Byline: Miles Socha

NEW YORK — Katayone Adeli was curled up on the sofa at the back of her new store here Thursday talking rapturously about her favorite subject: her customers.
She said they’re the driving force behind her designs, her prices and even the layout of her new ultra-minimalist 3,500-square-foot flagship at 35 Bond Street.
“I’m very into my customer,” she said. “I love to make them happy. That’s what I’m here for.”
Slated to open today, the store is the latest rite of passage for a designer whose reputation has skyrocketed in recent years, despite a somewhat enigmatic profile in the publicity-saturated New York fashion world.
Adeli first made her name as the designer for the Los Angeles contemporary sportswear line Parallel in the early Nineties. She and Parallel president Sean Barron resigned together to launch her fashion house in 1996.
Since then, Adeli’s hip pants, stretchy tops and sculpted leather pieces have quickly caught the attention of retailers and earned a cult-like following among consumers. Her designs are sold in some 200 stores, including Barneys New York, Saks Fifth Avenue, Fred Segal, Ultimo, Linda Dresner, Harvey Nichols in London, L’Eclaireur in Paris and Joyce in Japan. Wholesale volume in 1998 reached about $15 million.
Earlier this year, Adeli gained fame as one of three nominees for the Perry Ellis Award for new design talent presented by the Council of Fashion Designers of America. Yet she still does no runway show for her signature line, conducts few interviews and doesn’t advertise, shunning what she refers to as the “theatrical aspects” of the business.
“I think about real people wearing the clothes and looking good in them,” she said in a wide-ranging interview. “I’m a customer, too. When I shop, I have a real hard time finding things that are not vintage that are wearable. I don’t want to be a billboard for a designer.
“I’m not thinking about trying to make an amazing fashion show, but to try to make people look amazing.”
A slight, striking young woman with uncompromising tastes, Adeli said her secret weapon is staying close to the people who buy and wear her clothes.
“Most of my customers are my friends. I think of them and what they’d want to wear,” she explained.
Retailers count Adeli among an emerging crop of American designers whose styling and pricing are too eclectic to be defined by traditional categories like designer or contemporary. Prices of her fall collection range from $120 to $250 for tops up to $2,300 for leather pieces.
Adeli said she never sets out to design for a price category and is ruled instead by her own sense of value — what she as a customer would pay.
“I don’t want to buy a $400 T-shirt,” she said, “but I will pay $1,300 for a pair of leather pants. The price should make sense for what it is. There’s nothing worse than finding something you love and it’s $5,000.”
The new store, she said, is a direct translation of her priorities as a shopper.
One of its most unusual features greets customers when they’re still on the street. Instead of mannequins or clothes displayed in the window, there is nothing but a thick, white interior wall obscuring the activity within. Adeli said she wanted to create an atmosphere of privacy and discovery.
“I don’t like shopping in stores where people can see you through the window,” she said.
Designed by Gluckman Mayner Architects, which also did SoHo stores for Helmut Lang and Yves Saint Laurent, Adeli’s store resembles an art gallery more than a clothing store, all luminous walls, gleaming floors and subdued lighting. The clothes are hung on movable metal racks. The cashier’s counter is a big rectangular block wrapped in black leather. The only furniture is a gray, serpentine Herman Miller couch at the back, outside the fitting rooms, which are lit from behind with rows of fluorescent bulbs, evoking Dan Flavin wall sculptures.
Upon entering the store, shoppers navigate their way through several shopping areas defined by partial walls. Adeli said she wanted people to be able to shop in private and make their own selections. Clothes are not arranged by classification or color. Instead, there’s a mix of dresses, pants, skirts, sweaters and coats, all spaced out on the rack with precision so everything is visible.
“I don’t want to push outfits on my customers because they have enough style to chose them themselves,” Adeli said. “I want them to feel like they can manipulate the pieces.”
Adeli said the millennium seems to be fueling an interest in futuristic, “robotic” types of fashion, something she works against.
“My customers are real people and they wear real clothes,” she said. “They don’t want to look like they stepped off a runway. I had that all in mind when we did the store.
“I really wanted something where someone could come in and hang out. I see girls running around shopping in here. I want it to be like a big closet.”
Adeli said she plans to offer some exclusive styles and colors in the store, plus two new product lines: fine jewelry, some of it by Mazuki, and handbags in quirky colors like coral and lavender. And you can pretty much count on finding her there on a regular basis.
“I’m going to hang out in the store,” she said, “because I want it to be a lab for me, testing new things and getting feedback.”