HOLLABACK GUY By MAUREEN CALLAHAN

New York Post
September 8, 2005

HE'S Fashion Week's hottest designer - but he can't even sell his own clothes. Meet Zaldy (one name, "like Cher"), one of the highest-ranking members of Gwen Stefani's burgeoning fashioning empire, L.A.M.B.

"I guess we really clicked," he says of his boss and fashion muse. "She has such confidence, such a strong point of view, and she doesn't follow trends. She'll be like, 'Oh, I'm thinking about England, pirates,' whatever. So we went and found all these costumes from 'Pirates of the Caribbean,' and we go from there. Her direction is right on."

Zaldy's fluent in such fashion-world free-association. An avant-garde designer, New York night-life fixture and friend to the famous, Zaldy also runs his own clothing line - beloved by fashion editors, bought by no one - showing this Saturday, the second day of Fashion Week.

"I didn't even sell my last collection," says the designer, sitting amid piles of books, DVDs and party flyers in his living room/bedroom at the Chelsea Hotel. His space here - half studio, half apartment - is fabulously, fashionably shabby, with swatches of pale blue paint peeling from the walls and the faint smell of stale cigarette smoke wafting through the cramped space.

"But," he adds, "I feel like it's going at a good pace for me."

Though Zaldy wants, very much, for his own line to be as high-profile and successful as L.A.M.B., he knows that, in many ways, he's his own worst enemy: His stuff is too unconventional. (And expensive. L.A.M.B is priced from $75-$950, while Zaldy goes for $245-$3,500).

Fashion editors love him, but retailers won't carry his line, and he's more Visionaire than Vogue. He hates math and has no interest in commerce (hardly unusual for a designer, but still a hindrance). Part of the reason he decided to even show his collections was so that "people would know how to get in touch with me."

"We cover him every time; he's an editor's favorite," says Rose Apodaca, West Coast bureau chief for Women's Wear Daily. "But despite the positive reviews, he is unable to generate business."

So far, Zaldy - who is gearing up for his own Fashion Week show this Saturday, then L.A.M.B.'s runway debut on Sept. 16 - has done six collections on his own, though he unexpectedly skipped a year when he realized, a bit too late, that one key component was missing.

"I was like, 'OHMYGOD I don't have any money!'" he exclaims, speaking, as he does, quickly and breathlessly. "No one's giving me money! I have no money! I think I need to start bringing money into my life."

There was also the season he found himself without the shoes he designed for runway: "They were so stunning, and I was so sad that I didn't know that ... Italy closed!" he says, laughing at his overly dramatic spin. "In August! The factory closed! And I couldn't make my shoes!" He pauses. "I don't have major retail relevancy at the moment," he admits.

Zaldy's own collections are highly dramatic, filled with unusual, angular pieces that, however stunning, are difficult for the average civilian to wear. They're more suited to his celebrity clientele: Mick Jagger, Rufus Wainwright, Parker Posey, Christina Aguilera. He says he had offers from London shops Harvey Nichols and Browns for his last collection, but they wanted his pieces at a discount.

"I was like, 'You know what? I just can't do it.' I'm not going to put myself through the rigors and the emotional drama and get back $20,000. It's like, no way. I can make that doing a custom wedding gown."

Yet in the three years that he's been working for Stefani at L.A.M.B. - first as a consultant, now as head designer - he has somehow edited and streamlined his own eccentric sensibility into wearable, just-this-side-of-downtown pieces that mesh with Stefani's own studiously random personal style.

The result: a projected gross of $20 million in sales for Stefani's three-year-old company.

Zaldy - who says he doesn't keep up with trends, never reads magazines, and occasionally goes on style.com to see what other designers are doing - thinks that his customer and the L.A.M.B. customer are "connected." But he admits that "mine is even more arty, or something."

His success at L.A.M.B. has made him less fearful of the mainstream: "I want to make clothes for the stores, clothes all my friends can wear - not just extreme pieces," he says.

"What he desperately needs is someone with business sense, and I'm actually surprised no one has approached him," says WWD's Apodaca. "Anything that even mildly rubs elbows with celebrities is attractive to retailers right now. You would think the Gwen factor would be enough to get retailers interested."

Zaldy, who says he's 39, grew up in Connecticut. "I was very preppy," he says. Both his parents are doctors, and he went to prep school and boarding school. He attended the now-defunct L.A. branch of Parsons, but was kicked out for refusing to make his models smile.

"I was like, 'Whatever. Don't tell me someone has to be smiling.'" He spent the next six months becoming "part of the scene," and making clothes for his fabulous friends. Disillusioned with the business of fashion design, he became a model: "I was modeling as a male and a female," he says. "It's uncommon, but the androgyny thing was big in the '90s."

He became part of the scene in New York too, moving into the Chelsea Hotel, where he's been for "12 or 14 years - I don't even know."

As a model, he was shot by Karl Lagerfeld and Ellen von Unwerth, and did runway for Vivienne Westwood and Jean Paul Gaultier. He befriended then-nightclub queen Suzanne Bartsch. He counts Rufus Wainwright as one of his best friends, and networked with other professionally fabulous people, including Stefani, who'd worn some of his pieces.

And, most crucially, he kept making clothes for his high-profile night-life compatriots. "I was just sort of known in the club and underground scene, which is the way it's always been," he says nonchalantly.

His hiring and ascension through the ranks at L.A.M.B is equally one part fairy tale and one part ode to knowing the right people.

"I was at the Coachella Music Festival [in California] with Danilo, who does Gwen's hair," he begins. "And then Danilo's like, 'Oh, Gwen's having a party at her house tonight. Let's go!' And I'm like, 'OK, let's go!' And, uh, somehow it wound up just her and me, sitting on the couch, and she was like, 'OHMYGOD!' She had just seen my fall 2003 show and she loved it and had worn a dress or something, and she was like, 'OHMYGOD! I don't know if I'm even supposed to do this or if I even have to clear this with anyone to talk to you about it, I don't know, but I'm doing this line,' and blah blah blah, 'and I know you do your own line and I don't know if you'd ever be interested in consulting' - and I was like, 'Are you crazy? Of course I would work with you, be creative with you. How genius.' So that's how it was."

And that's how it is, with Zaldy calmly at the helm at one of the biggest, most commercially successful fashion ventures of the past decade, while struggling to find a backer for his own stuff, build a viable name in retail, and become the star he knows he's meant to be.

He believes that this next collection, showing on Saturday, will be "the one," though all he will say is that it's inspired by the number 7.

"It's my seventh show, so there's seven-pointed stars in one of the prints, but that made me think of Siouxsie Sioux, which made me think of [Russian designer] Leon Baskt, which made me think of Klimt, which made me think of geometry and alchemy," he says, taking a breath. That said, "they are clothes that are relevant to next year."

The L.A.M.B. collection, meanwhile, has four points of inspiration: Gatsby Rasta, Yardie Rasta, black and white, and Pirate Trouper. "It's a beautiful collection, and an absolutely salable collection," he says.

As for the saleability of his own collection, he remains philosophical.

"When the moment's right, the moment's gonna be right," he says. "It's totally the right time for L.A.M.B to be skyrocketing. But with that, my profile is moving up too. My time is coming."