SEEN AT OPEN SEE
A TRIO OF DESIGNERS GETS CAUGHT IN HENRI BENDEL’S FRESH TALENT NET.
Byline: Kristi Ellis
One takes inspiration from the Bible. Another draws on her fine arts background. A third relies on her own fierce entrepreneurial spirit.
Ta-Ning Conner of Churchgirl, Jennifer Mary of J Mary and Yael Aflalo of Ya-Ya Designs have their own approaches, but they now share a common interest: Henri Bendel. The venerable Fifth Avenue retailer came to town to find new talent in August and left with 25 new California lines. The buying team selected them from a pool of 350 designers, all hoping to be discovered by Bendel’s Open See program.
Open See is a tradition dating back to the Sixties, which Bendel restarted in New York in June after an eight-year hiatus. It will continue on a quarterly basis in New York and could appear again in L.A. as well.
“This is celebrity central, and the center of music, television and all media,” said Ed Burstell, vice president and general manager of Bendel’s. “We knew that there would be a lot of design talent here.”
Jennifer Mary, who uses an assumed surname, is struggling with the exposure that might come from a pending Bendel’s debut. It is a Catch-22 for Mary, who fiercely protects her hand-made reconstructed vintage couture pieces under the label J Mary.
If she had her way, Mary would strictly do private pieces. She has sold directly to Sheryl Crow and Laura Dern. Winona Ryder and Lenny Kravitz have bought her line from stores.
“I want people to invest in my pieces like they would invest in art or jewelry,” she said. Ranging from $200 to $3,000 wholesale, a purchase is indeed an investment.
Tucking a dislike for anything manufactured into her back pocket, Mary plans to expand her line by teaming up with other artisans and craftsmen. Her latest venture is with a loomer. “I dye all of the yarn, and she looms it.”
Having launched the line at Ron Herman-Fred Segal Melrose in May, Mary would prefer to continue to cut special orders for individual collectors and celebrities. But she also has a keen interest in a handful of specialty boutiques around the world that she said maintain a level of artistic integrity. This wish prompted her to visit the Open See.
Originally a fine artist, Mary, 34, treats each vintage item as her own canvas.
“My inspiration in clothes comes from a painterly perspective,” she continued. “My line reflects every period and style. It is not confined to one period, because it embraces all.”
Mary meticulously sorts through thrift stores and vintage stores for the right pieces, then takes them home to her studio apartment in Los Feliz, where she begins the re-creation.
The processes range from removing color from velvet to taking a vintage coat and running over it hundreds of times with thread, which changes the color and texture of the original fabric.
Yael Aflalo, 23, has already been discovered, and it all started with a pashmina drawstring skirt.
One and one-half years ago, she tripped onto the fashion world with a skirt sample she took to Ron Herman-Fred Segal Melrose, where make-or-break buyer John Eshaya placed an order and requested a full line.
She later branched out and launched a line of reconstructed denim and a line of leathers. These caught the attention of Bendel buyers.
Ya-Ya is best known for reconstructed denim, which Aflalo creates by ripping apart used jeans and redesigning them with a modern twist. Average wholesale prices are $130 for jackets and $150 for pants. “At first I was focused on the deconstructed look, but now I do tailored pants that accent the fit,” said Aflalo, who owns the business with her brother, Etai.
As for leather, she distinguished herself from the market flood of skins by making hers “more feminine.” That is achieved with soft Italian leather and feminine cuts such as asymmetrical hems and sheering. Average wholesale prices are $250 for skirts and $260 for jackets.
After a modeling stint, Aflalo said she “got bored” and created the sample that took off at Fred Segal Melrose.
“We’re Moroccan, and we like to make clothes,” she said, adding that she grew up in the garment district because her parents were jobbers in the Seventies. “I was a Santee Alley brat,” she mused.
The inspiration for this line is what the name implies: It is truly divine.
Ta-Ning Conner, a 36-year-old born-again Christian and former model, said her vision for the collection of tie-dyed nylon mesh tops and cashmere stems from a dream.
“I was in a department store in the dream and people ran up to me and asked me what the name of my line was,” said Conner. “God was letting me know — and that’s why I named it Churchgirl,” she said.
All of her styles are named for scriptures in the bible, as are the colors, such as “Lilly of the Valley,” “Still Waters,” and “Promiseland.”
As for the use of tie-dye: “I didn’t invent tie-dye, but I did come up with my own technique, and it is not your typical hippie style,” she said.
For the first few months, Conner did the tie-dye in her own sink and bathtub. As the business started to grow, she looked for help and found it in her mother, Lorraine Foxworth, who now oversees the financial side of Churchgirl.
Cashmere tops average about $150 and are of 100 percent nylon mesh. Included are turtlenecks in full tie-dye or solid opposite sleeves, crewnecks, slit necks and V-necks.
For spring, Conner will offer a palette of dusty tie-dyed colors in simple shapes such as tank tops, mock-neck halters and sleeveless deep V-necks with a tie.