L.A. Fashion Week gets some cred despite New York dominance

By Solvej Schou

LOS ANGELES – If New York is the Big Apple of American fashion, then Los Angeles with its celebrity-driven boutiques and snug denim style is a juicy – if smaller – orange, ripe for the picking.

Award shows such as the Oscars bring refined glitz to the city. Many clothes are made here. Yet L.A.’s Fashion Week – officially named Mercedes-Benz L.A. Fashion Week – has always felt the pressure of comparisons to super-chic, brand-heavy New York.

Critics cite everything from the L.A. show’s out-of-the-way, industrial venue at Culver City’s Smashbox photo studio to its party image and limited range of designers.

“The expectation is high,” Smashbox Studios co-founder Davis Factor says.

Only recently, four years after producer IMG – the force behind fashion weeks in New York, Berlin and other cities – partnered with Smashbox, has L.A. Fashion Week begun to gain some cred.

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A packed five-day lineup starting Sunday will feature 34 spring collections, including funky L.A.-based Petro Zillia, New York’s feisty Heatherette, Nicky Hilton’s casual Chick line, former Halston designer Randolph Duke, gown impresario Kevan Hall and eco-conscious labels such as Evidence of Evolution.

“We have the best lineup in years,” said IMG Fashion vice president Fern Mallis.

Shows will start earlier, with check-in outside to keep out gate crashers. Audiences will be pared down to bump up professional attendance, and bars won’t be as common to limit drinking, Factor said. A public relations consultant was hired full-time to help out IMG and bring in more notable designers.

Still, this week’s rival, three-day series of fashion events presented by art production company BOXeight closer to the city’s downtown garment district reveals rips in the fabric.

Pointedly named “Have Faith in L.A.,” the BOXeight week is only in its second season, but unlike Fashion Week, it doesn’t charge its featured designers to appear, said BOXeight producer Sarah Shewey. Sponsors include Vitamin Water and American Apparel.

Those showing collections at BOXeight’s ultra-hip venue in an old Catholic cathedral-turned-night club, Vibiana Place, include Louis Verdad, red carpet favorite Eduardo Lucero and rock-centric “Project Runway” winner Jeffrey Sebelia.

“People want to see fashion as art, and there’s no glamour in sitting underneath a tent,” Shewey said of Smashbox. “Downtown, you have wonderful architecture around you.”

Verdad, who has opened and closed Fashion Week two times each, agreed, calling Vibiana “a little younger, hipper, more happening.” His spring collection includes wide-legged and narrow pants, and Grace Kelly inspired dresses.

“Smashbox is doing a terrific job of doing what they’re doing. But a lot of the raw talent of L.A. doesn’t have the amazing income to participate in L.A. Fashion Week,” Verdad said.

Mallis, however, argued it was “shocking” how much cheaper it is to show in L.A. versus New York, where the cost of a main tent is roughly $46,000 instead of $8,000 at Smashbox.

“If the designer doesn’t even have the money to put on a show, they shouldn’t even be in the business,” she said.

Both Factor and Mallis said that when IMG held its own fashion week downtown, before partnering with Smashbox, problems with parking and rush-hour traffic made the events unsuccessful.

“Downtown might please a few people, but Anna Wintour isn’t coming from downtown,” said Factor of the highly selective “Vogue” editor-in-chief, who paid a visit to Verdad’s Fashion Week show a few years ago.

“People love coming to Smashbox. It’s seven minutes from Beverly Hills. It’s centrally located,” he said, adding that he would consider moving the shows to a larger venue such as the Beverly Hilton when Fashion Week gains more sponsors and well-known designers.

Pink-haired Petro Zillia designer Nony Tochterman, who named her Fashion Week closing show “So L.A.,” said that while fashion in L.A. “looks better than we looked five years ago,” due to celebrity-influenced party and evening wear, those financially able still show in New York as a launching pad.

Steven Kolb, executive director of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, noted that 10 years ago, there were only five CFDA members from California. Now there are around 40.

However, he added, “A designer ultimately needs to take that bridge and go show in New York. New York is the center of publishing, and there’s more connection on the same level of Milan and London.”

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