NOLA L. SARKISIAN
Come Sunday, fashion designer Allen B. Schwartz will gather his four-person design team at his ranch-style home in Mandeville Canyon.
They'll turn on the Academy Awards telecast and sketch like crazy to capture the look of the most striking gowns. By the time host Whoopi Goldberg says goodnight to millions of viewers, they'll get down to the serious business: deciding what clothes they want to knock off.
The next day, seamstresses in local factories will whip up samples. By Tuesday, the designs will show up at Schwartz's New York showroom. Three weeks later, they will be on sale at department stores all over the country.
Schwartz has made a name in recent years as the knock-off king of Oscar fashions. He takes stunning designs worn by stars like Sharon Stone and Minnie Driver, and with a few minor changes, makes them available to the rest of the world for $150 to $350 apiece.
(A reproduction of the red Halston dress worn by Driver last year sells for $245. The white V-neck worn by Ashley Judd costs $275.)
"I'm the guy who says, 'You don't have to have sticker shock to wear the fantasy dress,' " he says.
As president of Los Angeles-based A.B.S., Schwartz has created a label for the masses who flock to his six outlets nationwide, as well as upscale department stores, after the latest Hollywood awards in search of the dress worn by their favorite star.
"The day after the Golden Globes, one woman called me and asked where the Gwyneth Paltrow dress was. They are impatient to get his renditions," said Mark Roberts, an evening dress buyer for Bloomingdale's. "He's developed a niche. These women are hungry for fashion. They look up to these stars and want to be like them."
How does Schwartz account for all the interest?
"People are getting more practical. They have their own sense of self and don't need layers of taffeta and chiffon to prove it," says the 54-year-old New York native. "There's a tremendous resurgence toward femininity and simplicity."
The strategy is paying off for A.B.S., which posted $40 million in sales last year, with knock-off gowns accounting for roughly 15 percent of the business.
"He reaches the working woman, the average salary, basic middle-class individual who likes disposable clothes. These women want to be in the trend of the moment and won't necessarily wear the gown next season," said April Hughes, fashion editor for Elle magazine.
His hallmark alacrity has earned him respect in the industry, but the imitations have cost-cutting limitations. Roughly 90 percent of the dresses are machine-made, with rayons and acetates substituted for the plush materials and intricate embroidery on the originals.
Despite kudos from customers and retailers, the designers themselves are keeping a distance. Representatives for Donna Karan International Inc., Richard Tyler, Gucci, Armani and Vera Wang all had no comment or didn't return phone calls.
Copying couture designs is hardly an original idea. In the 1930s, the Fashion Originators Guild tried to protect its designers from department-store imitations by filing a lawsuit. But the legal challenge failed.
Lawyers say it's hard to prove that a certain design is the property of one person or company.
"Fashions don't last long enough. It's hard for a major designer to establish a clear identity in the minds of the public, especially if someone else can change it enough to put his own identity on it," said Marvin Kleinberg, a partner with the law firm Kleinberg & Lerner LLP in Century City.
Schwartz, a high school dropout, started his career working for a bra manufacturer before moving on to coats and sportswear. His entrepreneurial spirit shined through when he helped co-found Esprit. He sold his 30 percent stake in the business and took a hiatus before starting A.B.S. in 1982.
His knock-off formula has worked for bride-to-be Romy Guntman, who was shopping recently at Schwartz's Montana Avenue store for dresses for her bridesmaids.
"His lines are classic and won't go out of style. I can wear his dresses 10 years from now," said the 31-year-old entertainment researcher. "Who cares if it's a knock-off? As long as it's well-made, it doesn't matter."
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