LOS ANGELES — Citing Mark Twain, Richard Tyler said Friday, “The news of my death has been greatly exaggerated.”
The designer, who helped pioneer red-carpet dressing and is considered a godfather to the Los Angeles fashion community, informed his employees Thursday that he would be laying off one-third of his staff or 10 people, closing his signature boutique here and selling off the inventory.
Tyler and his wife and business partner, Lisa Trafficante, stressed this doesn’t mean the end of the business they launched in 1987.
The business will now be solely a made-to-measure atelier for private clients, something it had been slowly becoming in recent months.
The South Pasadena atelier will continue housing 16 members of Tyler’s highly skilled production team. Wholesaling on a large scale is out, but they are still open to continuing selling their successful bridal collection to long-term accounts such as Barneys New York and Neiman Marcus, and licensing opportunities are being considered, they noted.
“Over the years there were ways of doing business that we just never changed,” Trafficante said Friday. “Even though this is a positive change, growing up can also be hard.”
For Tyler, this is as much a move at improving his quality of life, as he’s still recovering from falling off a 14-foot ladder at his home and hurting his leg. He said he also wants to spend more time with his 11-year-old son, Edward.
“We’ve been working so hard for so many years, I want to enjoy life now,” Tyler said. “But I would go crazy if I had to retire.”
Speculation about a possible shutdown of the company has been rife for a couple of years as the founders tried to deal with stumbles, such as fit issues or attempted partnerships, by reevaluating and shifting course. Among the divisions introduced during that period was a secondary line called Tyler, and a bridge-priced evening collection called Richard Tyler Eve.
Some have pointed to the scarcity of Tyler’s gowns at award shows in the last few years. But competition on the red carpet has become so fierce that houses with millions more to spend on providing free dresses — and even paying celebrities to wear them — have not only squeezed, but turned off many other designers. Tyler dressed “Desperate Housewives” Felicity Huffman and Marcia Cross at January’s Golden Globes.
The signature store, in an Art Deco corner building on trendy Beverly Boulevard, has been open by appointment only, increasing speculation that business was not as usual.
That became more obvious recently. Despite glowing reviews at New York Fashion Week in February, where Tyler unveiled uniforms he designed for Delta Air Lines alongside his fall collection, he told WWD he would no longer be designing rtw and eveningwear. Instead, Tyler said he wanted to focus on bridal and made-to-measure, services that range on average from $3,000 to $9,000.
The speculation created a stir in the fashion community here. Tyler has always been a mentor to the extent that many designers, sales reps and other industry players who once trained alongside him have long referred to his company as RTU, as in Richard Tyler University.
They’ve also held up Tyler as proof that California can render more than fast-turn jeans and junior wear. Tyler’s strength — as much as his curse in terms of overhead — was the highly skilled production staff who turned out the beautifully constructed, hand-finished suits and gowns that put him on the map.
While a similar reality dogs designers in New York and Europe, it’s a fact of life here where the pursuit of quality craftsmanship has more often than not proven a struggle among fledgling designers. Among them, Tyler alums Michelle Mason and Erica Davies, who’s businesses remain small, and David Cardona, who recently traded in his house for a directorship at contemporary firm.
“We were so devoted to our staff we didn’t want to go,” Trafficante said. “But manufacturing in California is ridiculous. The taxes, the way the business is set up. I want to call the governor.”
The staff, once up to 90, was shrunk to about 20 in the last year in an attempt to keep in-house production. “But you need the more people to make more sales and then then your taxes go up,” Trafficante lamented.