Richard Tyler The Famous Fashion Designer?
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The Wearing and Tearing of Richard Tyler
By Shawn Hubler, Shawn Hubler is a West senior writer.
February 26 2006
Richard Tyler pads through his Italianate dining room, Diet Coke in one hand, antibiotics in the other, a slender convalescent in a big white turtleneck. It is late morning, and he has been out of the hospital for five days. His long hair hangs in waves of salt and pepper. His 59-year-old face, which has been compared to those of various debauched British rock stars, is a study in glorious past excess.
But on this particular weekday, in this tall, sunlit room filled with objects of beauty, he is clean-shaven and fresh from a week's mandatory bed rest. "So sorry," he apologizes, rummaging around the marble furnishings and the base of a sweeping staircase. The designer, who has dressed everyone from Diana Ross to the Desperate Housewives, can't locate his shoes.
Then he smiles and makes eye contact. The effect is a sudden, almost irresistible impulse to help him, even for someone who has never met him, even as he is already shrugging and deciding to make do with his argyles. "One of fashion's nicest guys," those in his industry have called him, and to meet him is to understand the intense personal loyalty that he has inspired over the years. Or as he puts it: "I've always had people who believed in me."
For much of last year, those believers had also been worrying about Tyler. A scant decade ago, he was a bicoastal fashion star, honing the cutting edge of cool with his exquisitely tailored suits and gowns—proof that serious fashion could so exist in Los Angeles. But last May, he laid off all but four of his remaining employees, a close-knit workforce that had once numbered more than 200. Then he shuttered his landmark Beverly Boulevard boutique, once so popular that celebrities treated it as an after-hours hangout.
In New York, the talk of the runways that spring had been the extent to which his show was underwritten by Delta Airlines. Corporate tie-ins and design deals may have been the new thing, but Tyler, stubborn in his independence, had been seen as the least likely to sign up. "Did that show make you as sad as it made me?" the San Francisco Chronicle quoted one retailer tsk-ing, even as critics were raving about the clothing.
In L.A. fashion circles, there were similar laments. Tyler had been proof that rules could be broken—that the top rungs could be yours even if you didn't live in New York or kiss up to investors or go corporate or matriculate from some fancy design school. Now it appeared the master tailor had been overtaken by—what? Bad luck? Bad timing? Bad taste? ("Good taste is dead," is how one longtime local retailer summed up Tyler's scale-back.) Inevitably, there was gossip—that he was retiring, that he was depressed, that the stress had sundered his marriage and that he had separated from his business partner and wife of 17 years, Lisa Trafficante.
Then, in early December, Tyler scaled an 18-foot ladder to saw off a tree limb that was overshadowing a hedge in the sideyard of his home in South Pasadena, lost his footing and gave the metaphor of his past year a literal and nearly lethal interpretation.
"How stupid, dying this way, so stupid," he remembers thinking as he plummeted toward the manicured earth beneath him. Had the branch broken the way he'd intended, he would still have been standing on top of the ladder. In the garden of the peach-colored villa, marble sculptures of the Four Seasons stood sentry as the shy, sweet Australian who'd risen to fame as the Godfather of L.A. Fashion hit the ground, hard.
First you're a nobody, then you're a somebody, then, after a while, you're somebody who used to be somebody. Occasionally, there's the comeback. Everyone knows how fame works. In fashion—as in show business, politics, media and other such preoccupations—the arc is a given, nothing personal, a natural law of the A-list universe.
Fame, however, is not to be confused with real life, as anyone who has ever been famous will tell you. Or with real art. Or, for that matter, with real success. Those are more complex, more about who you are and what moves you and where you came from and how you end up, and Tyler—who spent the better part of December recovering from a ruptured spleen and a related bout of pneumonia—says he has been thinking a lot about them lately.
"One thing about fashion," he says, "is that I've never taken it that seriously. I've always taken it as a job. My mother did it, and I followed in her footsteps. But my father was a factory worker. I could just as easily have followed in his."
This isn't to say he is any less interested in his profession. "The news of my death has been greatly exaggerated," he told Women's Wear Daily on the day he announced that he was downsizing, and in fact he and Trafficante have continued to operate his eponymous couture business and bridal collection out of their South Pasadena atelier.
Private clients still fly in from around the world for his handmade gowns and suits and tuxedos, still so perfectly wrought that they could be worn inside out, as a Chicago retailer once famously marveled. In May, Delta Airlines will debut the chic new uniforms it commissioned from him, along with a line of luggage. Australian filmmakers are asking him to do costumes. Celebrities still crave him. ("I love Richard Tyler, omigod," laughs Diane Keaton. "He cuts a suit and literally transforms your body. Also, have you seen him? He's stunning.")
But Tyler, in a departure from the usual kiss-kiss shallowness of the fashion business, says the past year has been a lesson in what does and doesn't matter.
"I have wonderful sons whom I love, and they love me. I have a wife who has been so supportive," he says. "I want to be a granddad. I want to do all the normal things. And you know, this is the first time in my life I've been able to say that."
When Tyler is asked where he was born, he says he's from Sunshine, Australia. The name, to Americans, evokes kangaroos in sunglasses and surfin' Down Under, but in fact Tyler grew up in a tough industrial suburb. His mother, he says, was a strong-willed Roman Catholic who made ballerina costumes for the Tivoli Theatre and embroidered priests' robes for extra money.
"She worked hard," Tyler says, settling onto an antique love seat with his Yorkie Poo, Violet. "I can remember going to bed and waking up in the morning and she was still sewing. Big ashtray full of cigarettes. Still sewing." He was 5 when he started sewing too.
His memories are almost cinematic: The day his mother finished a bridal gown at the last minute, wrapped it in plastic and threw it over the handlebars of his bicycle with orders for him to take it to the bride as quickly as his pedals could go. The neighborhood boys who, when they found out he could sew, didn't beat him up but instead hired him to peg their pants for 10 shillings. The time a troupe of Japanese geishas came to town, and his mother took him backstage to see the beautiful women with white-painted faces.
"I saw all these other worlds, all these women, all this fantasy," he says. In his teen years, when his parents learned he'd been ditching school and demanded that he declare an ambition, he looked at his mother and blurted: "I want to do what you do."
He dropped out of school to become an apprentice. "One job was cutting corsets. Another was cutting shirts. Another job was cutting swimwear." He ticks off the assignments on lumpy fingers, scarred by industrial fabric-cutting blades. From factory to factory he went, until by the mid-1960s he and his mother were able to open a boutique featuring his designs and her sewing, and then a second shop, with even more outrageous fashions.
"My favorite designer back then was Ossie Clark," he says of the Liverpool Brit who defined the swinging look of '60s London. Mick Jagger and Twiggy wore Ossie Clark; so did Jimi Hendrix. It wasn't long before Billy Thorpe, the Australian rock star, discovered Tyler's dandyish, hand-tailored jackets. He was followed by other visiting rock 'n' roll acts.
Meanwhile, Tyler got married, although he wasn't yet 20. "She was the cutest girl in the clubs," he recalls of his first wife, Doris Taylor. "Big frizzy hair, big false eyelashes." She got odd jobs in beauty salons and public relations and, eventually, in rock 'n' roll too, as a secretary in Rod Stewart's entourage. The couple traveled and met people—artists, musicians. But they were young and unformed, Tyler says now. When his father died in 1971, they moved in with his mother. Four years later they had a son, Sher