Hollywood’s Well-Tylered Man
For the 1996 “Style” issue, Stephen Rebello asked Hollywood fashion designer Richard Tyler for his thoughts on men’s movie fashion.
Virtually from the moment Richard Tyler opened his West Coast boutique with his wife/business partner Lisa Trafficante hack in 1988, his strong, sleek, meticulously tailored clothes started lending their power statement to actresses with the legs, curves and celebrity to make Tyler the new darling in the designer-to-the-stars sweepstakes. The one star who did more than all the rest was Julia Roberts, who took to Tyler just as the world took to her and demonstrated that Tyler’s masculinized feminine suits could, especially with their skirts made extra short, do more for sex appeal than the tightest Azzedine Alaia. Already heralded in the New York fashion world, Tyler gained a special Hollywood profile by having his clothes worn to photo ops everywhere, and by being present himself in Tinseltown, where stars could drop into his store for the special attention stars need. Though it was Tyler’s women’s couture that put him on the map, he had, from his earliest days back in Melbourne, Australia, where he began his career creating spandex-and-sequin outrages for Elton John, Alice Cooper and the Bee Gees, designed men’s clothes as well. A couple of years ago he expanded his sphere of fashion influence with a menswear line that Hollywood picked up immediately. Brad Pitt, Denzel Washington, Jeff Golblum. Jimmy Smits and Paul Reiser all wear Tyler prominently. Many others who don’t look like they’re doing designer dress-up have Tyler pants, shirts or jackets on with the lower-key stuff they’re wearing.
It’s not that Tyler is the hottest designer in the world of celebrity fashion. There are other, more flamboyant designers who get bigger headlines, and vets like Armani and Hugo Boss are more pervasive. But Tyler has been in Los Angeles, close-up and personal, on a regular basis for years, watching the Hollywood men’s fashion scene dig itself out of grunge and inch toward something more elegant, and he’s had a personal stake in figuring out where things are heading. He’s also had the required lifelong fixation on Holly-wood/cinema style that an informed view of the cur-rent state of fashion affairs depends on. As a respected mainstay now in the style repertoire of actors who actually have style. Tyler has an excellent vantage point from which to opine on the ups, downs and general direction of screen-guy fashion.
I catch up with Tyler in his modem Beverly Boulevard salon just before he’s about to race to New York to prepare for the splashy showings of his fall line. Like Tyler’s Manhattan showroom, the L.A. store’s vibe is user-friendly, so long as the user is very deep-pocketed. Tyler’s clothes are some of the most expensive in the very expensive high-end of the style spectrum, Tyler himself is nowhere near as imposing or intimidating as his pricey tags. Soft-spoken, sporting the mien and mane of a veteran rock musician, the 49-year- old designer greets me with a double-handed shake, toting glasses and a chilled bottle of very nice bubbly, looking effortlessly smart in a self-tailored plaid suit. Together we sit down to draw a bead on the sartorial state of contemporary screen gods, some of whom are Tylerized, some of whom are not.
Before I can even utter a name for starters, Tyler announces that he has a credo to impart. Fine, let’s hear it. “My whole way of designing is classic-based clothing: English-cut, English fabrication,” he announces. “If you see a vintage photo of Errol Flynn, say. the very sexy silhouette of his suit is absolutely now: broad-shouldered, tucked in at the waist. But it’s 19%, not 1936. Fashion, for me, cannot be retro. So, yes, my clothes are classically cut, but done with new fabrics–it must be classic, with a twist.” His credo now imparted, Tyler says he has a simple message for Hollywood men. OK, fire away. ”Holly-wood men should all look at them-selves very long in the mirror before they go out,” he asserts. “‘I know they have very tight schedules, but they also have huge egos or they wouldn’t be doing this work.”
“Are you talking about stars in grunge or about stars dressed to the nines in designers’ clothes?” I ask.
Apparently the latter. “Sometimes designers push their weight around too much with stars and make them look forced and overdone, especially when it comes to evening wear.” he tells me. “I really hate seeing a star wearing a tuxedo with one of those little band-collar shirts and a bright floral vest. I guess they feel they look hip and happening but if they’d look in the mirror, they’d know otherwise,” Ah, yes. Oscar excess,
“A lot of these guys sometimes look overdone,” Tyler says. ”It’s just too much. If you’re going to do formal evening wear, I much prefer the tuxedo with tails we did for Denzel Washington [for last year’s Oscar show].
“A lot of the new young actors do have a sort of charisma and sensibility about dressing that is as sexy and completely unforced as the fabulous way James Dean looked in Rebel Without a Cause,” Tyler continues. So, he’s talking about Tyler regular Brad Pitt here? “Brad always looks cool,” he agrees. “He never lets the clothing wear him. He’s the perfect example of someone who has found his individual style, even with subtle things like wearing his shirt collar out. It’s about confidence, knowing yourself and playing it down. Brad has that.”
“Does Johnny Depp?” I ask.
The very mention of Depp’s name gets a big nod from Tyler. “Wouldn’t change a thing.”
“How about Keanu Reeves?”
“He’s a little too casual. I never remember what he wears at all.”
I’d say rough him up a little bit, push color on him. He might take a cue from Gary Oldman, who’s dangerous and dresses with edge, style.”
“A couple of times. I’ve thought he looked overdressed. He looks best in a beautiful white shirt, black trousers. No fuss.”
“Don’t know or remember what he wears. Looks good in tights, though.”
“Fabulous-looking, My spring men’s collection was based on the feel of Matt in Rumble Fish. I’d like to dress him really conservatively in a classic English-cut suit, because he’s a little too casual to me.”
“‘He looked absolutely fantastic at the Golden Globes. His suit, which I think was a single-breasted Hugo Boss, fit perfectly. However, he should have worn the exact same thing to the Oscars.”
“Great-looking guy. I like his image, his attitude.”
“Tone down his colors, don’t draw attention to him, because he draws enough attention to himself–and never, ever have wide lapels. I’d be very careful dressing him–otherwise he’s way too theatrical.”
Just a second, here. What, if not way theatrical, was the look Tyler himself gave Robert Downey Jr. for Oscar night the year of his Chaplin Best Actor nomination? “Normally, I would never have done black velvet.” Tyler confesses, “but I didn’t want to do tails and …well, after all, it was for Chaplin, so we just went for something pretty wild. Like Chaplin, Robert can pull off anything.” Well, almost.
Being in Hollywood, and especially being in the neighborhood of dress-trendy-or-die Melrose Avenue, Tyler daily witnesses the spectacle of guys trying to pull off everything including current fashion staples like shaved heads, Roman emperor haircuts, goatees and earrings in ears, noses, lips, navels and assorted other custom-pierced spots. “When I was 18, I used to shave off my eyebrows and wear white makeup like Marcel Marceau,” he admits. “My 20-year-old son dyes his hair red and blue one week, then platinum blond with black roots the next. He and people in his age group do that to look fabulous for shock effect. If I walked with my gang of mates down the street in the old days and people didn’t look and laugh at us, we’d have to change our look. I put myself in the place of these kids and think I’d be doing exactly the same thing at that age.”
Where does Tyler feel the strongest fashion influences are coming from today? “Young men in Hollywood, and everywhere else, get a lot of their ideas about grooming and dressing from MTV and from bands,” says Tyler. ”For example, guys are influenced by watching Scott Weiland [of Stone Temple Pilots] in his band’s video. He looks amazing–pants, shin out, drop-dead sexy–and it’s a look he mixes up and works himself. Michael Stipe is a big influence, too. And when George Michael cut off his hair, grew a goatee and wore earrings, it was all copied by others.”
Where does Tyler himself draw inspiration? By throwing a backward glance at the past. Growing up in Australia, the son of a hardworking plastics factory worker and a theatrical costumer, Tyler was obsessed by American show business glamour. As he explains it, “I grew up in an industrial area of Australia watching American movies and emulating refined, impeccably dressed actors who, to me, embodied style and masculinity.”
Care to name any names?
“William Powell. Incredibly dressed, sipping martinis with Myrna Loy in that Manhattan townhouse in the Thin Man movies? Brilliant. He was a major influence on me, far more than someone like Clark Gable. I liked the people who were refined–that’s part of why I like very tailored, very precise clothing. My one singular influence, above all, was Basil Rathbone. He looked fantastic as Sherlock Holmes, of course, but also in even-movie–the way he wore very extreme clothing, the mix of fabrics and textures, the way he carried beautifully tailored clothing was what I thought a man should look like.
“For me, the ’30s were all about elegance,” continues Tyler. “But you can never underestimate the influence that gangsters had on Hollywood as the ’30s wore on. Everyone was taken by Al Capone and Bugsy Siegel, who had their own tailors, spent a fortune on clothing and were always impeccably dressed. George Raft had mob connections and dressed exactly that way on- and offscreen, and a lot of Hollywood thought he looked cool.”
Who and what defined male Hollywood style in the ’40s? “Cary Grant, Errol Flynn, Gary Cooper,” Tyler answers. “That’s the era when American style–relaxed, unpretentious–really asserted itself. Cary Grant’s collars in the ’30s were rigid. In the ’40s they were more like pajama collars. It was a matter of the mood of the country, and economics. After the Second World War, the mood relaxed, and fabric was in greater supply.”
So, what brought the end of elegance? When did men’s fashion go to hell in a handbasket? Was it in the rock and roll ’50s? “In the ’30s, when Clark Gable didn’t wear an undershirt in that famous scene in It Happened One Night, it caused such a sensation that undershirt sales dropped precipitously.” Tyler recalls. “But when James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause and Marlon Brando in The Wild One and A Streetcar Named Desire wore T-shirts in the ’50s, that had a bigger impact on men’s clothing than anything else Hollywood had ever done. We’re still influenced by them–the fact that both you and I are wearing T-shirts today dates directly back to then.”
And the ’60s? “Once the hippie era happened, almost everything that came before got lost. When people got a taste of freedom, when they got a taste of taking drugs, experimenting in every way, of being able to wear striped pants with floral shirts without anyone caring, it was very hard to go back to the past. So much had been rejected forever. In a lot of ways, of course, that was fabulous. I have to say, though, alongside the hippie era, some great stuff went on in movies in the ’60s.”
Such as? The subject lights up Tyler’s face. “I would love to have done the new movie version of The Saint, because the way Roger Moore dressed in the ’60s TV series was just brilliant–the cut of the suits, the narrow lapel, the classic fabrication.”
OK, but The Saint movie features ex-Batman Val Kilmer, not prime-period Roger Moore. How might Tyler glam Kilmer on- or offscreen? “Val Kilmer would be really great to dress. He looked great at the Batman Forever opening, but maybe he needs to loosen up a bit, to let a bit more of himself out. ”
But why do certain guys tend to loosen up too much–to let their clothes wear them, as it were–on such awards nights as the Oscars and Golden Globes? “Stars are very busy and some last-minute choices can get made,” he says. “Or sometimes they maybe choose a designer they shouldn’t have. This whole Academy Awards designer apparel thing has gotten a. little bit out of control. It’s so competitive. It started with Armani, when American Gigolo put him on the map. That movie was practically about selling clothing. The Italians are very good at self-promotion. If you look at the Academy Awards in the ’70s, though, the way people were dressed was really hideous. Then Armani and Valentino were savvy enough to realize all the amazing exposure they could get by dressing stars. All of a sudden, others of us went, ‘Stupid us, this is our country. If we’re going to be in this business, we’re going to have to play the game or back out altogether and let other people do it.’ We’ve done quite well, exposure-wise, through the Academy Awards. But it’s rough, you know, because the Academy Awards fall a day or two before we have to do our big collection show in New York.”
Tyler is said to thrive well under the intense pressure of the New York collection shows, but not because he’s incapable of temperament. He’s been known to toss celebrities out of his shop if they rub him the wrong way. “I’ve kicked stars out of [my] store, that’s true,” he says. “It’s when they bring their mothers along that really gets to me. It’s like some of these people have always had their mother’s approval and their mothers will go–” Tyler makes a lemon-sucking face and emits a whine to match, doing a perfect celebrity-mother-from-hell: “Well, you know, I think it should be tapered here or else I really don’t think it’s right for you, dear.” Bringing himself up to full height, he shudders, “That I just cannot handle. I threw them out.”
Tyler is not talking about his highest-profile devotees, he assures me. “They’re people, just like you and me, I treat Brad Pitt or Julia Roberts with respect, just as they treat me. I’m very fortunate that people love the clothing and come in and buy it. I provide a service, like selling them hot dogs–just hot dogs with a little bit more shape, that’s all.”
Almost on cue, one of Tyler’s assistants announces that long-time client Janet Jackson would like to say hello to her favorite hot dog vendor. Effectively camouflaged in neck-to-ankle denim. Jack-son greets Tyler warmly, and suddenly, the Tyler scene moves into action. A striking model floats past Jackson wearing something fit for a sylph’s night on the town. Tyler himself models leather top-coats and sports jackets for Jackson. No diva behavior here, just two stars easy in each other’s company. The songbird makes her decisions, embraces Tyler, bids goodbye and is off.
Some of the selections Jackson almost made prompt me to wonder whether Tyler has ever regretted putting certain stars in some of his past creations. “Some of the things I did for Rod Stewart back in the ’70s I’m not too proud of.” he says, laughing. “I mean, look at the stuff I did for the Electric Light Orchestra and the Bee Gees, those old sequin outfits. But, hey. it was disco time. The weird thing is that a lot of the things I made, especially for bands in Australia in the ’60s and ’70s before I came to America, those guys still have because they’re so well-made! Which is frightening, in a way.”
In the last couple of years, Tyler’s press has been eclipsed by more colorful, media-grabbing movers like Isaac Mizrahi, Tom Ford and Todd Oldham. Does Tyler think he might be even more successful if he were more of a personality kid? “If you’re good, you gel rewards and knocks,” he asserts. “It’s all a cycle. Todd Oldham is a nice guy who deserves his success. The same with Mizrahi, who went through a rough time and is now back on top again. It comes around. As for my personality style, it’s like I always say: I have no ego. just my skill.”
That skill keeps Tyler a staple in Hollywood’s fashion camp, which is notorious for its fickle nature. What will such fashion-forward industry types as the Brads, Denzels and Stephens be wearing next, if Tyler has his way? “There’s a return to elegance that has started already,” he says. “A return to truly well-made clothing meant to last. You’re going to sec a return to opulence in a lot of designers’ upcoming collections, an unabashedness about dressing-out. It’s like an ’80s revival. Not that things are going to be looking like ‘Dynasty’ revisited, but people aren’t going to be embarrassed about showing off their wealth. We’ll be seeing lighter-fitting shirts, and because men are getting trimmer, we can nip in the waist more on jackets and broaden the shoulder. That’s a very sexy silhouette. Also, flat-front trousers are back in vogue, which is a leaner silhouette than pleated pants, almost a throwback to golfers’ clothes. The look will border almost on elegant-nerdy, sort of like something you might wear with a lush. Perry Como-style cardigan sweater. It’s a great time to be in men’s clothing.”
Stephen Rebello interviewed Andie MacDowell for the July issue of Movieline.