FASHION AND STYLE :Smart Kooky; Gwen Stefani's quirky L.A.M.B. label is attracting fashion followers and celebrities alike. And for the pop diva, it's a very serious business, as she tells Lee Carter. (Features) Lee Carter.

The Independent (London, England), July 21, 2005 pNA
Full Text: COPYRIGHT 2005 Independent Newspapers (UK) Ltd.
Byline: Lee Carter

With every recording artist and her chauffeur coming out with a fashion collection, you would think that public interest in the phenomenon would be waning. But standing head and high-collar above the rest is Gwen Stefani, the No Doubt lead singer whose nascent L.A.M.B. label possesses all the punch of the mediagenic mogulette herself. For Stefani, her own private fashion brand ranks as 'the most surreal and gorgeous thing going on right now'.

Let's be clear. L.A.M.B. is no vanity label, but a heady mix of old Hollywood and old world, freak show and peepshow. As smart and studied as it is sexy and stylish, it is attracting fashion followers and celebrities alike. Customers like Cameron Diaz and Lucy Liu would pull each other's hair for it, and probably have, while the indie songwriter Rufus Wainwright owns two of most of it, and the tennis star Lindsay Davenport routinely squeezes her tall frame into it. Even the Chinese factory workers who stitch together each piece, from the sweats and T-shirts to frilly skirts and trenches, have put up posters of the scarlet-lipped siren upon which to gaze for inspiration.

In the New York showroom, perusing racks stuffed with colourful pieces from autumn 2005, it's easy to see who the proverbial muse is. 'I'm the L.A.M.B. girl. That would be me. Me. There's nothing in the line that would be for anyone else,' affirms Stefani, 35, by phone from her LA home. 'I'm greedy, and I'm the biggest thief out there. I love finding things and making them mine. It's like I say to friends, don't wear anything that I might wear because I'll be borrowing that shit and sending it to China, and you won't see it again until it comes out in my next collection!'

Asian fabrication aside, L.A.M.B. " and particularly the autumn collection, the fourth " owes its very existence to the UK, down to its signature Olde English typeface. It was in London that the meat of the research for the label took place, a process involving the Grammy-winning chanteuse and co rummaging through piles of old raiment in musty costume houses. How else could one trip over forgotten but endlessly inspiring Pirates of the Caribbean outfits?

With some dusting off and a good amount of vision, the threadbare finds formed the L.A.M.B. look for autumn " stiff pirate jackets, swashbuckler mini-bloomers in tweed (that retailers wouldn't touch until it was revealed that they were Stefani's favourite), custom plaids woven in Scotland, and assorted ragged references to royalty.

'This dress is pirate-y, corset-y weirdness,' explains Zaldy, L.A.M.B.'s co-designer. He pulls out a distressed jersey as he gives a tour of the showroom in SoHo. Suddenly, he recalls that 'Gwyn Pal' (that's Gwyneth Paltrow to you and me) needs to return a similar dress, and makes a mental note to call her. Other pieces include obsessively trimmed jackets, chiffon dresses with velvet bows, printed raincoats and leather trenches with ruffles at the back, all ranging from $400 to $900.

The label has a still deeper connection with England. Stefani says that she got the idea for L.A.M.B. (short for Love. Angel. Music. Baby.) when she saw her first fashion show in New York, a collection by the originator of the modern pirate look, Vivienne Westwood. It must have been five years ago, Stefani estimates, as she had pink hair at the time. 'I was just a thrift-store girl who went to shops with my mom to buy polyester fabric and matching buttons. Before that show, I didn't know anything about high fashion. I was so Orange County. But I loved it. I still love Vivienne.'

The feeling is mutual. Westwood has called Stefani her muse, as has another English designer, John Galliano, who created a number of so-called Rasta bags for Christian Dior last year, believed to be inspired by Stefani's ska-punk music. 'John is the ultimate inspiration,' Stefani says. 'He's untouchable.' One imagines that she has already carried out what she promises in the lyrics of 'Rich Girl': 'If I was a wealthy girl/ Think what that money could bring/ I'd buy everything/ Clean out Vivienne Westwood/ In my Galliano gown.'

And then there's her British husband Gavin Rossdale. The former singer with the platinum-selling band Bush loves her new Harajuku Lovers menswear and accessories, as well as Hello Kitty-collaborated children's clothing and novelties.

By any standard, 2005 has been a bumper year for Stefani Inc. Her collection of global retail outlets continues to climb (250 and counting), business continues to grow (now approaching $10m), and stores continue to rave (Saks Fifth Avenue keeps reordering, Harvey Nichols will stock the autumn/winter 2005 collection from the end of August). This is thanks in no small part to the quirky and competent team that Stefani has assembled. Besides striking the design partnership with Zaldy, who also holds down a line of his own, she has enlisted John Copeland to create her elaborate prints. Most recently, Andrea Lieberman, for years the costume designer for Stefani's tours and videos, has joined to consult on a new line of costume jewellery and a range of sneakers made in association with Royal Elastics of Australia. More importantly, Lieberman will act as the stylist for L.A.M.B.'s first runway show, the spring 2006 collection shown in September, which will be the event of New York Fashion Week: expect more one-of-a-kind pieces and red-carpet gowns.

Stefani is supremely focused, warning naysayers: 'Don't fuck with me because I'm taking this really seriously.' She continues: 'For me, it's about finding another passion in my life that I can do, years from now. I'm not planning on bouncing around on stage for the rest of my life. I'm happy to share the cookies that I bake, you know, but don't keep picking at the batter.

'You can pinch me, slap me, even hit me, but don't wake me up because the dream keeps getting better and better.'