NEW YORK — They could have whined about it. They could have called it quits. They could have grumbled about the state of fashion’s calendar all the way ’til next September. But instead, last Thursday night, Tuleh designers Josh Patner and Bryan Bradley showed a polished, quirky fall collection full of gypsy romance and the luxe stuff their well-heeled customers love. OK, they still complained a little bit, but by abandoning their New York fashion week slot — which came and went 40 days earlier — Patner and Bradley were able to buy enough time to whip up a fall line and fill their spring orders. “I’m a little freaked out about showing so late,” Patner said the night before the show. “But it seemed like New York show week was a real bummer. That tent is like a car dealership. It’s vulgar, and it feels good not to have been a part of something that people seemed to find so depressing.”
Since its beginnings, Tuleh has been nothing if not upbeat. It has the kind of spark that draws a crowd, even in the pouring rain. Last Thursday, under a glittering chandelier at the Harry Winston boutique, a small band of retailers, fashion editors and Tuleh’s diehard blueblooded fans — including Aerin and Jane Lauder, Marina Rust, Rena Sindi, Karen Groos and Lillian Wang — crowded in for a look at the designers’ snappy fall ready-to-wear collection and the debut of Tuleh Star (the logo features a star in place of the word), their new made-to-order line. In honor of the occasion, stars both large and small, printed, beaded and sheared into fur, graced everything from delicate peasant tops that fell off the shoulder just so to a ruffled wrap dress and a tone-on-tone starred tuxedo. “It’s all very Loulou de la Falaise,” Patner said. “Right now, with the reexamination of YSL, everyone’s focusing on the butch Betty Catroux part of Saint Laurent. But there was another side that was all feminine and bohemian. Loulou was the passionate one, the gypsy.” Patner and Bradley took a peek at the Saint Laurent couture collection, as it appeared in French Vogue circa 1973, then filled the 81st Street apartment that serves as their atelier with photos of the Seventies-era Loulou.
But another set of photos tacked to the studio wall says just as much about the collection — and its designers. While others might use Polaroids of some unknown fit model to plot their runs of show, Tuleh’s house model is Karen Groos, whom the boys snapped standing in front of the apartment door in a handful of looks. And while other designers might see couture as a means of expressing their wildest fantasies, Patner and Bradley seem more concerned with pleasing their devotees. “This is not old-world haute couture with 16 fittings and 14 pinners in white smocks,” Patner said. “It’s about satisfying a craving. Our girls come to the studio, and they want a blouse made as a dress or they want something super- fantastic for a big event and we do it.” A made-to-order tuxedo runs from $3,500 to $4,000, while a spectacular floor-length fur vest with beaded insets is priced at $12,000 and a sexy beaded halter dress costs $10,000.
Call theirs the realistic approach. “Doing made-to-order pieces keeps the whole thing real,” Patner mused. “Our girls aren’t borrowing a dress for the night to wear as a costume to have their picture taken in. They own these clothes.”
And — recession be damned — those girls are ready for more. They placed their orders at a dinner party Aerin Lauder hosted in her apartment after the show. “They did it verbally,” Bradley said, “while their husbands were on the other side of the room.”
Intriguing though it may be for a handful of Tuleh’s top customers, the inception of the made-to-order line does not herald a drastic change in Tuleh’s business. “We’ve always done a smattering of made-to-order,” Patner said. In the interest of securing backers — and soothing some of those growing pains — the designers are currently in talks with a private investor, though nothing has been settled yet. “We are trying to plant the seed for a new business,” Patner continued, “but you can’t do everything at once. We’re still working out of a one-bedroom apartment.”
Can you have your cake and eat it too? Though they may not be the kind anyone would call fashion’s bad boys, this season Patner and Bradley have broken the rules and have gotten away with it. “It doesn’t matter that they showed late,” said Joan Kaner, senior vice president and fashion director at Neiman Marcus, where money was held aside to buy the line. “We’re doing well with the collection, and I think they made a wise decision for young business people. It’s more important to fill the orders you owe than to have a show. The show dates are too early as it is and everyone is being pushed. Something had to give.”