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Living La Vida Luca

Luca Luca's Luca Orlandi reflects back on 15 years, with one very big blowout bash.

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Not all anniversaries are celebrated Valentino and Dior style. This year, Luca Luca turned 15, a number that pales compared with 45 and 60. Yet for the firm’s owner and designer, Luca Orlandi, the milestone is a weighty one. “It’s an important birthday, and it forces you to make some considerations,” he said. “The embryo phase is passed by.”

Last month, Orlandi jetted to Istanbul for his own celebratory extravaganza cohosted by local magazine Alem, also turning 15. (The connection: his longtime company president, Yildiz Yuksek Blackstone, hails from Turkey.)

Taking over the famed Dolmabahce Palace, Orlandi presented a variation on the cruise collection he had just shown in New York, adding a few more festive gowns to better suit the black-tie occasion.

“We tweaked it and left most city clothes home,” he remarked.

Also different this time around: He flew in singer Joss Stone for a concert, as well as several performers, jesters and acrobats, from The Box on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

In all, 1,000 guests attended, including Georgette Mosbacher, Nicky Hilton and Estella Warren — none of which glosses over the fact that the years have certainly presented a fair share of obstacles. Among Orlandi’s acknowledged challenges: navigating the wholesale landscape and, most importantly, establishing and maintaining a cohesive brand identity.

“There are companies that are languishing compared to ours. But there are also [those] that have had explosive growth faster,” Orlandi said candidly. So now, 15 years the wiser, he’s decided that change is afoot.

Sitting in his new Manhattan offices on West 36th street, Orlandi pointed to his surroundings as exhibit A. After 10 years of holding court at an Upper East Side brownstone, above Luca Luca’s boutique at Madison Avenue and 62nd Street, Orlandi has headed for the Garment District in the West Thirties. “It was a bit isolating for me, from what the industry’s doing,” he explained. “Here, we’re a more proactive player in this sort of environment.”

The decision to switch venues wasn’t just about location, however. For practical reasons, Orlandi wanted a more typical studio-type layout than the boxy brownstone afforded. “When we were looking at new places, we really thought about more open space,” he said. “The brownstone was broken up — you’re always up and down the stairs — and we were all divided.”

Which certainly isn’t the case here. There are no walls in the large, loft-like space, where the showroom is a designated area cordoned off to the side. Seamstresses, designers and sales and public relations reps all sit in close proximity to Orlandi, who occupies a table near the center of the room. “With one huge space, I’m feeling the teamwork. We are functioning much better as a group,” he said. “I’m learning to become a creative director more.”

Orlandi, 44, a native of Milan with an M.B.A. from Columbia, grew up with some exposure to the industry — his aunt, Susi Gandini, owns the Italian fabric house Gandini Tessuti.

When he launched his company back in 1992, he went directly into retail rather than wholesale, opening a 900-square-foot shop on Madison Avenue at 78th Street. (He opened on 62nd Street in 1996, and both remain in operation today.)

“I felt more a master of my destiny,” he said. “I grew up in an entrepreneurial family. [Opening up] a store was more in line with my personality.”

His prior work experience included a stint designing at The He-Ro Group, a Seventh Avenue concern that produced bridge collections for Oscar de la Renta and Bill Blass, and his first collections shared a similar vibe: suits, dresses and coats for the 10021-lady set.

Today, the company owns eight boutiques in Bal Harbour, Fla.; Chicago, and Dallas, among other cities. Orlandi said the company operates in the black, though he declined to disclose sales figures. He admitted, however, that the wholesale market has been tougher to crack than he expected.

“You have to learn to sell to a buyer,” he said. “It’s a different proposition than selling to a consumer. A buyer has to consider if they have the budget, if there’s enough buzz about the line, if it’s too similar to other names. The buyers, they review so many collections each season. You have to have a very clear message.”

Now, Orlandi finally feels ready to make a serious, expansive push into wholesale, expecting it to increase from less than 20 percent of his business today to 50 percent by some unspecified date. His emphasis is on Europe and Asia. “These markets, they are very aggressive, they are very interested in new labels,” said Orlandi, who already sells at Beymen in Istanbul and Harvey Nichols Dubai. “They are more exploratory than in America. I foresee that, within a few seasons, the rest of the world will be dramatically bigger for us than the American markets.”

That said, he currently sells to more than 50 boutiques in the U.S. including Peoples in Atlanta, Julian Gold in San Antonio and Esti’s in Brooklyn, N.Y. And he hopes “to conquer the American department store,” with his eye on Bergdorf Goodman. “I think the collection could do tremendous business out of there,” he said.

Another development is his recent addition of resort and pre-fall collections. “The business has changed to four seasons — it’s unavoidable,” he noted.

But Orlandi’s biggest challenge has been the development of a singular, clear point of view for Luca Luca. One season, for instance, he worked a Lara Croft dominatrix motif complete with tight leather and fierce harnesses, and the next, a prim, pastel spectacle of Easter egg sweetness. Such mood swings have been problematic, begging the question, what exactly is Luca Luca all about?

Orlandi admitted to his collection’s rather disjointed past. “I’m very easily influenced,” he said. “It took time for me to realize that the inspirations you have, you really have to filter them. There are movies I don’t want to see a month before I do a show, because I know now they are going to make me go sideways.

“My criticism to this criticism, though,” he added, “is that recognized fashion houses like Prada or Marc Jacobs, they can do what they want. They can jump left and right and they are praised for it.”

Yet he takes no offense. “They do it so perfectly. The fact that they jump around is a positive thing, it doesn’t preclude them from having success,” he said, adding, “That has not been the case for us.”

But he thinks he has finally found his voice as a designer. Going forward, he plans a Luca Luca that’s “edgy, fresh and younger. I don’t want to do this boring thing or that cheesy gown anymore. I see them at these parties. I think, do I really want my clothes to be remembered for that?” He claimed his new target customer isn’t one who “shops the afternoon away” but are “lawyers, investments bankers, marketing managers — women who know the right trade-off between elegant and practical clothes.”

In hindsight, Orlandi thinks he put his clothes on the runway too early while paying too much attention to getting celebrities — at various times David Copperfield, Oksana Baiul, Angie Harmon, Ray Liotta, Monica Lewinsky and a Miss Universe/USA/Teen USA trio — into his front row.

“It’s like being a writer,” explained Orlandi. “In the beginning, I was just learning the craft, learning to write correctly, guide the verbs and so forth. I started doing shows thinking the critics would just look at that. But the press isn’t going to praise you because you didn’t make a grammar or spelling mistake. They’re interested in the story you’re telling. I shouldn’t have invited people when we were still learning to write.”

Nevertheless, after 15 years, he thinks he’s starting to write the stories, but knows he’s got to convince people to listen. “The roughest moments are now,” he said. “I can’t make the established editors or buyers [change] the opinion of Luca Luca they’ve been building over the years. I have to prove that we are doing something.”

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