kayne's father, Richard, is one of the founders of a $7-billion investment management firm. "My mother is into art and fashion, and I was exposed to a lot in Los Angeles," she said. "I went to my first big Chanel charity show here when I was 8 years old. I knew I wanted to be a designer then."

Obando, who emigrated from Colombia 10 years ago, worked as an advertising agency creative director here, a position that sparked his desire to build a global brand. He is typical of these entrepreneurial designers, who never dreamed of working for someone else. Starting out, some were self-financed. Others received capital infusions from relatives or small investors. Some studied fashion design. Several did not.

They've all been schooled in publicity, and know the value of a celebrity mannequin. Their frocks show up on discerning ingenues who want to be photographed in something less va-va-voom than the prevailing notion of Hollywood glamour. If a more understated chic comes to rule the red carpet, the influence of this group will grow exponentially.

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