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Cardona Set for Cerruti Challenge

David Cardona, who has signed on as designer for the house of Cerruti, shares some of his thoughts on the subject.

LOS ANGELES — For David Cardona, the headiest challenge in recent weeks hasn’t been the long trips from here to Milan and back, stretched out by war-time security checks, or even the jet lag.

The hardest thing for the West Los Angeles-based designer — who is better known for his attention-grabbing celebrity concoctions than the sharply tailored line that is the basis of his $5 million retail business — has been keeping mum about his new role at Cerruti, the Paris brand with offices around Milan.

As reported last week, Cardona has been named head designer for women’s Cerruti Arte and 1881 diffusion lines. A formal announcement was released Tuesday, yet the contract stipulates the hire is effective March 1, 2003, confirming weeks of speculation that Cardona had begun work there. It comes as a U.S. flagship on Rodeo Drive is set to open May 13.

In an e-mail reply to WWD on Tuesday, Gianluigi Facchini, president of parent firm Fin.part, explained the hire: “The woman described by David Cardona is the same one that Cerruti has always described: sensual, sophisticated and modern. The spirit of Los Angeles, brought by Cardona, will give a more dynamic and energetic look to Cerruti.”

More telling was the official release, which noted that Cardona’s celebrity relationships, from dressing Anjelica Huston to Janet Jackson, “confirm” the brand’s goal to “embrace” that world.

The appointment doesn’t mean the end to Cardona’s namesake line.

He openly admits his optimism that widening his exposure via Cerruti will only boost global interest in the company he cofounded in 1997 and that sells via such boutiques as Hours in Denver and L’Habitudes here. It’s an edge he and partner John Bowman are particularly keen on, as Bowman Cardona LLC (which is not at all part of the Cerruti deal) actively expands to other categories.

Already here is footwear. The five styles in ebony or chocolate arrive in U.S. doors by August, retailing from $400 for severely pointed-toed, stiletto-heeled pumps to $1,250 for the equally sharp thigh-high boots. Made in Italy, they show Cardona’s signature attention to finishing, down to the polished sole — as well as his ongoing flirtation with sexually suggestive details, such as the subtle heel pattern based on a G-string.

In fact, besides fame and fortune, Cardona sees the new deal as allowing him to express some of the more daring ideas he might have downplayed lately as business has grown. The fall collection he presented April 1, kicking off Los Angeles fashion week, reflected a more realized picture of undergarment themes that have never really gone away: leather coats with corset midriffs; day and evening dresses crisscrossed with satin bra strapping, and blouses pieced to suggest a bra or corset. (The run of looks appears on a new site bowing today at davidcardona.com.)

At least some of his longtime accounts welcome the revived sensibility. Diane Roth, owner of L’Armoire in New Canaan, Conn., desires even more of his “killer, feminine” styling in shirtings. “We do extremely well with his leathers and suedes, really anything in his beautiful tailoring. We sell out of everything. I think he’s the best in this category.” At her shop, Cardona hangs near Tuleh, David Rodriguez and Belvest.

As for the Cerruti deal, Roth, who first met Cardona during his six years at Richard Tyler, is enthusiastic. “It’s just going to enhance his own collection. Other designers do it and it works out just fine.”

Cardona’s penchant for precision actually began as a designer of top-secret military and commercial aircraft for McDonnell Douglas Corp. His father had been an aircraft mechanic and pilot in Colombia, where Cardona was born, and had bartered his way to the U.S. by repairing a local’s plane. He sent for his wife and sons a year later.

Despite Dad’s insistence on remaining an engineer, a dissatisfied Cardona began pursuing a second degree through night classes at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising. He landed a job at Richard Tyler soon after in 1991, which led to assistant designer. There, he studied the finer points in clothesmaking, which he continues to practice — handfinished button holes and seams, lining everything in silk.

At Tyler, he met and created clothes for pop singer Seal, who eventually introduced him to John Bowman, a South African with long ties to the Los Angeles fashion industry, including cofounding Chrome Hearts.

Today, the pair helm a studio of 10 employees and a large Weimaraner named Dexter in a Westside industrial complex. In one office is the Emmy statuette Cardona won with Bob Mackie in 2000 for costuming Cher and her dancers.

Yet Cardona’s better known at award shows for his celebrity collaborations, for better or worse. The year he won, he custom-made a corseted leather gown for Emmy-nominated Sela Ward. Months before, he suited Lara Flynn Boyle in a white tux (she added the Bob Seger T-shirt) for the Golden Globes. They teamed up again at the last Globes to nuttier effects: the pink tutu and ballerina heels sent “The Practice” star to the top of “worst dressed” lists.

It did get everyone talking, Cardona responds cheekily. “It’s really odd, this phenomenon: you put an outfit on a celebrity and it opens doors.” He is nonplussed that such highly publicized deviations distract from the very serious quality and construction of his product.

Ditto his accounts.

“Our clients haven’t been turned off by it or caught up in the hype. They laugh at it. They’re never concerned that’s what he’s going to be making for them,” observed Sara Albrecht, owner of Ultimo in Chicago, where Cardona is wedged between John Galliano and Roberto Cavalli. “Our clients really respond to his sensibility, his great fits and tailoring.”

Albrecht added that the Cerruti deal only concerns her in one way: “He’s going to be so busy. He’s so focused on his business, I know he won’t let anything change that.” And it might have her taking another look at the Cerruti line.

Facchini evidently is banking on that, too. “Cardona, while continuing to follow the creative direction of Cerruti, will add a strong dose of innovation,” he replied in the e-mail.

The road to Cerruti took more than two years since Cardona first met Facchini in Los Angeles. Since then, Nino Cerruti took his last runway bow January 2001, 34 years after launching the line. The month before, the founder sold his remaining 49 percent stake of his firm to Fin.part.

As reported last week, Fin.part has run into some troubles as its auditor, KPMG, declined to certify the maker’s 2002 accounts. Facchini said Fin.part is in “advanced talks” to sell off some real estate and manufacturing assets. In contrast to prior strategies, he pointed out that selling brands isn’t in the cards, but it could be in the future.

There’s also the matter of Cardona being the third designer named in the last year. He replaces Istvan Francer, who, according to the e-mail, “no longer works for Cerruti.” Francer took over when Roberto Menichetti left last May after only six months. Facchini said at the time that “Cerruti is a project that needs full attention and dedication” and that he had intended to back Menichetti’s new namesake line as a show of good will.

Those intentions could be extended to Cardona. Although neither side will categorically concede it will happen soon, Cardona’s ability to design both Cerruti and his own line isn’t an issue, apparently, because the Los Angeles designer’s business is already established.

In the meantime, Cardona is scoping Milan manufacturers to produce his line to make price points more attractive to European retailers and consumers. “Our prices are too high when you consider duty, VAT and freight to export from the States,” said Bowman. In the U.S., prices range from $2,200 for a two-piece suit to $6,000 for a leather coat. “You really have to export to yourself.” Indeed, the plan is to expand the line here to offer, say, trousers retailing for $400 along with those at $700.

This last season, K.Y.P. Milano added the line to its Milan and Paris showrooms, as did Icot in New York. And a handbag line, made in Italy, is expected to be ready for fall 2004. “The next two seasons are about getting people [in Europe and Asia] to know who David is,” said Bowman, adding the Cardona brand could “easily” yet strategically reach $20 million at retail in the next three years.

Besides the handful of stores carrying the line in Europe, there are two in Japan. With global growth, the pair concedes that unless Los Angeles ups its place in the show schedule, it will become ineffectual presenting here.

Still, leaving L.A. outright isn’t an option. “Being in Los Angeles is a lifestyle choice. I grew up here, my family is here, so I want to do it this way,” insisted Cardona, father to a seven-year-old son with his ex-wife, and a boy, 5, and girl, 3, with his former girlfriend, all of whom he sees every weekend, and during the week as time allows.

“After being in Milan and in New York, after being in these different cities considered fashion capitals, it’s hard to see, lifestyle-wise, why people choose to be there. As long as you meet the schedule, it doesn’t matter where you live.”

That said, Cardona’s looking for an apartment or hotel he can call home during his two-week monthly visits to Milan. “I also have to learn how to sleep on the plane.”