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LOS ANGELES — On his first-ever visit here, Emanuel Ungaro art director Giambattista Valli is finding many aspects of L.A. life easy.

This story first appeared in the April 10, 2003 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

He readily offers how he adores cruising in his rented silver Volvo every chance he gets. He loves the casual wardrobes of the locals, especially when mixed with luxe items. Summer-like temperatures since he arrived Saturday have averaged 82 degrees, like his native Rome, he points out. And it’s entirely too easy, he laughs, to score great finds in the city’s shops.

Finding models who can walk, however, isn’t as easy.

Tonight marks the inaugural runway presentation of Ungaro under Valli’s direction in the U.S., and the first time the house has ever shown in Los Angeles. A second showing of the fall collection, first viewed in Paris on March 7, is being staged to benefit the Rape Treatment Center, a Los Angeles treatment, prevention and education program at the Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center that has many entertainment-industry friends.

Among them are tonight’s cohosts Calista Flockhart and Julianne Moore (although there’s some question as to whether Moore will actually be there). There are also Steven Spielberg, screenwriter-actress Heather Thomas and Skip Brittenham (who is Harrison Ford’s attorney). Brittenham and Thomas are opening their Santa Monica home to the 350 guests.

Yet, two nights before the big event, Valli and his team are at their wits’ end. They expected to cast the models by Monday afternoon. More than 24 hours later, with fittings yet to get under way, it’s time to compromise.

“There are many girls with beautiful faces. But they can’t walk,” Valli said. His revelation isn’t new. It was a topic of talk among many during last week’s fashion week here, shared a visitor.

“I guess all the beautiful people here want to be actors,” he shrugs.

The afternoon before at the Ivy on Robertson, Roger Moore is lunching at a table to Valli’s right, while New York publicist Lizzie Grubamn chows down at a table to his left. Before a waiter returns with the designer’s Budweiser, Allure editor Linda Wells swings by to say her hellos.

“I’m so happy sitting in the sun,” Valli declares gleefully. “The attitude of the people, the sun, and that everybody’s really cool and welcoming is very similar to Rome. Los Angeles is really our customer base. It is the best place to represent Ungaro in the United States, and not only because of the actors who like to wear our clothes.”

Just as Ungaro’s client base has widened — notably since Valli has considered a more youthful consumer for couture, ready-to-wear, Ungaro Fever sportswear and accessories — so has its appeal among Hollywood It girls. Nicole Kidman accepted her trophy at February’s British Academy of Film and Television Arts awards in an archival dress, and the house counts among its fans Jennifer Lopez, Diane Lane, Lucy Liu and Kylie Minogue (who Valli repeatedly bumped into at the Chateau Marmont this week).

“We had a really good winter season,” continued Valli. “I’m very lucky.”

Last year’s U.S. Ungaro ready-to-wear sales surpassed $10 million.

“At the moment, people really want special things,” he said. “Or to just get their basics from the basic label. L.A. is the most representative of this thinking, although it’s everywhere now. I always have this reference in my work about comfortable glamour. And I think L.A. really embodies this. Everyone in Paris talks about coming to L.A. to do research, to do business.”

But it’s as much about pleasure this week, too. Late Tuesday, Valli and friends hit gallery-dotted Chung King Road in downtown’s Chinatown, to see Yi Zhou, his pal from Paris who’s here to launch her anime video at the Electronic Orphanage space. (Sony is distributing the DVD through mass music retailers in June).

He’s also been melting plastic at Maxfield (where he immediately tried on and purchased a pair of Libertine chinos screened with a skull), across the street at Chrome Hearts (two signature loose-fitting tanks), at the New Age Bodhi Tree bookstore and later along Melrose Avenue (including a leather backgammon board roll at Jonathan Adler and a promise to return to Henry Duarte for an oversized leather nomad bag).

“To go to Maxfield or Fred Segal and see big labels mixed with young labels, you don’t see that so much in Europe,” he observed. “It’s nice because they give these young designers an opportunity, and [consumers] can choose to mix it up. It’s a more contemporary way of dressing.”

Simon Doonan hosted an intimate dinner for 71 friends, including Kelly Lynch and Flockhart, Tuesday night at Barneys Greengrass. At the Wilshire Boulevard store, the windows showcase Ungaro couture along with messages regarding this week’s social cause.

“We thought we’d build a giant butterfly out of pink candy,” said Barneys’ creative director, Simon Doonan, “pink being Ungaro’s signature color. But then it all went nasty — the ants got to it! It sort of congealed into this terrible mess of melting hideous butterfly goop.” A second butterfly of pink pot scrubbers, sponges and feather dusters also failed, so construction began anew Tuesday of one made of red and pink crepe paper.

Valli will be on hand at the store Friday for a trunk show.

“I’m going to stay now through Saturday night,” he said, holding on his cell phone with Air France to bump his flight a day. “Who cares about Paris right now?”

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