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Raven Kauffman: evolution of an evening-bag designer

She used to shop for a living -- at the highest end of the market. Now the former 'luxury lifestyle consultant' is letting her creativity fly.

August 23, 2009|BOOTH MOORE | FASHION CRITIC

Imagine buying so many outfits at Neiman Marcus that you need a moving truck to get them all home. Or ringing up 20 pairs of Christian Louboutin stilettos at a clip.

The only catch? None of it is for you.

That's just another day at the office for "luxury lifestyle consultant" Raven Kauffman. The former wardrobe stylist and fashion publicist came by the job accidentally in 2001 when a hotel concierge asked if she could take a guest shopping. That turned into a permanent personal shopping gig, and other clients soon came calling.

For the last few years, Kauffman has spent millions on art, cars and gifts for a handful of Southern California's wealthiest people, who did not have the time (or sometimes the taste) to spend it themselves. Spending for a living has showed her the pleasures that money can bring, as well as the pain. And now that the economy is forcing everyone to rethink, she is shopping less and dreaming more.

Not that she is renouncing fashion exactly, but rather designing it herself. Because if there is anything Kauffman has learned from having her finger on the pulse of the luxury lifestyle, it's what makes something desirable. She recently launched her own line of evening bags. Less "it" accessories than timeless objets d'art, they're so striking you don't know whether to carry them or to display them on your mantle. They are made with exquisite materials, including beetle wings, pheasant feathers, semi-precious stones and Art Nouveau laser-cut metal plates depicting flowers and birds.

They're the sort of pieces she might have sought out for her clients -- all people outside the entertainment industry. There is the multi-billionaire with a penchant for collecting everything from Bakelite jewelry to Dior Couture. Kauffman has amassed 1,000 distinct collections for her, cataloging, preserving, storing and caring for them, as well as creating accompanying reference libraries.

And the executive who handed Kauffman his black American Express card and said, "Make my life beautiful." It was a task that involved custom designing his suits, decorating his houses and the interior of his plane, selecting his cars -- everything down to choosing the photos of his wife and children to go on his desk.

Then there is the housewife who wanted an unforgettable birthday present for her husband -- 50 extraordinary gifts for 50 extraordinary years. The goodies Kauffman came up with included a Picasso, a new wardrobe, a vintage Patek Philippe clock and a trip to Las Vegas on a private plane with $25,000 worth of poker chips inside.

She developed a style questionnaire to help get to know her clients, but has used it only once -- just seeing them is usually enough. "If I got a visual on them, I pretty much knew by the end of the meeting what to do," she says. "And being allowed into their personal space helped."

In the beginning, Kauffman remembers, it was difficult having so many pretty things around her. She would buy something for a client and something for herself.

"I won't say I was jealous; I was envious. Sometimes just having it in my house for 24 hours, because I would bring things home and then deliver them to clients, I was able to say, 'OK, I'm done with it.' But it definitely fueled my desire for more stuff, and I definitely amassed more stuff than any person needs in the eight years I did this level of personal shopping." At the height of her business, she employed three full-time assistants, more during the holidays when she was in charge of gift-giving for her 11 clients.

It's easy to see how her business got rolling. There is something intoxicating about Kauffman's personal style -- she's a more eccentric version of Martha Stewart. In her house, she transformed a basic IKEA mirror into a showpiece with a glue gun and some seashells, and an IKEA desk into an Art Deco accessory with a little glitter, paint and a traced Erte design. She strung the coral chandelier in her dining room herself and put a disco ball in her fireplace.

Her closet is full of high-drama clothes -- jeweled Tory Burch tunics, a vintage 1920s gown that makes her look as if she were "tattooed in gold," she says, and a gorilla fur jacket bought from a showgirl in Las Vegas for $200.

The daughter of a knitwear designer and an interior decorator, Kauffman, who grew up on a farm in Pennsylvania, is inspired by history's rare birds (Diana Vreeland, Peggy Guggenheim, Elsie de Wolfe), and could just be one herself. It was "Infinite Variety," a book by Scot D. Ryersson and Michael Orlando Yaccarino about Marchesa Luisa Casati, the Italian aristocrat who kept cheetahs for pets, and whose former home is now the Guggenheim Museum in Venice, that inspired Kauffman to become a designer.

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