Fashion Week took a step forward, the celeb-as-designer trend seems to have sent it two steps back.
Though the presence of bigger and more legitimate designers has grown over the past few years, fashion regulars Sue Wong, Kevan Hall and Ed Hardy are not showing Fall 2008 collections at Culver City's Smashbox photo studios next week.
So as Fashion Week gets under way Sunday, the spotlight turns to the likes of "The Hills" star Lauren Conrad, Nicky Hilton and the Pussycat Dolls.
Yes, the Pussycat Dolls.
Hey, it's just Hollywood, right?
Wong, for one, calls the emerging trend "absolutely bogus."
But Smashbox co-founder Davis Factor says the week "is for everybody," from established designers to show biz types. Even the burlesque-inspired singing girl group.
"Sure, every celebrity and his brother wants to be a fashion designer," said Wong, who has been designing since 1968. "It's not like anybody can pick it up and do it. It's a science. You need to know fit and construction."
Wong, a dependable draw for the past six years at Mercedes-Benz L.A. Fashion Week, said she plans to show there again next season.
This season, however, she will stick to an ornate '20s and '30s inspired collection at her restored historic mansion The Cedars "to do something different," she said.
"I don't believe in reality TV stars turning into designers or a music mogul or a flash-in-the-pan turning into a designer," Wong said, acknowledging lines by Sean "Diddy" Combs and Jennifer Lopez. "It's all about merchandizing and them trying to capitalize on their 15 minutes of fame. I don't think those kind of houses can be taken seriously. What can be taken seriously is a real, bona fide talent."
Factor, though, gushed that he has always wanted to bring entertainment and music to L.A. Fashion Week, and emphasized that "the fashion we steer to our event is all very serious."
"A lot of what I see these celebrities doing, like Gwen Stefani with L.A.M.B., they're also passionate about designing. ... I would like to see more celebrities showing in Los Angeles," he said.
But is Conrad, in Wong's words, a "real, bona fide talent"? Only her upcoming Fashion Week debut will tell.
The 22-year-old petite blonde, known for starring roles on hit MTV reality shows "Laguna Beach" and "The Hills," has cast her style influence long and wide this year on the red carpet and with her own casual Lauren Conrad Collection, available online. Magazine covers have sailed her way — the kind of exposure not normally available to up-and-coming designers.
"I think my involvement in reality television has played a bittersweet role in my career," Conrad said in an email to The Associated Press. "If I wasn't on TV I wouldn't have my line, but because I'm on TV people don't take me seriously."
And there's the rub.
"People in the entertainment industry try to capitalize on their 15 minutes in every way possible," she continued. "The difference is I want a line that lasts longer than 15 minutes. It's what I've always wanted to do and what I hope to continue with when I'm done with entertainment."
Conrad, who has trained at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles, said the additional pressure thrust upon her Fashion Week debut made her nervous while working on the line. She described it as "California chic," basing this season on a recent trip to Paris reflected in simple, clean pieces accessorized with berets, netting, leather gloves, bows and lace.
"I will probably never have the respect I want in the fashion industry, but I can work hard every day to try and prove myself," Conrad said. "Can I really be criticized for taking advantage on an opportunity that allows me to have what I've always wanted?"
Wong still voiced her skepticism.
"Let's see whether she can survive and thrive. It takes so much dedication," she said. "You gotta really pay your dues to be a serious artist."
This season's 22 shows include Paris Hilton's sister Nicky's high-end Nicholai line, Ukrainian designer Veronika Jeanvie in collaboration with '60s hotshot Paco Rabanne, and artsy L.A. based Whitley Kros, designed by Sophia Coloma and actress Marissa Ribisi, the wife of alt-rocker Beck.
In an unfortunate blow, Hall, another established Fashion Week mainstay, at the last minute pulled out from headlining one of the week's prime nights, leaving a gaping hole in the couture department.
Hall is known for his elegant, red carpet-worthy gowns popular with the Hollywood set (he dressed nominee Ruby Dee in ruby red at last month's Oscars), and he closed Fashion Week's Fall 2007 season last year.
That closing slot, though, will be filled this season by more saucy fare: a Pussycat Dolls lingerie line designed by their founder Robin Antin, who headed up a reality TV show last year involving the group.
In his own defense, Hall said that having his small staff concentrate on licensing projects was "more important than doing a fashion show," especially with a brand new, 5,000 square-foot space under renovation.
He emphasized the decision "wasn't a reflection on anyone," and dispelled rumors that he had lost sponsors. Hall's sudden dropout pointed to the absence of another mega line, Christian Audigier's tattoo-inspired Ed Hardy label, which was a hit at Fashion Week last Fall.
Factor said that Audigier wanted a night spot, but with Hall snagging the last one, Ed Hardy decided not to show. By the time Hall canceled, it was too late.
The season's designer-light schedule had other factors, according to Factor.
"The Hollywood writers strike affected the season 25 percent. More of the designers are watching their money. Sales are down. Fashion shows are expensive. And many designers don't have collections ready yet," Factor said.
But for Whitley Kros, named after a fictional jet-setting gal who is a "mixture of sophistication, rock 'and' roll and poetry," Los Angeles is still a glam destination for fashion designers, regardless of celebrity status, said the label's Coloma.
"Go for it. At the end of the day, there's room for everyone," she said.