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Back On The Radar

Randolph Duke, master of red-carpet glamour, returns to the runway to open L.A. Fashion Week.

September 30, 2007|Adam Tschorn | Times Staff Writer

After a seven-year absence from the runway, designer Randolph Duke, known for his form-fitting evening gowns, red-carpet clientele and explosive temper, has chosen the opening night of L.A. fashion week to mount his catwalk comeback.

"If you're a fashion designer and you don't do a fashion show, people think you're dead," Duke said, explaining the decision he made barely two months ago. "Like a ballet dancer that's not dancing, it's a sad thing. You're just not on the radar."

Since he took his final bow during New York fashion week in September 2000, Duke's hardly been back-of-the-milk-carton missing -- he hawks $25 million worth of his lower-priced clothing and accessory line annually on the HSN shopping channel, offers made-to-order dresses and evening gowns out of his Sunset Boulevard atelier, appears on ABC 7 as a fashion commentator for the Oscars and published a style guide called "The Look" last year.

But Duke said he's only been up to the challenge of a runway collection since finishing his last major project -- building a new home in the Hollywood Hills. A soaring slice of slate, granite and glass that juts out of the hillside above Fairfax Avenue, it offers visitors a view from Pasadena to the Pacific Ocean. When the glass panels that form the facade slide out of sight, the house feels as if it has no walls, which makes it an appropriate setting for Duke to announce his reentry to the fashion fray, since he says he's had to tear down a few walls of his own making.

After he made a name for himself first at Halston and later with his own label, Duke compiled a client list almost as long as the red carpet itself (Minnie Driver, Kim Basinger, Angelina Jolie, for starters). By 2000, he had established himself as the go-to guy for glamorous award-show gowns and seemed to be at the peak of his game when Hilary Swank strode to the stage in a bronze Randolph Duke number to accept her Oscar that March for "Boys Don't Cry."

But he was already in a spiral. That same month, his former personal assistant, Maureen Walsh, filed a sexual-harassment suit against him, which fueled his reputation as temperamental and difficult to work with and which landed him in the tabloids. The final blow was a split with his financial backers (San Antonio Spurs owners Peter and Julianna Holt) that forced him to shutter his New York-based label.

"It was sad," he says. "My last employee was this little Tibetan man who chopped the furniture up at night and secretly put the pieces in garbage bins around SoHo because there wasn't even anyone who would come take our pattern tables." Saddled with a huge amount of corporate debt, Duke says, he pretty much "crawled back" to L.A. and unraveled.

He started the HSN home-shopping gig in mid-2001, an arrangement that gave him the freedom to create without having to deal with the business side.

The harassment suit was settled in 2002, and by 2003, just as he was pulling out of a two-year depressive tail spin, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. "It taught me how to watch my mind and how to think," Duke says.

"I know it sounds like psychobabble, but I never realized how catastrophically and dramatically I thought about everything. And that spills off onto other people." He credits self-help books and programs such as Byron Katie's "Loving What Is" with turning him around.

He now talks openly about the tabloid-worthy temper that reportedly sent an employee scrambling over a hotel fence to avoid him. "I take responsibility for yelling at people," he says. "I take responsibility for driving people to work harder than they could. That year for the Oscars I had a staff of six people working 20 hours a day, and it was too much for them, and they broke."

By 2004, he'd beaten the prostate cancer ("It was radical surgery; they took the whole sucker out," he says) and was flush enough from his HSN dealings that he started looking for a place to build his dream manse. He found it in the Hollywood Hills, not far, he points out from a deck overlooking the city, from where Kanye West lives.

The house, designed by XTEN Architecture, is an interplay of organic elements -- back windows face a tapestry of cacti, native grasses, fruit and palm trees. The indoor-outdoor floors are a white pebbled surface, and the walls are mostly glass and mirror. Wood and stone accents abound. He calls the look "glam-organic" and says it was a very big influence on the 40 pieces he's sending down the runway the opening night of fashion week Oct. 14.

"L.A. is about wind and breeze and sun and light, and I tried to capture all of those elements. How do you convey mist and fog in the morning? That's what I was trying to do. You'll see lots of stone and sand tones and plant-life colors like aloe vera, agave and silver blue cacti."

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