Katayone Adeli: A Designer Who Knows the Power of Elusiveness
By CATHY HORYN
The New York Times
September 7, 1999
At Katayone Adeli's new store, which opens Tuesday at
35 Bond Street, there will be no party, and certainly no invitation as
adorable as jelly beans rolling around in a clear plastic box, which is
how the owners of Kirna Zabete, a new store in SoHo, announced their party
to be held on Thursday night. Nor will Ms. Adeli be having a runway show
during the spring collections next week -- though if she suddenly chose
to do so, probably every big-league editor and retailer would be there.
"There are so many designers, so many collections, people don't
stand out," she explained. There is no telling how many Seventh Avenue
executives, who get almost apoplectic at the thought of spending $400,000
for a fashion show, would look at Ms. Adeli and then at their own designers
and say, kind of moodily, "Why can't you think more like that?"
Anyway, at this stage, with people like Gwyneth Paltrow telling André
Leon Talley in Vogue that she tries to get "every pair of pants Katayone
Adeli makes," it's not as if the designer, who is 36, needs the buzz.
"I have a certain cult following," she said mildly as she sat
on a curved sofa in her store, "without having done fashion shows
and without any advertising."
Ms. Adeli is an interesting woman: attractive, with dark features
and an alert expression that seems to comprehend everyone's motives, including
her own. For instance, she understands how the press needs designers to
symbolize a new style. "They want to put you in a category -- 'Is
she going to be the next Donna Karan, is she a pretty young thing?' "
Ms. Adeli said, frowning. "They'd like to work that angle."
Consequently, she said, she rarely gives interviews and she won't allow
magazines or newspapers to photograph her, though her press agent is happy
to supply a portrait. "I don't want very much written about me,"
she said, smiling. "Because I don't want to be a darling of the press."
Of course, by being elusive, she is assured of keeping people interested,
and she probably understands that, too.
Ms. Adeli, who was born in Iran and grew up in California, first came
to attention in the early 1990's when she was hired by Francine Browner,
who owned a Los Angeles-based sportswear company, to start a division called
Parallel. It became a success, with a wholesale volume of $25 million in
1995, and Ms. Adeli gained a following for her fitted shirts and skinny
trousers. In 1996, when Max Azria of BCBG acquired the company, Ms. Adeli
sold her shares and, a year later, opened her own business in a loft on
West 39th Street. Sean Barron, a partner, handles sales, Ms. Adeli does
the designing, and together they run the business.
The key to Ms. Adeli's cult status may be that her clothes
are simple and sexy -- and don't change much each season. "There's
nothing wrong with the familiar if you make it better," she said.
Her clothes sell widely, and apparently well, at stores like Barneys, Linda
Dresner, Ultimo in Chicago and Harvey Nichols in London.
"I think she's the future," said Polly Mellen, the fashion
editor who just ended a long career at Condé Nast. "Her clothes
are about pieces, sportswear and a little touch of femininity. They're
the clothes I work in, can count on. And the price is right."
When Ms. Adeli first approached the architect Richard Gluckman about
designing a store, he initially refused. Known for his art gallery and
museum designs as well as his modernist stores for clients like Helmut
Lang and Yves Saint Laurent, Gluckman said he was reluctant to take on
another retail project. "But I just charmed him," Ms. Adeli said.
The upshot is a starkly minimalist setting on Bond near Lafayette
Street, with white plaster walls, dark wood floors and a long counter covered
in black leather and punctuated with a single computer terminal. The clothes,
on rails in two open rooms, can't be seen from the street.
Though evidently charmed, Gluckman said: "Getting Katayone to make
decisions about certain aspects of the design was difficult. She didn't
want it to be too extreme, and she didn't have the same kind of confidence
that Helmut did. She also didn't have the recognition, so she had to let
people know it was a focused store. And I understand that."
One thing Ms. Adeli kept coming back to was her customers. She seemed
to have a pretty good idea of what they wanted. As for her famous clients,
like Ms. Paltrow, she is flattered to have them but said she doesn't give
them deals or free clothes. "It's like we've lost our minds in a way,"
she said of such industry practices.
But what if she's wrong? What if having shows and giving parties with
celebrities is how one builds a modern fashion business?
Ms. Adeli looked utterly calm. "I hope there's more than one method
that's right," she said.