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Designer chooses to take the high road; Fashion: Richard Tyler's designs are characterized by fine fabrics, exquisite tailoring and rich colors.


Most of the fashion world is populated by big, lumbering businesses. They wallpaper their names across the world, defining success as logos plastered on backpacks from Hong Kong to Houston. Compared with them, Richard Tyler is an anomaly, a gifted throwback to a nearly extinct tradition of craftsmanship. He is well-known as a designer, but unlike most men and women who assume that title, he can actually sew.

Most mornings, he leaves his Italian-style villa in South Pasadena, Calif., and guides his black Jaguar to his new factory in a neat industrial complex in Monterey Park. There, 150 highly skilled employees construct the Richard Tyler Couture collection. They stitch the edges of buttonholes and lapels -- by hand. They trim errant threads -- by hand. They cut and hand-roll pocket welts only an eighth of an inch wide and make masterworks of hand beading and embroidery on pieces of precious silk and chiffon.

For most of his 52 years, Tyler has been involved with fashion. As a child, he helped his mother create costumes for the ballet and opera stages of Melbourne, Australia. In a way, he is still working with family, for he describes his staff as his children. Because he feels responsible for them, he doesn't lay them off when business is slow or replace them by assigning work to outside contractors, as many manufacturers do.

But Tyler looks less like a patriarch than an aging rocker, the sort of craggy tough guy who has bumped along miles of bad road. Because most of his employees are Asian immigrants, many of whom don't speak English, he uses pantomime and songs to communicate when a jacket should be longer or a waist nipped in.

"Beautiful, beautiful," he coos over the shoulder of a woman gathering pink chiffon by hand.

While free-lance designing in San Francisco earlier in his career, Tyler had worked with Chinese tailors. So, when he and his wife and business partner, Lisa Trafficante, launched his first collection in 1987, they went to Los Angeles' Chinatown in search of a Chinese newspaper. Their help-wanted ad for an experienced tailor, translated from English, drew a number of responses. His current right hand, Anna Yu, was the second person he hired. She and her sister, both trained in Shanghai, now handle the most elaborate assignments.

How ironic that when they started out, everyone in the business told Tyler and Trafficante that they couldn't run a high-fashion company from Los Angeles.

"The stores, the press. Everyone said we couldn't get the work force here," Tyler says. "There was no one else doing the quality that we wanted to do, except James Galanos. Also, at that time, at the end of the '80s, quality didn't have any importance. I remember when we would show our samples in New York, people would say they were too couture, too well-made. It was all about flash and disposability then. Now it's different. Clothing is expensive, so when women choose to buy something, they want it to last."

Tyler's jackets start at $1,600, and evening dresses sell for more than $2,000. Yet even before his name was established enough for him to command such prices, and before his couture collection grossed $14 million annually, Tyler made fine clothes the way his mother had taught him. In Australia, he began designing stage outfits for rock bands. He toured with Rod Stewart and became a favorite of Diana Ross and the Electric Light Orchestra. When he came to California, he'd take almost any work that was offered, including making costumes for Chippendale dancers. The night in 1987 when he sat next to a young actress named Lisa Trafficante at a dinner party in Los Angeles, he had a return ticket to Australia in his pocket and a $100 bill (the last of his cash) covering the hole in his shoe. She persuaded him to stay.

Three months later, he had created a men's line that they brought to New York to show buyers and the press. It had a dandyish flair, and several Tyler hallmarks persist in his collections: fine fabrics, exquisite tailoring and rich colorations.

The night before opening the Tyler Trafficante boutique in Hollywood, they talked about the future. Tyler's dreams were to have store windows on New York's Fifth Avenue displaying his designs, to sell at Bergdorf Goodman, to win the Coty Award (then fashion's highest honor) and to show his collection in Paris. In the next 10 years, he has checked off most of that list. The Coty Award was replaced by the Council of Fashion Designers of America awards in 1981. He has his own boutique at Bergdorf Goodman on Fifth Avenue and has been featured in its windows many times. While he hasn't made it to a Paris runway yet, his collection was shown in London in 1997.

Although Tyler has staged fashion shows in New York, he prefers to invite a small group of editors to his New York home, where models stroll through the rooms. "Showing the clothes up close changes everything," he says. "You can't see the detail on the big runway."

Pub Date: 01/31/99

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