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End of an era

In his 23 years at Ron Herman, John Eshaya defined Southern California style. Now the store is losing its designer focus. And Eshaya is out.

January 27, 2008|Enid Portuguez | Times Staff Writer

THE buzz circulating in downtown showrooms during the recent market week was not about emerging trends or a secret sale at Barneys. It was the news that John Eshaya, the celebrated women's wear buyer and creative director at the Ron Herman stores, who helped define Southern California style by discovering such influential brands as Juicy Couture, BCBG and Earl Jean, had left the company after 23 years.

"It was time for me to leave," Eshaya said in a phone interview. "I've been there since 1984, and I've reinvented the store over and over. It was time for me to do my own thing and let someone else take the reins. I can't be 50 years old and running around the [sales] floor playing Madonna."

Because Eshaya, 41, has become as synonymous with the stores as their namesake Ron Herman, news of his exit came as a surprise to everyone in the fashion industry, from newbie sales reps to power players.

"I was shocked to hear John was leaving like everyone else was," says Betsee Isenberg, co-owner of the Bank, a collection of showrooms that counts Diane von Furstenberg, Theory and Lacoste as clients. "He's become an institution in this business, iconic in his own right."

"While doing 10 things at once, he still always had time to consult for every line that asked him for input," says Isenberg, who has been selling designer lines to Eshaya since he "had hair down to his waist" and was assisting former Ron Herman buyer Mara White.

Eshaya insists that the breakup was mutual and not wholly unexpected now that Herman plans to take the stores in a more casual direction.

"There were no hard feelings, no drama, nothing," Eshaya says. "Ron came from the T-shirt world, and that's what he is passionate about. For me, if it's not a dress and doesn't sparkle, what's the point?"

Herman had no comment on Eshaya's departure. He did say that the stores will undergo a change as soon as this fall.

The shift, according to Eshaya, may partly be a reaction to the sales slump that local retailers have been experiencing.

"With the way the economy is right now, people aren't going to run out and buy $600 or $700 dresses," he says. "Everyone's going to hang on to their cashmere a little longer."

The change comes as no surprise to area store owners. "Financially, it would be a smart decision for Ron Herman to make," says Delia Seaman, owner of Robertson Boulevard boutique Vionnet. "The simpler pieces are the ones that sell."

Mix of street and runway

ESHAYA'S gifted eye for design and talent had been instrumental to the ascent of Ron Herman at Fred Segal as one of the most influential specialty boutiques in L.A., if not the world. In his years there, he has occupied just about every position, including sales associate in the T-shirt section, manager and display window dresser.

"I was the only guy there," Eshaya says. "I started doing the windows because none of the girls would do them."

As Fred Segal Melrose became a top shopping destination for celebrities and fashionistas, Eshaya repeated the formula for Herman's five other boutiques in Southern California and Las Vegas. He also had time to launch T-shirt and denim line JET and Becker-Eshaya fragrances with friend Kristen Becker.

As the women's collection buyer, he cultivated the mix-and-match aesthetic that Los Angeles is now known for by stocking high-end lines such as Marni, Giambattista Valli and Proenza Schouler alongside Citizens of Humanity jeans and James Perse tees.

"I am not sure there is anyone that marries street and runway so successfully," says Ron Herman denim buyer Brian Kaneda. "I was consistently amazed by his work ethic. He is, to me, very much a superstar."

Fashion magazines quoted him, and his approval equaled success for a fashion line. Eshaya's discoveries include Phillip Lim, Earl Jeans, Daryl K, Jovovich-Hawk, Miss Davenporte and Juicy Couture, the multimillion-dollar company co-founded by one of his former employees, Pamela Skaist-Levy.

"John has always believed in us on every level," says Gela Nash-Taylor of Juicy Couture. "When we'd try something new, he'd be the first to buy it. When we were transitioning to do more fashion, he sat us down and talked to us about the fashion element. He's known us since the nitty-gritty, and we consider him family."

"The birth of Miss Davenporte happened hands down at Ron Herman, and it was 100% because of John," says Miss Davenporte co-designer Cristina Ehrlich, who, with design partner Estee Stanley, met Eshaya while both worked as celebrity stylists. "He was the one who told us we should make a line, and he was the one who gave us the guidance to create a collection and open distribution."

Though he no longer works there, Eshaya still plans occasional visits to the Ron Herman stores. "I'll always go there," he says. "That's been my home away from home. The door will always be open."

As for the next steps, Eshaya plans to devote more time to JET, launching a children's line this spring. He also plans to do more consulting, guest editorials and won't rule out the idea of being on television.

"Yeah, why not?" he says. "Just as long as it's not weirdo, phony TV. I wouldn't bag on people or anything like that."


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