Lars, Byron 1965–
Byron Lars 1965–
Once well on his way to becoming the “black Calvin Klein,” according to Savoy, fashion designer Byron Lars hit Seventh Avenue in a flash, and then was gone. His 1991 collection took the fashion world by storm, and he was named Rookie of the Year by the authoritative fashion trade magazine Women’s Wear Daily. His designs sold strong in such high-end department stores as Saks Fifth Avenue, Bloomingdales, and Henri Bendel. Lars’s decline was just as swift as his rise—after a licensing deal went wrong, Lars was forced to quit his design business. The designer returned in 1997 with a line for one very special client—in a deal with Mattel, Lars unveiled a line of designer fashions for Barbie.
A native of the San Francisco, California, bay area, Lars began making his own baggy pants in the tenth grade, with the help of a neighbor who knew how to sew. He earned his first money in fashion by sewing prom dresses for friends in high school. He studied fashion design at Brooks College in Long Beach, California, and then at New York City’s Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT). He apprenticed with designer Kevan Hall in Los Angeles and once freelanced for Ronaldus Shamask and Gary Gaytas in New York. In the early days, Lars told Essence, “I worked, slaved, freelanced for anybody.”
As a fashion design student at FIT in 1987, Lars won the first annual Texitalian student design contest, which was presented by FIT and the Italian Trade Commission. For the contest, each student was provided with Italian fabrics, and the design was up to them. Lars’s winning design was a black and white wool houndstooth checked peg skirt and a black and white silk stripe spiraling jacket. Even as a student, Lars knew that cutting and patternmaking were his strengths, and told Women’s Wear Daily that, regardless of the look of his clothes, he knew they would “fit beautifully.”
Lars, tired of working for others, decided to launch his own collection in 1990. He made seven pieces and carried them himself around New York, traveling from store to store, trying to sell his wares. In 1991, when Lars released his second collection, huge fanfare ensued, and he was named Rookie of the Year by Women’s Wear Daily. Though fame and attention were coming at Lars in a tidal wave, he still was
At a Glance…
Born on January 19, 1965, in Oakland, CA. Education: Brooks College, A.A., 1985; Fashion Institute of Technology, attended, 1986–87.
Career: Fashion designer. Free-lance sketcher and pattern maker, 1986–91; showed first collection, 1991; En Vogue fashion collection, designer, c. 1993; ran Byron Lars Shirt Tales, 1990–98; designed fashions for Barbie, 1997-; launched Green-T label, 2000; launched Beauty Mark label, 2001.
Awards: Selected to represent USA at the International Concours des Jeunes Créateurs de Mode, Paris, 1986, and at the Festival du Lin, Monte Carlo, 1989; won first annual Texitalian design contest for fashion design students, Fashion Institute of Technology and Italian Trade Commission, 1987; named Rookie of the Year, Women’s Wear Daily, 1991.
Addresses: Office —Byron Lars Design Studio, 244 W.39th St., New York, NY 10018–4413 (212) 302–5890.
working from his shared apartment, operating on a shoestring budget and waiting for his work to pay off. Soon, without even a fashion show behind him, Lars was overwhelmed by success, taking orders for his women’s clothes from high-end retailers like Bloomingdale’s, Neiman Marcus, Macy’s, and Henri Bendel. Bloomingdale’s planned a signature Byron Lars boutique section in its flagship Manhattan store, with dresses starting at &325. “When you see a talent like this,” Kal Ruttenstein, senior vice president and fashion director for Bloomingdale’s told Women’s Wear Daily, “everyone has to get behind him.”
The designer based his designs on menswear, and styled his fall collection in an outdoors theme. He cut red and black buffalo plaid into fit-and-flare jacket dresses, complete with a duck-decoy handbag. His spring line, which consisted of only seven pieces, was a take on baseball uniforms. Lars’s signature design, however, the one that would set him apart and garner the most attention, was his sexy, body-conscious shirt-dresses for women made from basic shirting fabric and styled after men’s Oxford shirts. “The whole premise for my collections is to take the ordinary and make it glamorous,” the designer said in an interview with Women’s Wear Daily. Another element of Lars’s signature style is fun—he created an edible, wearable, tiered wedding dress for wedding season in June of 1991. “As long as he remains a free spirit he has a bright future,” one buyer told Women’s Wear Daily.
Saks Fifth Avenue held an unconventional opening party for Lars’s line. The luxury department store presented Lars’s designs to invited guests in a hip-hop party atmosphere, complete with dancers and music by Deee-Lite, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, and TLC—a departure from Saks’s typically staid, high-end fashion shows. For the store, the party was about more than fun—the fledgling designer’s sales were projected at &1 million for 1991. “From the time we received his first collection, it’s performed well,” Mara Urshel, senior vice president and general merchandise manager, told Women ’s Wear Daily. “It’s so exciting for us …. He’s sold better, at this stage [of his career] than any of the young designers we’ve carried.” Lars also outlasted many other young designers, few of whom were able to direct their talent with a strong business sense.
The success of Lars’s 1991 collection was only a shadow of what was to come. His fall of 1992 line was undeniably American, an ode to legendary aviator Amelia Earhart, and confirmed the Lars sensation. His first full-fledged collection was undeniably fun, echoing the 1940s era. By 1993, Lars was “Seventh Avenue’s BYT (Brightest Young Thing),” according to fashion writer Orla Healy for the Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service. Lars borrowed from sexy and strong television women Emma Peel and Superwoman for his 1993 collection, and even invented his own character, Lady Kung Fu. His red, black, and white micro-miniskirts, worn with thigh-high stockings and bra tops were not for everyone, but were “dramatic, colorful, and kinky,” Healy continued. Lars accessorized with toy guns and an opium pipe, which sparked some sensation and controversy.
Though his first few seasons were self-funded, Lars’s business became so thoroughly successful and lucrative that he began licensing his designs to a company called San Siro, Inc. A deal was inked in 1995 that allowed San Siro to make Byron Lars’s Shirt Tales, the designer’s primary line. San Siro then proceeded to sell unauthorized products and sold Lars’s clothes to outlet stores and discounters, which “for a young designer is death” to the designer’s reputation, Mary Ann Wheaton, Lars’s business partner, later testified in court, according to Women’s Wear Daily. High-end retailers like Saks, Bendel, and Bloomingdale’s do not appreciate that their customers can buy the same Lars shirt they sell for &290, for &39 at an outlet store. In 1997 Lars won a court order that barred San Siro from continuing to sell anything bearing Lars’s name, but the damage was done. Lars attributed a two-year decline in his business to San Siro, and was unable to maintain his once top-selling design business.
Though he was forced to quit his own business, Lars bounced back in the spring of 1997 with designs exclusively for one of the world’s most famous fashioni-stas. At New York’s Fashion Café, the designer unveiled a runway collection for none other than Barbie. In a deal with toy company Mattel, Lars created a series of African-American Barbies dressed to the nines in his most outlandish fashions. Lars redefined the doll with distinctive facial features and realistic hairstyles, and outfitted her in a textural, colorful range of haute couture items.
Though he enjoyed outfitting Barbie, Lars told Savoy, he favored “designing for real women and real people.” To this end, he returned to his signature success—the shirt. He was part of a shirt-based line called Green T in 2000, and Lars launched the Beauty Mark label, a collection of feminine tailored shirts, in 2001. With experience behind him, Lars hoped to make a more balanced go of his business the second time around. He told Savoy, “I am not so crazy about being famous like I once thought I might be.”
Essence, November 1991, p. 74; June 2000, p. 54.
Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, November 1, 1993.
Savoy, September 2001, p. 56.
Women’s Wear Daily, April 6, 1987, p. 12; April 24, 1991, p. 8; March 9, 1992, p. 18; April 15, 1992, p. 6; May 7, 1997, p. 9; July 7, 1997, p. 12; July 20, 2000, p. 13.
Born: Oakland, California, 19 January 1965. Education: Studied at the Brooks Fashion Institute, Long Beach, 1983-85; Fashion Institute of Technology, 1986-87; selected to represent USA at the International Concours des Jeunes Créateurs de Mode, Paris, 1986, and at the Festival du Lin, Monte Carlo, 1989. Career: Freelance sketcher and pattern maker, Kevan Hall, Gary Gatyas, Ronaldus Shamask, Nancy Crystal Blouse Co., New York, 1986-91; showed first collection, 1991; first full-scale New York show, 1992; designer, En Vogue fashion collection, from 1993; signed licensing deal with San Siro for Shirttails collection, 1995 (agreement nullified in court, 1997); Cinnabar Sensation Barbie, 1996; signed with Mattel for new line of African American Barbies with designer clothes, 1997; backer pulled funds and firm closed, 1997; launched new collection, Green T, 1999. Exhibitions: Byron Lars' Illustrations, Ambassador Gallery, New York, 1992. Awards: Vogue Cecil Beaton award for Illustration, London, 1990. Address: 202 West 40th Street, New York, NY 10018, U.S.A.
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The career of Byron Lars took wing with his fall 1992 collection inspired by legendary aviatrix Amelia Earhart, but Lars had already been one of the most closely watched and praised newcomers in New York for several years. Mary Ann Wheaton, who worked with Patrick Kelly during his Paris years and took him from $700,000 in business to $7.5 million in 18 months, took Lars under her wing in February 1991 and placed his clothes in top stores within a week.
The fall 1992 collection, Lars' first full-scale New York show, consolidated his reputation (and, not coincidentally, his business circumstances, including backing from C. Itoh & Company) and was built on the same strengths that had characterized his earlier work. In an interview in Essence (September 1992), Lynn Manulis, president of Martha International (which became one of the first stores to carry Lars' work), said, "It was the best and most original collection that happened during the entire fashion week." Lars also attracted the attention of dance legend Merce Cunningham, with whom he became friends.
Appropriating from menswear, with a special interest in the men's dress shirts and in stripes and patterns especially associated with menswear, melding isolated elements of exaggeration with conventional dress in a dry irony, and responding to high fashion and street influence, Lars developed a signature style while still in his twenties. According to Anne-Marie Schiro (New York Times, 7 June 1992), stores "love his clothes, which can be quirky yet classic, streetwise but never vulgar. His inspiration may come from baseball or aviation, from rappers or schoolgirls. And the accessories are outrageous: caps with oversize crowns and two foot-long peaks, lunch boxes or boom boxes as handbags. They make you smile."
Designer Jeffrey Banks called Lars "the African-American Christian Francis Roth," relating the former's incongruity with the latter's paradoxes of sophisticated innocence in clothing. Roth and Lars share yet another characteristic: they are both consummate masters of the cut, enjoying the construction of the garment almost in the manner of the couture. Lars is not merely making a joke of men's shirts cross-dressed for women, but took the shirttail as a constructive element, reshaped the bust, and deconstructed the shirt to be worn by a woman. It is as much a tour de force in construction as it is an apt idea of 1990s gender transaction. If Lars' clothes were merely facetious, they would succeed as great fun; but they succeed as great fashion because they are beautifully cut.
In adapting menswear, Lars is attentive to feminine outcomes, offering a kind of enhanced sensuality in the presence of male and female in one garment. In many instances, peplums emphasize waist and hips (but not with the 1980s power look), and the sartorial nuancing of shirt and jacket for women directs attention to a broadened expanse of the bust. Often including even men's ties, the result is unequivocally feminine when Lars includes a built-in bra for shaping. Even as he used airplane motifs in textiles in his epochal fall 1992 collection, his fantasy was not a little boy's—aviator jackets had a curvaceous femininity approximating Azzedine Alaïa while shorts, short skirts, and leggings emphasized the female. A duck hunter's outfit in plaid (with a duck decoy made into a handbag), seemingly destined for the L.L. Bean catalogue before a perverse, savvy drollery rendered it chic, and it was featured in the Tribute to the Black Fashion Museum exhibition at the Fashion Institute of Technology, New York, in spring 1992.
Even before the Earhart collection, Lars was influenced by the 1940s. His twists of menswear in the best Rosie-the-Riveter tradition and his fascination with the sarong recall the period. Both shirts and sarongs depended upon tying, a sense of the improvised wrap, that the designer built into the garment. In this, Lars seemed an antecedent in Claire McCardell, whose lifelong interest in casual wraps is similar to Lars' fascination with the shaping and informality afforded by tying. He has also been influenced by pop singers, such as the 1993 En Vogue collection, inspired by the group of the same name. The following year, he created a collection based on African themes; the next, 1995, he had fun with fur, joining other designers such as Yeohlee Teng, Ben Kahn and various others in designing fur collections; and in 1996 Mattel asked Lars to design a collectible Barbie doll, complete with her own fashion wardrobe. His collection that year was a result of being inspired by Barbie, with charcoal gray and cocoa brown colors gracing the line. The Barbie foray proved so successful Mattel asked Lars in 1997 to develop an entire line of African American Barbie dolls, all dressed in designer duds. The same year Lars negotiated with Victoria's Secret to design a collection of sexy, fun cotton lingerie separates and silk robes bearing the firm's logo.
Unfortunately for Lars, the walls came crashing down in late 1997 despite a slew of promising licensing deals. After his financial backing was withdrawn, Lars had little more than the Mattel Barbie collaboration to keep him going. Commenting on the dry period to Women's Wear Daily (20 July 2000), "I freelanced with lots of different types of companies and stretched my creative wings." Yet the times were far from rosy, and he learned a tough lesson on licensing deals. "I'd rather flip burgers at McDonald's than go through that again," he declared. Lars did, however, orchestrate a comeback with a new funky collection in 1999, called Green T, with his name conspicuously absent from the label. "With Green T, we intentionally left my name off the label because we wanted to see if it could fly without a designer angle. We just wanted to do a really great product with design integrity at a really great price."
Lars is only one of many African American designers achieving prominence in New York in the last decade. Others include C.D. Greene, Gordon Henderson, Michael McCollum, Tracy Reese, and Kevin Smith, all inspired by the works of previous designers such as Stephen Burrows, Patrick Kelly, Thierry Mugler, and Willi Smith. If still considered a prodigy today, since he is only in his thirties, Byron Lars is making clever yet important clothes, wearable ideas, wondrous social transplants and mutations, and some of the most sensitively and sensuously cut garments in America.
updated by Daryl F. Mallett