Designer has a flair for the dramatic Fashion: For her Hollywood clients, Libby Lane creates an outfit that is an event in itself. Ask Madonna and Jada Pinkett.

January 22, 1998|By Mimi Avins | Mimi Avins,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. -- Rich, powerful, clever and popular as she is, even Madonna has problems, sometimes. Like what to wear to her birthday party. There's the Dolce & Gabbana coat, but Gwyneth Paltrow and Winona Ryder and God knows who else have already been photographed in it. An old Versace would do, but it seems so aggressive for a mild August day when the air smells of jasmine and the sky is blue and cloudless. No, an intimate celebration at a restaurant in Los Angeles calls for something elegant, original, very, very cool.

Fashion deliverance came in the person of Libby Lane, a designer who, until she opened a cozy little shop in a converted cottage on Burton Way, sold clothes from her Beverly Hills home. After spending a Sunday morning browsing among floaty coats fashioned from brightly blooming silks and dresses made of fragile chiffons, the material birthday girl fell for a white satin ankle-length skirt embroidered with figures of children. The Chinese tapestry Lane had shaped into a slinky skirt would go perfectly with a bustier, Madonna decided. "Do you have a bustier?" asked a friend who'd tagged along.

"Do I have a bustier?" Madonna echoed. Did Davy Crockett have a coonskin cap?

While designers in other fashion capitals may scurry along the sidewalks muttering things like "tonal, athletic and unconstructed" into their cell phones, a loyal, local cult that appreciates unusual, classically pretty clothes looks to Lane as their high priestess.

With her sexy shoes, big hazel eyes and dramatically dark hair, Lane fits the part. A painter and former fabric designer, she grew up in Beverly Hills and began her home-based business two years ago. "I had always worked for someone else, because I wasn't ready to take on the responsibility of designing and running a business," Lane says. "And then, I was. Part of it was that when I went into stores all I saw was a sea of black. I've always loved color, interesting details and beautiful fabrics, so that's what I wanted to work with."

Word of Lane's talent spread quickly. Rosanna Arquette was an early customer. Courteney Cox, Jada Pinkett, Salma Hayek and Sandra Bullock followed. "We live in a town that's so event-oriented," Lane says. "A lot of my clients are young actresses. They need things to wear to premieres and they want to look unique but not overdone. My clothes are dressy, but casual in a way, too."

When the business outgrew her home -- "There were no boundaries, people wanted to come at all hours and seven days a week" -- Lane created a home away from home. The bungalow in a mostly residential area had housed an interior design firm. Lane painted the walls pale pink, installed new wood floors meant to look old, then lavished voluptuous arrangements of fresh flowers and scented candles throughout.

"I didn't want a typical retail space," she says. "I wanted people to come in here and feel very calm, and feel that all our attention is focused on them."

Women with neither the time nor creativity to pair a backless brocade top with narrow vintage satin trousers benefit from Lane's eye for the felicitous mix. After all, the women stealing the show at parties these days aren't the ones in streamlined, reductive suits. The spotlight falls on eclectic combinations, and lingers on clothes that look paradoxically new and old.

Once they get inside her door, Lane wanted shoppers to experience a slower rhythm, as if life's soundtrack had switched from Melissa Etheridge's growl to Ella Fitzgerald crooning romantic standards. Newcomers to the store often say, "I could live here." The homeyness of the setting makes them dawdle a while, providing time for the intricacies of Lane's style to sink in.

A velvet jacket fastens with handmade enameled buttons. A subtle border is painted on the hem of silk trousers. "Even if something's beaded, it's kind of sporty," she explains, "because I like clean lines." Yet Lane's love of color, pattern, texture and detail thankfully robs even the simplest shapes of any potential for austerity.

The Libby Lane boutique houses her ready-to-wear and made-to-order collections. When a woman likes a sample of a couture garment, a new one is made to her measurements. "The number of things we can make is often limited by the amount of vintage fabric I have," Lane says. "Many things are one of a kind. If I find a very special little strip of old fabric or some antique lace, I'll buy it and design something around it. I think my tendency to make only a few of each design comes from my painting background. Because as an artist, you don't sit and paint 20 copies of the same canvas. You move on and develop a new idea." Prices range from $300 for an organza skirt or silk shell to $2,500 for a long evening coat.

Having her own shop also gave Lane the opportunity to sell the work of other artists she admires. An armoire is stuffed with patchwork quilts made by a woman in Milan who works with fabrics dyed in India. Delicate jewelry by Los Angeles designers Devon McClarey, Kimme Winter and Suzanne Wilson complements Lane's clothes.

Miniature mannequins wearing Libby Lane dresses that feature the same fabrics and unfussy silhouettes as the ones made for big girls could be preserved forever in the wardrobes of stylish dolls after their human owners outgrow them. Lane's 1-year-old daughter has a few. And yes, Madonna's baby girl wears Libby Lane dresses too.

Pub Date: 1/22/98

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