By  on March 6, 2002

You might say Jose Enrique Ona Selfa is bringing fire and ice to Loewe. The 27-year-old designer, who hails from Brussels and Spanish emigre parents, said he plans to balance his hot-blooded roots with cool Belgian chic Friday when he shows his first ready-to-wear collection for the house, owned by luxury giant LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton.

"I want to be on the borderline between hot and sexy on the one side and Belgian on the other side," he explained. "The Belgian woman is very cold. She is everything but sexy."

Even to sit with the designer for a drink at the Hotel Costes here is to witness these two sides. One minute he's seriously discussing the intricacies of a leather manufacturing process he encountered at Loewe's Madrid headquarters -- the next he's jiggling in his seat and promising pants that will do wonders to enhance a woman's bottom.

Karl Lagerfeld said Ona Selfa's key attribute is his "real passion" for the business -- evident in his about-to-burst energy level and his decisive approach to the craft.

"I like him a lot, for his enthusiasm and also his real sense and knowledge of couture and cut," Lagerfeld said. "That's very rare with 'young' designers, who easily think that 'creativity' is the thing and not technique. He really knows."

Lagerfeld met Ona Selfa through the designers Olivier Theyskens and Laetitia Crahay, a classmate of Ona Selfa's who now works with Lagerfeld on Chanel jewelry. In fact, Lagerfeld was instrumental in putting Ona Selfa up for the post. "I thought he would be perfect for Loewe, not because he speaks Spanish -- which is also a good thing -- but because he seemed perfect for the job," Lagerfeld said. "I am very happy he got it and I hope it will be a success."

At Loewe, Ona Selfa succeeds a slightly more seasoned designer, Narciso Rodriguez, who exited the house last fall after a four-year stint. LVMH had recruited Rodriguez as part of its plan to revitalize its stable of names with hot young designers. During the same period, the group tapped Marc Jacobs to become creative director of Louis Vuitton and hired Michael Kors to design Celine.Ona Selfa is not nearly as well known. He graduated from Antwerp's famous La Cambre Fashion Institute in 1999 and his career work to date consists of four signature collections, which he shows in Paris. But retailers quickly took note of his innovative cutting and his ability to express sultry Flamenco influences in a modern, fresh way. His wholesale accounts include Maria Luisa in Paris and Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus in New York.

To be sure, LVMH took note of Ona Selfa's knack with leather, the lifeblood of Loewe, a 156-year-old leather goods house often described as the Hermes of Spain. It is the official supplier of leather goods to the Spanish royal family.

Ona Selfa said about 40 percent of his rtw collection will be leather and he hopes Loewe will become a top-of-mind destination for such items as a perfect leather blazer. Calling leather an inherently "sensual" material, he acknowledged that it has the potential to be vulgar, a quality of which he vows to steer clear.

He said his mission at Loewe is to modernize the house while safeguarding its "hyper elegant" reputation. For his first collection, expect long, narrow silhouettes with small shoulders in such colors as black, light beige, caramel and pink.

Loewe has produced rtw since the late Seventies, a time when it engaged such guest designers as Lagerfeld, Giorgio Armani and Laura Biagiotti. Loewe has about 100 points of sale around the world, including freestanding boutiques and corners.

Charged with building Loewe's rtw business and creating essential buzz for the house, Ona Selfa said he got his marching orders from LVMH chairman Bernard Arnault. To be sure, he must safeguard Loewe's luxury roots and very upscale positioning. But beyond that, "he wants excitement."

Ona Selfa said he's up to the challenge. "I must say, LVMH really knows how to chose its designers," he said. "I feel really at home at Loewe."

Meanwhile, LVMH also recognized that Ona Selfa wanted and needed to continue with his signature collection, which he shows March 12. "It's important not to cut off creativity," he said, noting that his signature collection will be more Belgian and experimental, reflective of his age and standing in the industry, while Loewe will be more grown-up and sophisticated.

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