HENRY DUARTE HIS OWN WAY
Byline: Rose Apodaca Jones
LOS ANGELES — After years of custom suiting rock legends in high-end denim and leather from his well-known Sunset Plaza shop, Henry Duarte has decided to leave the famous boulevard and go solo.
The three silent backers who owned the store and Duarte have gone their separate ways. The store — and the remaining stock — has since been rechristened MinkVox.
“I just decided this isn’t really my future. I need to open my own store, own my own future,” he said recently from the studio filled with sewing machines, work tables and bolts of denim and leather that he moved into last month. The 1,100-square-foot Melrose Avenue space, its vast windows covered with black paper, until recently housed British designer Liza Bruce. It’s actually a corner storefront across from Costume National on the chic side of the avenue known as Melrose West.
“I tried working with somebody for a while and I just felt, ‘Why go and put in so much effort when it’s not all yours?”‘
Duarte’s new act is actually not a one-man show. There’s his partner in business and life, Dana Duarte Jackson. The pair and a production staff of nine managed $1.2 million in sales last year, mostly based on custom orders.
More significantly, they have teamed up with Barbara Kramer, Duarte’s former sales agent and a co-founder of Designers & Agents, a Market Week show for new designers at downtown’s New Mart.
They stress the partnership is unlike Duarte’s former setup because the designer is now fully in control and no longer a salaried employee. With Kramer’s financial support and business acumen, the new relationship will also enable Duarte, a perennial favorite on Rolling Stone covers, to build the brand internationally.
That is already under way with a new denim series of intricately pieced jackets and pants constructed from up to 100 cutouts, each painstakingly sewn and hammered into formation. The pieces of these sartorial puzzles are cut from slightly varying hues of blue to give the garment — which is sandblasted, enzyme washed and treated in every available way — a visible texture.
“When they fade, it comes into what it’s supposed to be — it becomes totally alive,” he noted. “You then see all the work that goes into it. All these layers that are stacked on top of each other. It’s like a road map, all sewn together.”
With denim, continued Duarte, the expense is not the fabric.
“The labor is extremely expensive. The prep work takes so much time in the patterning, cutting, organizing the pieces together. It’s very labor intensive and I do that intentionally. I’m not interested in putting out basic jeans.”
Jeans wholesale from $185 to $550; denim jackets — with collars pieced with 16 cutouts and bodies constructed of 60 — are priced at around $295 to $695, while the leather line ranges from $550 for pants to $1,200 for coats.
Duarte has produced his piecework denim and leather for Maxfields here and as special orders to other stores, but this is the “first official shipment” going to every store that wanted it, he said, including Jeffrey in New York, Barneys New York and Ultimo in Chicago.
“There’s going to be so much more. We’ll start looking at growth in terms of knitwear, accessories,” promised Kramer, noting Duarte’s success in studded belts, bold jewelry and crocodile platform boots. “Henry will be able to start developing the full Duarte world.”
Duarte and his wife opened their first atelier on Beverly Boulevard in 1986. His first clients hailed from the R&B field: Janet Jackson, Bobby Brown. Then Lenny Kravitz and the members of Guns N’ Roses dropped in and Duarte entered the “rock thing.”
Indeed, Duarte’s clothes like the designer himself — with his Small Faces-inspired feather cut and tight boot-cut trousers — are pure rock ‘n’ roll and, as a result, are timeless the way a Stones classic never really sounds dated. His pieced leather, stacked shoes, low-rise pants and Indian-style shirts clearly reference that period between the late Sixties and mid-Seventies when rock singers were gods. But it’s exactly this lexicon of clothes — which rising stars continue to use — that keeps the look ever young.
The foray into wholesale began in 1991 when New York-based Kramer picked up the line. She’d discovered it on a shopping trek to Los Angeles. The relationship lasted two years.
“We hit a wall because there was this growth in orders and not the structure to keep up with the pressure,” said Kramer, who recently moved part-time to Hollywood, intent on maintaining a bicoastal presence.
Without the financing to realize the potential expansion, Duarte opted to tour back-to-back with Kravitz, Jackson and a half dozen other major artists.
In 1998, the Henry Duarte store moved to tony Sunset Plaza. It quickly became a true Hollywood landmark. The hands-on designer would arrive early in the day and find Naomi Campbell seated on the sidewalk waiting for the store to open; he custom-made his lace-up leather pants for Rosanna Arquette, Jade Jagger and Meg Ryan.
Much of the Sunset store business relied on custom orders, with wholesale too often treated as an afterthought, Duarte said. In fact, last year’s wholesale figures account for only $200,000. That will easily mushroom exponentially, assured Kramer.
Last February, Kramer and Duarte decided to turn their casual chitchat into a reality. Kramer had “enough financing” to open a store and revive the flailing wholesale end.
“I really wanted to do wholesale, but the people I worked with didn’t,” said Duarte. “They only wanted the store. But my vision has always been to take this thing global.”
The fall collection will ship to only 12 stores, but they are among the most coveted: Louis, Boston; Browns, London; Joyce, Hong Kong; Choices, Pittsburgh, and Distractions, Aspen.
The line is represented by the Hatch showroom in the New Mart here.
Duarte acknowledges that the emphasis on custom clothes at the Sunset store enabled him to explore whatever design whim he came up with — no matter the practical cost of producing it. The extremes in denim and leather he created that his star clients couldn’t get enough of helped build his name. Now, he and Kramer believe, mere mortals with platinum cards are ready to shell out for these rock duds.
At press time, the Melrose location was being considered as a retail door. A second store is also being explored — back on Sunset Boulevard, where hotels like the Sunset Marquis and Chateau Marmont endlessly host celebrities.
“It’s important to be there. You have to be a quick ride down the street from the action,” said Duarte, who met his wife of 14 years at an after-hours nightclub; even as parents of a six-year-old named Julian, they continue to hit the scene.
“This is Henry’s life,” said Kramer, pointing to a thick book of magazine tears of hip celebs in his clothes. “This is his truth, his vision, what he’s here on the planet to do. So, I said to Henry, it’s really time for you to go out and build something that’s yours. Because why else do this?”