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Gwen the Garmento

Gwen Stefani croons about fashion as she meets with her creative team, designer Zaldy and stylist Andrea Lieberman, in her SoHo showroom.

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NEW YORK — “This makes me want to throw up on the spot!” If anyone other than Gwen Stefani utters those words, it’s a very bad thing. But tumbling from her lips, it translates as: “I like. I like very much.”

Right now, the hyphenated entertainer — lead singer of No Doubt, fashion designer and Hollywood actress — is fingering a 3-by-3-inch swatch of multicolored striped cotton, wondering if it will fit into her spring 2006 L.A.M.B. collection, her fifth since launching the label in 2004. Forget the rock superstardom, forget having Galliano on her speed dial, forget the acting debut in a Scorsese flick. Gwen the Garmento is Stefani’s reality right now. And with L.A.M.B., she’s proving that her design efforts aren’t merely a marketing ploy — the line’s success has more to do with interest from the fashion flock than her fan base.

In town for press appearances to promote her solo album, “L.A.M.B.,” released in November, Stefani is also taking the opportunity to meet in her airy SoHo showroom with her creative team — designer Zaldy and stylist Andrea Lieberman — to present fall’s collection to buyers and editors. Elbow-deep in swatches and sketches, the trio is editing possible fabrics.

When Stefani likes a swatch, she meows. Literally. Or lets out a one-off Gwen-ism — “Don’t even be jealous” or “I don’t think you understand how much of a love situation this is” — that doesn’t necessarily make sense but perfectly gets the point across that she’s happy. For every purr, Zaldy rattles off the fabric’s technical details and marks it with a silver marker. Lieberman then studies it closely before putting it in a “maybe” pile.

“What about viscose?” the platinum pop star asks, rifling through the heap. “I’m a viscose junkie. I love the way she hangs,” referring to fabrics in the feminine. This time, Stefani doesn’t find a viscose, but she does find a white slub that elicits a meow. “OK, when we get to London,” Stefani interrupts the session after almost an hour, “we’re going to jam again.” That means finalizing the technical drawings and sending fabrics for sampling.

Later in the visit, Stefani and her crew, including Ken Erman, president of Ska Girl, L.A.M.B.’s licensee, and Lisa Jacobson, her business adviser and United Talent agent, take New York buyers through the fall lineup of pirate-inspired fare. There are Donegal plaid pieces, cropped cashmere sweaters with sparkle buttons, a beautifully cut wool coat with removable ruffled details and shredded tailored jackets. “It seems to be amazing,” says Saks Fifth Avenue senior fashion director Michael Fink, who is particularly impressed with the outerwear. “Big shawl collars, princess seaming — it’s right on trend.”

Julie Gilhart, vice president and fashion director of Barneys New York, takes note of fall’s knits. “I loved the cropped bolero,” she says. “That was adorable.”

Going in, the L.A.M.B. team is riding a retail high based on last fall and current spring numbers — some reaching as much as 80 percent sell-through — coming in from the label’s current retailers, which include Barneys New York, Henri Bendel, Saks Fifth Avenue, Holt Renfrew, Kitson, Nordstrom’s Savvy department and Shopbop.com.

“I’m sorry,” Stefani says, apologizing every time she’s presented with a healthy sales number. “But that’s so exciting and weird. I didn’t expect it,” she says. “I automatically thought I wouldn’t be taken seriously, but I didn’t care because I was just doing the line for me, so I was always like, ‘Well, if it sells, it sells. If it doesn’t, I hope that people don’t get in the red too far.’”

It’s doubtful that retailers would want to mess with a good thing right now. Fink says that on top of the 80 percent fall sell-through, Saks has hit 50 percent for the first three weeks of spring. “It’s pretty exceptional,” he says. “Clearly, she’s speaking to our customer.”

Saks isn’t the only door posting such solid figures. “We placed a substantial order for spring, and 45 percent of it was gone after the first week,” notes Scott Tepper, Henri Bendel’s fashion director. “It’s been remarkable. Some styles were gone completely after the first week. She did this printed raincoat that didn’t even last a full week on the floor.”

Said raincoat, a pink-and-black, lace-printed trench with a black ribbon artfully tied on the sleeve, has been L.A.M.B.’s spring blockbuster, moving fast at Saks and at Shopbop.com, too. “It’s emotional, girly, feminine, of-the-moment,” Fink says of the coat.

With contemporary prices — while T-shirts wholesale on average for $30, dresses go for $200 and outerwear for $350 — L.A.M.B. isn’t necessarily attracting the same fan base that her music is. “She hasn’t done this as an exercise for her fans,” Jacobson says. “She’s designing this for herself. The customers going to Barneys or Saks aren’t the ones saying, ‘I need to wear what Gwen was wearing on TRL.’ These retailers aren’t going to buy the clothing if it’s not good,” Jacobson says.

“Obviously, she has a great following, but the key factor here is that it’s a designed collection,” says Tepper. “It’s got a point of view, quality and a personality rather than just having a celebrity attach her name to a faceless product. In New York, especially for the Fifth Avenue customer, that’s not enough.”

The L.A.M.B. customer, however, is proving to be just as demanding as a No Doubt fan waiting for a concert ticket. “The moment the collection hits the floor, you know the text messages are flying because all the customers flood in,” says Tepper.

Bob Lamey, president and co-owner of Shopbop.com, which has carried L.A.M.B. since its second season, relishes one anecdote in particular. “People kept calling customer service, asking when we were getting spring L.A.M.B., but on the day we said we were going to release it, we couldn’t until that afternoon,” he recalls. “The customers bombarded customer service with calls, and some of them were mad. One woman actually said, ‘It has to be released today, I can’t take another day off of work.’ Apparently, she couldn’t shop from work.” In the first four hours that spring L.A.M.B. was up on the site, Shopbop.com had 65 percent sell-through.

Retailers and customers alike seem to appreciate the attention to detail, especially the silk hangtags designed by graphic artist John Copeland that change from season to season. “It’s almost like a collector’s item,” says Ana Swaab, Savvy National Merchandise Manager at Nordstrom.

Gilhart thinks the fact that Stefani has pulled off much more than just a novelty celeb-designed line makes complete sense. “She knows how to develop things — she’s been in the music business for what, 15 years?” Gilhart asks. “Gwen has that learning curve of knowing that you start something, you develop it, you give it attention.”

On the business side, Erman keeps distribution controlled, putting limited amounts of pieces in high-end stores, including overseas doors such as Colette in Paris and London’s Harvey Nichols. He’s most pleased that currently, “the demand for it has exceeded what we’re producing,” he says, estimating that 2005 will bring in around $20 million at retail. He also has no plans to advertise since, he explains, Stefani wearing her own pieces is advertising enough, especially when she wore a black cashmere hoodie that read “Where did my lamb go” in her signature Olde English font on the cover of the January Rolling Stone.

One man eager to see where she takes the line is Kal Ruttenstein, senior vice president of fashion direction at Bloomingdale’s, who tracked her New York appearances on “Saturday Night Live” to “Late Night With David Letterman” to the “Today” show. “She’s what superstars wish they were,” he says. “She’s ‘It.’ So on target.” In fact, he confirmed Bloomingdale’s will be picking up L.A.M.B. for fall.

As her tour of tv shows and market appointments prove, Stefani is juggling a lot with L.A.M.B., her music and her marriage to Gavin Rossdale. But she maintains that she’s fired up to keep going, especially with the pending launch of a small sneaker line, licensed through Royal Elastics, and a self-imposed deadline to hit the New York runways in September. “I feel like everything I’ve done so far has kind of been the baby in the belly,” she says. “Right now, I’m ready to do the show because it feels so exciting around here, like it’s about ready to explode.

“L.A.M.B. is becoming more and more sophisticated because we’re becoming more and more experienced,” she goes on. “I never dreamed…I never had the goal that I would actually do a fashion show. I really didn’t think I would get to that point. I mean, I’m used to being in a band 18 years before getting noticed.”

While she’s already brainstorming about models, hair, makeup and presentation, she says she has a few things in the collection to iron out. Namely: denim.

“Everyone warned me that denim is really hard and I was like, ‘Whatever. It’s denim. Do it,’” she says, pausing before adding, “It’s really hard.” She’s proud of what’s she’s done so far with the “high-heeled jeans,” a dark wash with dropped back pockets that sits low on the hips. “They’re so flattering,” she says, standing up to show off the pair she’s wearing. “When I feel fat, I put them on and I feel a little bit skinnier.” But, by her own estimation, the back pockets are a little off and she aims to fix that for spring.

“I’m learning — the collaboration thing,” she says. “The more the merrier, don’t be an egomaniac about an idea that you didn’t come up with, because the whole idea is yours. The whole thing is your baby, and it’s all about bringing people under the umbrella.”

Stefani is excited to get cracking, especially with Zaldy and Lieberman, who’s responsible for the one-of-a-kind L.A.M.B. costumes Stefani wears onstage with her band or solo. Lieberman only officially came on board for spring 2006. “Andrea and I are so the same person,” she says. “Andrea is like the New York, way-cooler, street, dark-haired, Jewish version of me.”

Stefani, meanwhile, marvels that Zaldy, who’s been designing with her since L.A.M.B.’s second season, also has his own eponymous line. “His signature collection is so different from what I would probably wear. And what amazes me about him is that he can design for me and I’ll be like, ‘That is so me. I cannot believe that you are able to be so versatile.’”

For him, though, it’s an easy separation. “Gwen’s the muse,” he says. “I’m designing with her in mind so if Gwen won’t wear it, then it’s not going in.”

While she’s still on top of the music pile — and all signs point to her staying there for some time — she’s in L.A.M.B. for the long haul. “It’s something that is going to be what I do to express myself creatively, that is a lot less draining than writing music or performing. I love that but I’m being realistic — I’m not going to be doing it the rest of my life,” she admits of her stage life.

“I think designing is something I could get really good at,” she says. “It comes naturally for me. I don’t mean that I’m good at it right now, but I could be if people keep believing in me,” she says almost hesitantly, as if asking the fashion fates for approval to keep going with this idea. “I’ll cry hard if someone says I can’t do it anymore.”

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