Miami's Rag Trade Serenade

Forget about celebrity-filled runway shows and imperious magazine editors. The Dulce de Leche menswear line is receiving a true field test inside the Bay Harbor Islands home of Luis Toro, one of Dulce de Leche's founding owners. His partners and co-designers Carlos Mejia and Rafael Paris greet visitors as a steady stream of South Beach glamourpusses make their way into the living room. But instead of heading for the bar -- the traditional fashionista destination -- they're transfixed by the racks of Dulce de Leche shirts and pants on display, holding them up with eyes wide and calling over friends for a second opinion.

"It's like a Tupperware party!" gushes one onlooker. Well, maybe a half-naked one. Several young men have tired of waiting their turn to use the boudoir-turned-dressing room. Instead they're simply whipping off their clothes as they pore through the racks.

Although it has yet to earn its own spread in the fashion trades, Dulce de Leche's mix of Latin military styles with Gypsy motifs is clearly a hit. After all, this unfolding scene is precisely what the $142 billion fashion industry is geared toward: waves of press coverage and advertisements aimed at convincing shoppers to slap down their credit cards. But while Dulce de Leche's striking patterns have become commonplace around Miami, spreading that success beyond the city limits is a bit trickier.

"You've got to get into a few key stores where everybody goes," Big Time Productions owner Eugene Rodriguez could be overheard advising Toro. "In Los Angeles, it's Fred Segal. Everything flows from there." That's advice Toro is taking very seriously. Designers such as John Bartlett, Isaac Mizrahi, and Todd Oldham may have become Nineties cultural icons as they took their triumphant runway bows, but they're also now out of business. Heaps of critical hosannas never added up to sales.

It's an equation worth posing to Miami's best-known fashion wunderkind, Esteban Cortazar -- at eighteen the youngest entrant ever in New York Fashion Week. Yet for all the attendant national publicity, gossip-page sightings, and photo-ops alongside Calvin Klein, buyers remained ambivalent following Cortazar's Fashion Week debut last year. Asked by the New York Times who exactly was going to purchase the young designer's daring, thousand-dollar dresses once the flashbulbs had stopped popping, Henri Bendel general manager Ed Burstell sniffed: "Someone at the young end of our customer base."

Noting the august nature of Henri Bendel's moneyed clientele, the Times translated: "By young, he meant 32. But will a 32-year-old woman want a coat with a feathered collar the size of a whole turkey, one of the looks Mr. Cortazar showed?"

As Sex and the City stylist Patricia Field quipped of this mysterious demographic: "Who knows? Maybe this woman is a pole dancer who has a law practice on the side."

Dulce de Leche's creators aren't quite as sanguine about the disconnect between cutting-edge fashion and the real-world tastes of those with the pocketbooks to afford it. "Who wants to pay $350 for a shirt -- that's outrageous!" carps Toro, whose own shirts price out between $60 and $90. "We all want to look nice, so why does fashion have to alienate people?"

Six months later, Fred Segal may be taking a wait-and-see attitude, but there's still plenty of reason to celebrate. This past March saw Dulce de Leche complete its first year of operation, with 48 separate stores carrying the line, more than 8000 pieces sold, and revenues of about $400,000. In the company's Beach showroom, the designers are in the process of receiving another significant bump -- their first department store account.

John Kaltynski, men's collection buyer for Burdines, is handpicking the stock for its introduction at the Dadeland outlet, which, he notes proudly, has the fourth-largest sales volume of any department store in the nation. Numbers like those are the result of knowing what customers actually want -- not what they're supposed to want.

"These shirts are designed in Florida, for Florida," Kaltynski says admiringly, holding up a lightweight neo-guayabera with roses artfully stitched down the front. "Ninety-five percent of designers live in the Northeast. Their shirts have fur-rimmed collars!" Dressing like a sherpa may look sharp on Fifth Avenue, he continues, but not on Lincoln Road.

After Kaltynski has left, Rafael Paris and Luis Toro reflect on the niche they're hoping to fill. "What's fitted is too gay, and what's fashionable is too expensive," Toro explains, dismissing much of what passes for evening wear on the gay circuit as grossly tight and full of "shininess without a purpose -- the lines don't flow."

For Toro to eschew a gay aesthetic seems a bit odd. A look through Dulce de Leche's catalogue reveals page after page of tousled young hunks wearing nothing more than their featured shirt and a smoldering gaze. Photographed by Calvin French, these sexualized images put a charged spin on the clothing's military aura: A Dulce de Leche wearer is an officer and a gentleman -- and perhaps a bit more. Next to the celebrated catalogues of Abercrombie & Fitch, which dance around a coyly veiled homoeroticism, Dulce de Leche boldly salutes it.

So Dulce de Leche isn't "too gay"?

"There's a term we use when we're designing," says Toro as Paris chuckles, acknowledging the seeming contradiction. "We ask ourselves: Is it 'gay enough'? Enough that a straight boy could still find it appealing and his girlfriend could say, 'Oh, now that's sexy.'"

Of such thinking are marketing plans made. As the Fashion Institute of Technology's Valerie Steele observed recently in the menswear publication DNR: "Gay men are probably the single most important trendsetters in fashion today. Even things like gym culture and shaved chests have seeped out into the straight population. But a lot of the time the straight guys don't even know where these trends come from. They just know it's the in thing, and it's what their girlfriends like."

Ever the dedicated journalist, Kulchur slips into a navy top emblazoned with two rows of stars and begins modeling in front of a mirror. The net effect is: Colombian army lieutenant ready for dance-floor action. Score another convert.

"There's nothing better than seeing somebody walking down the street in our clothes," Paris says -- as long as they're wearing those clothes correctly. Kulchur catches a frowning Toro in the mirror's reflection.

"You don't roll up these cuffs," Toro scolds gently, and before Kulchur can move he swoops in for alterations. "See?" Toro points to the intricate embroidery on the sleeves: "You don't want to hide the flowers."

You should put little instruction booklets inside each shirt.

"We don't have to," laughs Paris. "Luis goes up to people on the street all the time and fixes their clothes."

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Brett Sokol
Contact: Brett Sokol

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