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What Suits

What do women really want from their clothes? Edward Pavlick and Richard Bengtsson -- the New York-based duo behind Richard Edwards menswear and a just-launched women's line -- have the answer: exactly the same thing as the boys.

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"I'm more stressed about the dog not eating than about anything else right now," says Edward Pavlick, nodding at his vizsla, Katu. "I think she's pregnant." If she is, she'll have to compete for attention with Pavlick's other new baby: He and Richard Bengtsson, his partner in the New York-based fashion-design team Richard Edwards, are still accepting congratulations for their just-born women's line. After eight years of designing a successful menswear collection, they're adding skirts and dresses to their hip, urban repertoire. Shown at the Galerie Yvon Lambert in Paris last March, the collection was an instant hit: The critics raved, and Barneys (which already stocks their menswear) arranged for an exclusive deal here in the city. Yet Pavlick and Bengtsson have fielded all the attention with their usual nonchalant, genial good humor.

In fact, what they've pulled off is pretty rare. Experimentation and theatrics can be guaranteed to make the industry sit up and take notice, if only for a matter of nanoseconds. But garnering applause with a collection that manages to be grown-up and gimmick-free is a trickier proposition. "After sitting through so many shows in New York, London, and Milan," explains Julie Gilhart, vice-president of fashion merchandising at Barneys, "you're kind of over the shows, of seeing so much fashion. But Edward and Richard delivered such a strong, sharp presentation that you couldn't help but pay attention."

Pavlick and Bengtsson are definitely on to something: clothes for women who've seen the relaxation of dress codes in the workplace, who like the idea of wearing something that's structured and tailored but is still easy to wear. They've created a line that manages to be both high-fashion (which is usually about ephemeral pleasure) and highly wearable (which is usually about anything but). Drawing on the neat, narrow silhouette that's a signature of their menswear, Pavlick and Bengtsson showed slim coats with shawl collars, ruched and draped jersey dresses, and high-necked tops worn with slim pleated pants. It was a collection that caught the minimal, pared-down aesthetic that has begun to filter back into fashion -- few visible fastenings, spare on surface detail -- and took it in a softer, more romantic direction. Smocking, which in the wrong hands can look like something out of Little House on the Prairie, seemed sophisticated when they used it on otherwise simple dresses and halter tops. And there were other touches that gave their clothes an intimate, hand-worked feel: a gathered collar on a coat, or a tucked and folded waistband on an otherwise austere wrap skirt.

The collection smartly steered clear of the predictable girl-meets-boy look that's been around for the last couple of seasons, which might have been the most obvious route for designers versed in menswear. If there's a masculine touch to this collection at all, it's very subtle: The waistbands of the women's pants are constructed in the same way as the men's, and jackets come equipped with useful inner pockets. As Ingrid Sischy, the editor of Interview and someone who has tracked the evolution of Richard Edwards ("I've always been intrigued by their jackets"), puts it, "A lot of womenswear has failed women on issues of comfort, mobility, modernity. But Edward and Richard did these very easy clothes that acknowledged what people want: fashion that has been made by designers who don't live in a dream world."

"When we designed the collection, we asked: Is it comfortable? can you move in it? . . . Are you going to fall out of it if you lean forward?"

"When we designed this collection, we asked the same questions that we ask when we do the men's: Is it comfortable? Can you move in it?," says Bengtsson. "With the women's line, there were additional questions, like, Are you going to fall out of this if you lean forward? Models would come in during the fittings, and we'd ask them a million things." Pavlick, for his part, believes men and women want the same things from what they wear. "We do the same jobs, our lives are all crazy now. If I was late for work, rushing around, I'd want to put on a crisp shirt and a tailored jacket, look in control. Then no one would realize that I was really hung over from the night before." He breaks off smiling. "There you have it: We design clothes for alcoholics."

Pavlick and Bengtsson met in 1991 at a Halloween party. Bengtsson had moved to the city from his native Sweden after graduation and a stint with H&M; Pavlick had studied industrial design and was trying his hand at rather more prosaic things, namely biological and pharmaceutical equipment. At the party, the conversation turned to Pavlick's shirt. "I was obsessed with fitted shirts, and they were really difficult to find," remembers Pavlick.

"We started talking about doing some designing together -- that lasted for about a year. Our friends were always saying to us, 'Haven't you done anything yet?' We started making men's shirts -- the first one took us six months -- and each season we'd add something else." They showed their first men's collection in New York in 1995. Four months later, they'd won the CFDA Perry Ellis Award. They were, says Pavlick, "thrust into the limelight. We won the award, and we were only selling in Japan. We were like the band that has the one hit single -- you have all this attention for six months, and then nothing."

But the two have been able to handle the lean times and their new success with equal aplomb. "We start in our little corners," says Bengtsson, "and at some point we bring what we've done together. In the end, I don't know what is my idea and what's his. In a way, we're really different people. I'm very Swedish, quietly doing my thing, and he's very American, very outgoing. It makes working together more interesting. It makes us much stronger as a design team." Though there might be one advantage of their partnership that they've overlooked. "Two men designing for women?" laughs Julie Gilhart. "Can you imagine anything better than that?"


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