If you doubted that fashion has a bigger presence in L.A. than it has had in years, consider the last few days.
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa turned up for a series of runway shows at the spectacular new downtown venue, the former St. Vibiana's Cathedral -- and had to take a seat in the second row. Gen Art, the showcase for young talent, marked its 10th anniversary in L.A. with a massive production at the Petersen Automotive Museum. At a fashion week kickoff dinner at Mr. Chow in Beverly Hills, Jenni Kayne and Jeremy Scott reveled with the likes of Vincent Gallo, Brent Bolthouse and the Ribisis (actor Giovanni and designer sis Marissa). You couldn't go two steps without tripping over "Project Runway" winner Jeffrey Sebelia, who showed his own collection and emceed another.
And all of that was before Fashion Week officially started Sunday night.
Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week at Smashbox Studios has been L.A.'s official fashion week since 2002, but in the Wild West-like landscape that is L.A. fashion, it wouldn't take much to topple the empire. And at these shows for the spring '08 season, two arts organizations are gaining traction among designers and the local fashion flock: BOXeight, which staged the St. Vibiana's shows, and Gen Art. The outsider organizations staged their own runway presentations last weekend, spotlighting a wide swath of veterans and newbies in L.A. fashion. No one's writing off Smashbox yet, but those shows were at least as engaging as the lot we've seen so far this week at Smashbox.
Gen Art's Fresh Faces in Fashion has long been L.A.'s most engaging show, spotlighting collections from up-and-coming designers. Its alumni are impressive: Katy Rodriguez, Geren Ford, Society for Rational Dress, Grey Ant and Michelle Mason. The designers have historically been more fashion-forward than the Smashbox set, and this year was no different.
The BOXeight shows drew a mixed bag of revelers -- from the fashion-forward and local retailers to a guy with gold teeth who exposed himself to a cringing circle of party-goers in the garden. (Yes, he was invited.)
The shows -- Cosa Nostra by Jeffrey Sebelia, Louis Verdad, Eduardo Lucero and the Bohemian Society -- offered up a handful of shining moments, but more often felt random, as if the looks in each presentation were created by a committee instead of a single mind.
Sebelia, who staged his first post-"Project Runway" show last season, proved once again that his strengths lie in rocker-inspired menswear. His skinny, treated jeans (some looked as if they'd been dipped in wax), a hooded blazer and artsy peg-legged pants were among the collection's best looks. But his ideas for women were all over the map -- from skinny jeans and 1950s-style sundresses to voluminous silhouettes rendered in Missoni-style knits (hemmed to an unfriendly midcalf length). The rampant overstyling accentuated the lack of cohesion -- Victorian spats simply don't work with everything.
L.A. veteran -- and former Smashbox stalwart -- Louis Verdad showed more restraint. He offered up one of his most commercial collections yet, managing to parlay his love of curvaceous silhouettes from the 1940s and 1950s into more modern-feeling looks. Cuffed, pleated short-shorts, puff-sleeved, knee-length plaid dresses and printed pencil skirts hinted at early celluloid sirens without falling into retro-land -- saved by updated cuts and fabrics. Despite Verdad's reputation as a fit fanatic (remember the sharply cut looks Madonna wore?), some of the pieces suffered from shoddy tailoring.
Precision was the name of the game at Eduardo Lucero, whose experience as a designer and tailor of custom gowns always translates to glove-like fits on the runway. For spring he created a series of all-black looks that conjured images of mafioso widows -- lace head scarves, a strapless lace dress with a fitted bodice and voluminous skirt and a "Godfather"-style funeral suit with a full skirt. The dark series gave way to a mash-up of dress shapes and styles -- a saucy one-shouldered pleated black frock and a floaty, Grecian-like cream confection with gold brocade trim.
Lucero made a fan out of Villaraigosa, who, when asked after the show if he liked what he saw, said incredulously, "Are you kidding me?" (He added that he'd like L.A. Fashion Week to come back to downtown, where it started in 2002. "This is where the industry is," he said.)
The moment of quiet chic didn't last long.
The Bohemian Society presentation finally started at 12:35 a.m., and you could hardly say it was worth the wait. There was a parade of male models in nondescript white pants and sleeveless zip-front jackets in ostentatious fur and distressed white leather, followed by a series of unwearable pieces for women, including a white, fringed leather shoulder piece and an elongated white blazer that screamed "amusement-park magician." Mercy.