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Katayone Adeli: A Designer Who Knows the Power of Elusiveness

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. "Richard's cool."

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.


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