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The Next Wave: Some of Spring’s Smaller Collections Made The Biggest Wave Today And Thursday: Talks With The Designers Who Created Them

<P><STRONG>MICHAEL LEVA</STRONG><BR><BR>Even as a student at the Rhode Island School of Design, Michael Leva knew that if he were to stay in fashion, he wanted to have his own company.<BR><BR>And he did -- at a precociously early age. But like so many...

MICHAEL LEVA

Even as a student at the Rhode Island School of Design, Michael Leva knew that if he were to stay in fashion, he wanted to have his own company.

And he did — at a precociously early age. But like so many others, Leva ended up a casualty of the recession and closed his doors in July of 1991.

“I interviewed for design-director positions with just about everyone you can think of,” says Leva, 32, of the hiatus between the end of his old business and the start of the current one, which he founded last year. “Luckily I didn’t jump into anything. Something always told me to wait.”

What that wait-and-see approach brought was a licensing agreement with Miki Corp. of Tokyo, which Leva signed in January 1993. Under the agreement, he designs a career-oriented line for distribution exclusively in Japan. Royalties from that venture have given Leva the financial backing he needed to open a new signature collection which debuted here in November for spring ’94.

Leva is starting out small, using the front room of his brownstone as a showroom, even though that means buyers have to trek to the outer reaches of Chelsea. Of the collection, which was shown in November as part of Cotton Inc.’s group show, he says: “It’s very serene and austere. That came directly from the feeling that too much is happening in the world — too much ugliness, too much harshness. I like the idea of helping someone feel more serene or relaxed through clothes.”

But Leva knows there’s more to a successful collection than philosophy: “I think logically about how each piece will function in someone’s life. I’ll make sure I have at least five jackets that go to work, and one that can go to cocktails after work.” “I’m very in favor of women feeling free, strong and natural,” Leva continues, adding that design should serve this end. He says his current collection is constructed in “an easy, abstract way” with less interfacing and softer, more natural shoulder pads than in the past. As for fabrics, he especially likes a new, wrinkle-free linen crepe.

Leva calls his eveningwear “neoclassical,” and says this mood grew from the political climate right now. “There is this hope for democracy and equalization,” he explains. “I actually felt out of place in the Eighties, which were very Baroque, and that’s not my thing. I’m a classicist.”

Benny Lin, fashion director for Macy’s East, is excited about Leva’s return to business: “We welcome him back to Macy’s. When we carried him before we always had a great sell-through.” Of the spring line, Lin says: “I thought his white cotton batiste dresses were magnificent.” Other stores that have bought from the spring line include Barneys New York and Henri Bendel.

Leva stresses the importance of having a point of view: “You really have to have your own personality, or you get lost. There is such a desire to be hip, even with some of the older designers, but you just can’t be too trendy.”

As for the future, Leva wants “to make clothes for a lot of different people on a lot of different levels.”

VICTOR ALFARO

Victor Alfaro — the heir apparent to Oscar and Bill? With its emphasis on eveningwear, his spring collection was one of the city’s best. And if a mini-retrospective of his four seasons in business displays some typical young-designer schizophrenia, Alfaro thinks he’s now well on the way to finding his fashion identity.

“It takes a couple of seasons to solidify that you have something to say,” says Alfaro, 29. “I think this was that collection for me.” He describes his emerging signature as “very feminine — a haute couture connotation that’s young and different.”

Kal Ruttenstein, senior vice president of fashion direction for Bloomingdale’s, calls Alfaro “a major talent and possibly a big star of the future.”

The evidence this spring came in beautiful clothes with impeccable details marking apparently simple shapes — raw edges; lace straps on slip dresses; intricate seaming on pieces than ran from long, sweeping bias-cut gowns to fringed sweaters over tiny lace shorts, and baby-doll looks that weren’t at all sophomoric. The mood was elegant with a decidedly hip edge. And while the clothes were sexy, in a season of major T&A, there wasn’t a trace of vulgarity on Victor’s runway. “That was my main objective,” he says. “I didn’t want it to look cheap. Buyers see every trick in the book, and they want clothes that are wearable.”

That’s not to say Victor can’t do chick-a-boom with the best of them. In fact, part of his insistence on taking the high road for spring was an effort to show range. Alfaro’s first notoriety as a designer came on the cover of Cosmopolitan magazine — he designed the red beaded frock that adorned Annette Bening’s pregnant assets on the magazine’s December 1991 cover — and since then has laid claim to five more Cosmo cover credits.

“I’m friends with Francesco Scavullo [who shoots all of Cosmo’s covers] and Sean Byrnes [Scavullo’s in-house editor]. Sean asked me to do it,” Alfaro explains. “It’s a very particular look; you have to work with open clothes. It’s always short notice — the longest I’ve ever had to make one is four days — and it’s always a challenge. How much can you open a dress and make it look OK?”

Part of turning down the volume for spring meant showing his sporty side: “These clothes are dressy by the nature of the fabrics, but they’re also versatile and there are other things besides sexy goddess dresses. There are sweaters and separates.”

For his palette, Alfaro found inspiration in a 1896 portrait by John Singer Sargent and came up with a subtle take on tie-dye he dubbed sky-dye. “Everything has been so drab,” he says. “It’s time for color. Look at the shades in this sash,” he indicates a copy of the painting in which a woman decked in a fluffy dress lounges with her children. “Is it pink or peach or white? You can’t pinpoint the color. It’s all of them.”

Alfaro came to New York by way of Chihuahua, Mexico, where he grew up “constantly reading fashion magazines, not necessarily aware of where it might lead.” His first step toward Seventh Avenue was to enroll at the University of Texas at El Paso for communications, then move on to the Fashion Institute of Technology.

After graduation, Alfaro worked for Mary Ann Restivo and Joseph Abboud. “I was very lucky,” he says. “Both were great experiences. Mary Ann and Joseph really let me learn.”

But Victor says he’s also learned a lot from watching one season’s designer of the moment become the next season’s business failure. “You have to be smart,” he says. “Several young designers have fallen into situations in which they have ludicrous expenses.” Alfaro says he’d like to move his studio/showroom from the downtown space where he also lives, but admits: “I own this and I have to keep expenses down. Overhead kills you.”

Alfaro owns his company with a silent partner and says they have a business plan that is “cautious but not strict.” Last year, the wholesale volume was $1 million with accounts that include Bloomingdale’s, Saks Fifth Avenue and Henri Bendel.

An avid supporter of NAFTA, Alfaro says he may one day move his production from New York to Mexico. “I don’t think they’re prepared to do the type of product I do right now,” he explains. “I think it would take my setting up a factory down there.

“I look at NAFTA as a Mexican, not an American, although I think it’s best for everyone,” Alfaro continues. “I want my country to grow. When I go to Mexico, I find it unbelievable how behind it is — how much of a Third-World country it still is when it’s so close to the United States. There are still the rich and the poor and not much middle ground.”

But politics aside, Victor considers himself very much a New Yorker. “When you live here, every place else seems so slow. A friend of mine was visiting. He couldn’t believe that you can go into any drug store and find a million creams, a million toothpastes. I guess that’s what it is — so many options. You don’t appreciate it when you live with it.”

Alfaro also favors variety in fashion. “I love Gaultier,” he says. “And Ralph Lauren for the marketing thing. It’s difficult to stay true to what you believe in — not follow the bandwagon and yet stay current. Some designers I admired when I was in school I don’t admire anymore because their concepts haven’t changed with the times.

But first on his list is Armani: “He changed the way women dress. He changed the way textiles are made, eased up a lot of the tailoring — and he’s not a retro person.”

Neither, says Alfaro, is he. “Retro is just not me,” Victor says. “But I like the way certain people show it. It’s important to show variety in fashion. You need the opposite of Armani.”

HAN FENG

In a season rampant with wrinkles, Han Feng had a big head start — she’s been doing them for years. She made her debut on the fashion scene in 1988 with luxurious crinkled scarves and translated the idea into the ready-to-wear business she launched two seasons ago.

For spring, she kept on crinkling but also showed elegant silk bias dresses, Fuji apron skirts, bandeaus and architectural gowns.

Feng, 31, has been moving at warp speed ever since she arrived in New York eight years ago from her home in Hangzhou, China. Speaking no English, Feng brought with her a degree from Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts, lots of ambition and her new American husband, whom she met in China.

Her introduction to the fashion industry was a stint at Bloomingdale’s, after which Feng moved to the wholesale side, selling fabrics. She started making large wool scarves on the side, experimenting with accordion pleating, the technique that’s now her signature. At first, she carted her designs around to buyers in a suitcase. Her persistence eventually paid off. Now her account list includes Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus, Charivari, Ultimo and Shauna Stein in Beverly Hills.

Feng’s transition into ready-to-wear began in 1992. After a successful trunk show at Henri Bendel, the store approached her about doing a special holiday blouse using her pleating. The effort was so successful that it spurred Feng on to design her own ready-to-wear collection. “I had always wanted to make clothes,” she says. “I just thought I really needed to have the customer there first and I found her with my scarves.”

Teresa Tymoski, vice president and general merchandise manager for Henri Bendel, says it has been exciting to watch the development of Feng’s business. “We feel like proud parents here at Bendel’s. We loved her scarves and now we’re on our third reorder for holiday with the ready-to-wear collection. Her clothes represent a totally modern way to dress — you can collect pieces and integrate them into your wardrobe or do a whole head-to-toe look. She has a great eye for color and for the interplay of fabrics. And the customer loves it and that’s the best vote for us.”

Feng stresses the importance of finding just the right stores for her products. And when she is not busy traveling around the country doing personal appearances, she’s off to the Far East to research new ideas and fabrics. For fall she plans to add more knitwear and jackets. “I want to show people I can do different things, but my customer asks for crinkle, so I will always give her that,” Feng says. Sitting in the airy Ansonia apartment that doubles as her home and design studio, Feng ponders her recent successes. “I don’t know what makes me unique,” she says. “I just design what I like, something special and interesting. I want to make women feel beautiful and sexy.”

–With Contributions By Kathleen Nicholson