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Gregory Parkinson's winning style

The L.A.-based fashion designer's philosophy: 'Never play it safe.'

May 29, 2011|By Steffie Nelson | Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • British-born fashion designer Gregory Parkinson has garnered both fashion industry plaudits and retailer support.
British-born fashion designer Gregory Parkinson has garnered both fashion… (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles…)

In 2008, at the peak of the financial crisis and with the disappointing sales figures of his last collection hanging over him, Los Angeles-based fashion designer Gregory Parkinson went for broke, using rare fabrics from his archive to create his most spectacular collection to date.

Presented in actress Shiva Rose's garden one spring afternoon, the sexy, off-the-shoulder blouses, long floral skirts, pretty sleeveless dresses and chic metallic tunics drew comparisons to Yves Saint Laurent's Ballet Russes collection and the luxe hippie style of Zandra Rhodes. The event was a triumph, and it taught Parkinson an important lesson that he lives by today: "Never play it safe."

Parkinson's label is one that has weathered and perhaps even thrived through the economic downturn that delivered a blow from which the fashion industry is only now rebounding. In Los Angeles, numerous boutiques closed and the city's fashion week unraveled, but Parkinson was among a few nimble designers who adjusted to the demands of a new reality.

The British-born Parkinson learned that in a market dominated by status brands with ludicrous price tags, a new kind of customer was emerging for whom quality, craftsmanship and originality had more value than

logos. And the more he has allowed his unique sense of color, fantasy, opulence and ease to come into play, the more his star has continued to rise.

Last June, 16 years after launching his line, Parkinson was chosen as one of 10 finalists in the Council of Fashion Designers of America/Vogue Fashion Fund, which helps "emerging" designers grow their brands. Although Billy Reid, Prabal Gurung and Eddie Borgo won the competition, Parkinson believes he may have gotten more from the experience than anyone.

"Everyone says it's not about the winning, and up until the point when the winners are announced that's not true," the soft-spoken designer said with a smile, sipping tea at a bold yellow dining table in his downtown L.A. duplex. "It is about the winning, and then in retrospect, it really isn't. To get such great exposure from the CFDA and Vogue introduced me to a whole different audience and reintroduced me to my existing customers."

That exposure continues: Parkinson learned Thursday he is one of 10 former Fashion Fund finalists selected to participate in a shared showroom in Paris in October, as part of a new fund initiative to help young designers gain more international attention.

Tastemakers and fashion insiders have been devoted to Parkinson for years. His designs are sold in Barneys (which is exclusively carrying a new line of beach bags this season). And retail legend Linda Dresner — who stocked John Galliano, Commes des Garçons and Jil Sander in her boutiques when they were unknowns — has bought every collection.

But the Fashion Fund, with its implicit stamp of approval from Vogue editor Anna Wintour, offered a platform to relaunch the Gregory Parkinson brand after he and his longtime partner Therese Tran decided to lower their prices. (During the economic downturn, "it was the only way we could compete," he said.)

Already burning the midnight oil at their fashion district studio every season to make samples (Tran cutting, Parkinson sewing), they changed construction methods and cut down on overhead, without sacrificing artistry. And now an average top retails for $200 to $400, instead of up to $800. This kind of flexibility is one of the advantages of being a small business, and, needless to say, the buyers didn't complain.

In stores now, the spring-summer 2011 collection that Parkinson presented to Fashion Fund judges — including Wintour and J. Crew's Jenna Lyons in New York last September, and again in October at a star-studded fashion show here at the Chateau Marmont — is an explosion of color, pattern and texture that belies its simple, wearable silhouettes. Animal prints are paired with patchwork florals, layers of multicolored tie-dyed silks are cinched with polka-dot belts, and some pieces are dip-dyed just at the hems, creating a continuous color spectrum from head to toe.

"They're so luscious, it sort of makes you think of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' or something," raved Susan Stone, owner of the Santa Monica designer boutique Savannah, which has long carried Parkinson's clothes. "His technique has evolved to a very sophisticated level."

That sophistication didn't escape the eye of Ikram Goldman, who picked up the spring collection for her Chicago store and promptly put her most celebrated client, Michelle Obama, in a fuchsia leopard-print skirt trimmed with purple. Obviously, it's an honor and a coup for any designer to dress the first lady, but for Parkinson it's also confirmation that he can connect with that new customer. "For all the women who think 'I can't wear this,' to see it on somebody like Michelle Obama, it's like, 'OK, maybe I can wear it.'"

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