""BEST OF THE WEST

Byline: Kim-Van Dang and Natalie Rooney

LOS ANGELES--Absent for five years and in the planning for the past eight months,made an auspicious comeback over the weekend.
Aiming for an audience of both retailers and media, the event seeks to throw a national spotlight on West Coast designers and featured spring lines in back-to-back runway tent shows organized by the California Mart. It brought together about 300 retailers and 55 press people from across the country who sat through showings by 58 designers in two days despite record-breaking 90-degree heat.
Said a mart spokesman,"Attendance exceeded our expectations for the first time out of the gate after the long hiatus. In response to designer requests, we changed our focus from press to retailers and were very pleased with their strong response. It's a different animal, and we can't wait for the next time. Spring Preview is now established as an annual event."
Maurice (Corky) Newman said he is even looking into holding a fall preview.
Representing retailers were heads of major buying offices as well as executives from Jacobson's, Dillard's, Burdines, Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus, Lord & Taylor, Macy's West, Nordstrom, Victoria's Secret, Robinson's May, Hudson's Bay of Canada, Liverpool of Mexico and Debenham's of England.
No fashion show here would be complete without a celebrity or two. Actress Lara Flynn Boyle showed up to cheer on the Van Buren team wearing its white corset dress and powder blue feather boa. Perky talk-show host Ricki Lake paraded several David Dart outfits on the runway, striking poses for the photographers.
Ex-James Bond girl Maud Adams opened the Democracy show in a Tencel outfit and closed it with a big smooch for designer Michael Glasser. Jennifer Grey attended with star-magnet Pamela Barish and wore one of Barish's signature red velvet gowns.
Designers also punctuated the shows with runway-bound toddlers, dogs and muscle men, all whipping up enthusiasm.
"This is super, terrific," said Julie Magner, divisional merchandise manager of women's wear for Hudson's Bay Co., a Toronto-based department store with 102 doors in Canada. "I can't believe that more buyers aren't here. We're getting an exciting overview of what's happening. Everything in the shows is extremely salable, commercial."
Enumerating some eye-catchers, Magner continued: "Van Buren's 'Slick, Wet and Wild' group features items such as corsets and HotPants that are traditionally scary, but they did it well. Their colors are hot. And we love David Dart. His line is not in Canada yet, and we can't wait to bring it in. We usually shop Los Angeles once a year, but Preview is making us think that we should come at least twice a year. The importance of casual, unstructured clothing is growing."
Louella S. Hundt, vice president and general merchandise manager for A Pea In The Pod, a maternity wear chain based in Irving, Tex., with 68 doors, echoed the sentiment.
"The California attitude works for our customers," said Hundt, who seeks items here that can be adapted to maternity wear. "Consumers today are very trend-oriented and the trends, including relaxed, unconstricting silhouettes in natural fibers, originate here. The tent show is a great idea, too. It makes me feel like I'm in New York or Europe with less hassle."
The weekend culminated in a black-tie California Designer Awards dinner at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel, Sunday. Sponsored by Price Waterhouse, the event attended by 700 industry members raised money for L.A. Shanti, an organization providing educational and emotional support for people affected by HIV and AIDS.
Big winners of the evening were David Dart, named Designer of the Year, and Johnathon Hoenscheidt for Freewear, who took the Rising Star award. Both produce casual clothing in unconstructed shapes and natural fabrics.
"California freedom won tonight," summed up designer Elisabetta Rogiani. "This is what people look to California for. This is what people here really wear and it makes sense that David and Johnathon should win."
A national 35-member committee comprised of retailers, buying offices and media voted for the Designer of the Year prior to the weekend, while the Rising Star winner was selected by retailers and press at the awards dinner.
Rising Star awards are given to firms that have been in business no more than two years.
"It hasn't sunk in yet," Dart said an hour after receiving the crystal statuette. Of his winning designs, he said: "I want to stay new, but also in my realm of neutral colors. It's the same formula, interpreted time after time."
"Wow," exclaimed Hoenscheidt, clutching his award. "I've been doing this for 12 years under one label or another. To finally be recognized is overwhelming."
This year, Dart expects to gross $44 million. Hoenscheidt places Freewear annual wholesale volume at about $12 million.
Although their commercially viable lines took top honors, offbeat offerings served up by other award nominees proved that nonconformity has its place here. Designer of the Year nominee Bonnie Strauss paraded ball gowns for bad girls, pairing hoop skirts with lug-sole boots and cinch-and-lift corsets that sometimes revealed bare breasts.
Van Buren's Maggie Barry and Ty Moore, also up for Designer of the Year, paid homage to Seventies disco babes, with models in strappy five-inch stiletto heels and skimpy skirts of the same length. Rising Star nominee Pamela Barish kept hemlines in check but raised eyebrows with big black organza sashes, wound mummy-style around candy-colored party dresses. Can-can feather headdresses topped off the look.
Others kept their designs streamlined. Designer of the Year nominee Leon Max for Max Studio mastered the little dress in dainty floral prints and career grays. Rising Star nominee Janet Howard for Misc. showed shrunken, elemental sportswear, including sheer hip-hugging track pants and tennis-white polo sets and dresses.
Fred and Fati Moschery, Rising Star nominees for Moschery, tailored a variety of sherbet-shade suit jackets, nipped at the waist and paired with leg-elongating cigarette pants and short skirts. Rising Star nominees Michael and Doris Lew for Imaginary Concepts, who won the same California Mart honor for their men's wear designs earlier this year, demonstrated their easy signature style in natural fiber wrap skirts and shirt jackets.
Built around the preview weekend was a slew of other fashion-related activities: the Fashion Industries Guild dinner honoring Dorothy Schoelen, designer and owner of Platinum and benefiting Cedars-Sinai Medical Center; a trend show by Directives West buying office; a Barbara Fields Buying Office fashion show honoring Chorus Line; Bisou Bisou's spring collection show at the New Mart; Jou Jou's party at Renaissance restaurant and nightclub; cocktail parties at the Switch U.S.A. showroom and Rampage Beverly Center store; a Sirena swimwear dinner at Back on Broadway restaurant; Faith Couture's fashion show at Tatou restaurant and nightclub; Divine Design's kick-off party at the Pacific Design Center, and "Coast To Coast"--the International Swimwear and Activewear Market bash at Union Station.

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