THE CHAMELEON QUEEN
AFTER STINTS ON A KIBBUTZ AND AS A PUNK PRINCESS, TOVA CELINE TRIES ON HER LATEST ROLE: THAT OF THE SUCCESSFUL DESIGNER.
Byline: Deirdre Mendoza
Comebacks and makeovers are a prevalent theme here in the land of reinvention. Take Los Angeles-based designer Tova Celine, who for the past 12 years has persevered through several incarnations with partners and backers to ultimately become fiercely independent — and newly successful.
Since 1999, that indie spirit has translated into $2 million in wholesale sales for her growing silk dress label, which evolves this fall into a full signature collection encompassing wool, leather outerwear and printed silk.
But the message remains the same.
“The business is growing, and the vibe is still ‘feel good in your body,”‘ said Celine, whose exotic Argentine-Polish looks are distinguished by a mass of dark brown ringlets and vintage accessories.
Behind her casual demeanor and California cadences lies a heady ambition, one that powered the transformation of her primarily silk dress-based collection into a flourishing contemporary line.
Celine’s colorful manifestations date back to the early Eighties. She spent a few months bumming around Europe, eventually ending her travels on an Israeli kibbutz. Back in Los Angeles, she frequented the local hard-core scene as a punk-princess drummer, sporting museum-quality beaded dresses, creeper shoes and Kabuki-esque makeup. By 1988, she was slaving in the trenches of the music video industry, styling emerging bands on the city’s soundstages.
That year, she envisioned a line of versatile, sleeveless summer dresses in printed rayon. She sold 17 of them to a junior specialty store on Melrose on a Friday afternoon, only to get a frantic phone call the next day from the store owner “pleading, ‘We need more dresses,’ she recalled. “And that’s how we got started.”
Los Angeles boutique Polkadots & Moonbeams, Modern Wear, Fred Segal and, eventually, Barneys New York carried the label, which to this day remains a well-tuned collection of classic bodies paired with upbeat, contemporary prints.
Backers came and went, but Celine maintained relationships with her key doors.
In 1999, after declining sales set the company back a few months, Celine flew to India on a sourcing mission. Inside a Bangladore sari shop, she found the inspiration for a printed silk collection.
She also experienced a creative epiphany that redirected the course of her business and personal life.
“I was surrounded by all these amazing silks and it was a real point of discovery. That’s when I knew what I was going to do next.”
Backed by a cash infusion from a wealthy Indian family, Celine produced printed silk dresses, unveiling them at the New York Coterie show.
Buyers and the fashion press responded enthusiastically, she recalled. She shipped $1.5 million by yearend.
As sales multiplied, the company expanded out of its original Silver Lake home to a two-story facility bordering Chinatown.
Last fall, Tova Celine Maternity made its debut, sold at the uber-chic maternity store Naissance On Melrose. Plans for a men’s line and a plus-size collection are in the works. If the economy holds up, Celine said she’s hoping to pull in $12 million wholesale within the next five years.
Along with her signature dresses, deliveries include beaded zebra-print groups, silk, denim and wool with appliques. Slipdresses, knit jersey and tops with batwing and cowlnecks are a nod to the Eighties. Ankle-length patchwork leather coats, miniskirts and leather pants round out the newly expanded line.
“You know you need to grow and evolve and be competitive in a world market, she said, sounding serious for a moment. But just a moment: “You can’t just be like this hippie chick, ex-punk making clothes in Silver Lake.”