Byline: Jessica Kerwin

LOS ANGELES — No one ever said being a young designer would be easy. There are shipping problems, artistic anxieties and — for those living here — bouts of second-city syndrome. But unlike most in this predicament, who simply whine and persevere, Alicia Lawhon and Monah Li set out a year and a half ago to try to change things.
“If I had a problem, talking about it with Monah made me feel so much better,” recalls Lawhon, who began designing her eponymous line three years ago. “There are a thousand ups and downs in this business, and talking with someone who understood what I was going through made a huge difference.”
The Coalition of Los Angeles Designers, better known as CLAD, grew out of Li and Lawhon’s phone conversations and currently boasts a membership of 20 independent designers who collaborate on fashion shows and charity events, share sourcing information and simply help each other out, rather like members of a family.
“I was CLAD’s first president, and my goal was to get it organized and turn it into a nonprofit,” says Lawhon. “Then Cynthia Vincent came in, and we started getting more involved with charities, and then Monah arrived and we really focused on doing shows in Los Angeles.”
This week, 14 CLAD designers showed their fall lines together at the local Soho Nightclub. Marilyn Robinson displayed her hip maternity line, Belly Beautiful, on mannequins; Sarah Shaw’s handbags were suspended from the ceiling, and Lisa B.’s saucy underthings for the Fishnet label hung next to those by Annie Jacobs for Hipster G. On the runway, Kellie Delkeskamp’s medieval bohemian looks for Josephine Loka and John Cherpas’s complementary men’s wear gave way to Lawhon’s sexy eccentric ladies. Anna Huling’s Seventies romp came hot on the heels of Li’s signature girly wear. Anita Arze’s psychedelic T-shirts and tie-dyed denims for Talking to Angels made way for Freddy Rojas’s campy sportswear. Hand-crocheted pieces by Chuck Layne for Bessie Guthrie set the tone for Christopher Enuke’s deconstructed knits for Oliver Twist, while Cynthia Vincent’s chic and sophisticated leathers and chiffons for St. Vincent made an elegant finale.
But the CLAD group has also bonded beyond its own borders. Besides the retailers, editors and exuberant hometown fans in the CLAD audience, designers Michelle Mason, Eduardo Lucero, Ina Celaya and Estevan Ramos came to the show. If it’s rare for New York designers to cheer on the competition, it’s the rule in Los Angeles. Cynthia Vincent turned up when Ramos staged his homage to the cholo girl last weekend, while at Michelle Mason’s show, designers Eduardo Lucero, Lawhon, Trina Turk and Rick Owens — who’s designing Mason’s wedding dress — all came to admire her edgy Victorian flair and her newly finished downtown studio space.
“It’s hard to be a designer in L.A., because people don’t take you seriously enough,” says Alisa Loftin, a fashion publicist who, with Cynthia Vincent, recently opened the hip shop Aero & Co. Vincent’s own line hangs there alongside clothes by Mason, Lawhon and Celaya.
“Fashion isn’t an easy business to be in,” Vincent admits. “I think it’s interesting that if you’re an author and you have a reading, your colleagues are there, but that in this industry it’s usually not like that.
“A lot of people are afraid or don’t want to share or don’t want you in their design rooms,” she continues. “But designing comes from within. If you’re afraid of that, I think you just need to let it go.”
In offering advice to those just starting design careers, CLAD members have even discouraged a few of them. “I know a couple of people who learned enough from us to start their businesses,” says Vincent, “and a few who decided not to start a business because they found out what the other side is like.”
No matter what horror stories the crew could muster, however, it didn’t stop stylist Magda Berliner from creating some wild designs of her own last season and offering them for sale at Aero.
“I was bored,” Berliner says. “I know the nightmares that everybody goes through with production, but they love it.” Though she’s not a CLAD member, Berliner styled the group’s show this season. “So many people from CLAD have been so open,” she says. “They say, ‘You know what, hon? I know where you can get that done cheaper,’ or, ‘The turnover is much faster there.”‘
At first glance, L.A.’s indie fashion scene seems small, and it only gets smaller the deeper you dig. “I’ve known Eduardo Lucero since I was 18, but everyone knows each other from the old club scene or from Fred Segal,” says Berliner. She and Huling met one night long ago when Huling was working as a cocktail waitress at a Robert Clergerie trunk show. Arze is Berliner’s cousin and Berliner knows Lawhon from their days on the shop floor at Fred Segal, where she also met Vincent and current CLAD president Li.
Before starting CLAD, Li says, “I was living in fear of competition. But if you know everyone by face and by name, it just makes it easier. I’m not afraid of people I know. I’m afraid of what I don’t know.
“Now I’m a lot happier when someone else is successful, because I feel like I’ve been a part of it,” she adds. “Working with a group of people helps me get over all my little ego problems.”