David Cardona, award-winning Los Angeles designer to the stars, chats with Divia Harilela about fashion, success and Lara Flynn Boyle's controversial pink tutu

It is hard to believe that fashion's sexiest evening gowns are designed by the same man who sits in front of me on his desk (cross-legged, of course, this is LA), dressed in a pair of comfortable denim dungarees.

What throws me even more is that his children are visiting his studio (would this be allowed in the studios of Gucci and Chanel, I wonder), and that the only time his face lights up is when his four-year-old daughter, Eva, walks into the room.

From the beginning, it is obvious that David Cardona is not your typical celebrity fashion designer.

Colombian-born Cardona seems to have done it all.

From working as the right-hand man to fashion guru Richard Tyler to designing and dressing some of Hollywood's biggest celebrities, including Cher, Janet Jackson, Sharon Stone and Lara Flynn Boyle (he was responsible for the controversial pink tutu she wore to the 2003 Golden Globe Awards), life is pretty good for Cardona - and it shows.

The Los Angeles-based designer has reached new heights since forming his own company in 1997 with John Bowman, founder of high-end leather and jewellery label Chrome Hearts.

All of this is even more impressive when you realize he is a qualified engineer.

'Engineering wasn't always something that I wanted to do, but family pressure and, of course, my skill level at things like mathematics and science led me into that direction.

'But growing up, I always loved fashion - my mum even taught me how to sew when I was a kid - and eventually I wanted to pursue it after high school, but my father told me it was a bad decision.

'So, I finished engineering school and started working for McDonnell-Douglas as an aerospace designer scientist,' he said.

This seems like an unlikely beginning for a highly acclaimed fashion designer but, luckily for Cardona, his company offered its employees an extracurricular education programme which enabled him to enroll at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles. Cardona graduated at the top of his class in 1990. All that was left was to find the perfect job.

'A schoolmate was going to San Francisco and I wanted to move there as well because New York didn't appeal to me at all. There was only one person I wanted to work for in LA and that was Richard Tyler.

'Luckily for me, it turned out that my friend actually worked for him but she was leaving and he needed someone to replace her. A couple of days later we were introduced and I started working for him,' he said.

Cardona's tenure was fruitful, and he perfected his artistry while meeting and working with some of the biggest names in Hollywood.

During this time he formed a close friendship with the singer Seal, who later introduced him to John Bowman.

By the time Cardona's own label was set up in mid-1997, he felt like a pro.

'It was comforting going from a right-hand man to being the man in charge. All the decisions and things I wanted to do in the past, I could now do.

'It's hard being a sous chef when you have your own recipes. It was nice to finally achieve that and see the finished garment and think, yes, I was right.'

Cardona's designs are stunning haute couture pieces with a price tag to match. Blouses go for US$300 and leather pieces cost upwards of $3,000, making them comparable to Gucci, Chanel and other big fashion houses.

But the high prices are matched by high quality, with all items made in-house from start to finish - a process Cardona learnt from Tyler.

The real beauty of his designs, however, lies in the intricate details - buttonholes are hand-sewn, seams are hand-finished, pinstripes match at every point, and everything is lined with silk.

The leatherwork (his favourite fabric) moulds on to the body like a glove, and pieces come in a range of shapes and designs.

But in the competitive fashion industry, beautiful designs are not enough, and Cardona had problems keeping up with his competitors, many of whom have enviable financial backing and advertising budgets behind them.

'It's not such an easy task to take on, and that's why you don't see any new labels coming out these days.

'You open up any big fashion magazine and you never see anything in the editorial that's different or separate from the advertising.

'Years ago, you could open up a Vogue and see what's new. You don't see that any more. The only avenue designers like me have is the celebrity avenue. That is a form of advertising without having to actually advertise in the magazines.'

And Cardona knows his celebrities. While working for Richard Tyler, he befriended many actors and, in return, many became loyal not to the Tyler label but to Cardona himself.

'It all began with Luther Vandross, who wanted to continue working with me when I left Richard. The label wasn't important to him, it was the person he was working with.'

Janet Jackson followed suit when she asked Cardona to design the clothing for her 1998 and, later, her 2001 world tours.

He also got requests from the Backstreet Boys and Cher in 2000, for which he won an Emmy for 'Outstanding Costumes'.

Cardona's clients have also included Santana, Britney Spears, Whitney Houston, and Mariah Carey. Drew Barrymore and Lucy Liu kicked butt in his black leather jackets in Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle, while actress Sela Ward accepted her Emmy in 2000 in a sexy black leather Cardona dominatrix gown.

One of his biggest supporters is Lara Flynn Boyle.

The question that begs to be asked is: What was Boyle's pink ballerina tutu all about?

'The tutu was absolutely her idea. At first I was not into it at all but finally I gave in. Someone actually told me the story behind it, and I still don't know if it is true, but I was even asked by VH1 about it. Apparently, she was in Aspen with Jack Nicholson a few weeks before and she caught him in bed with a dancer; the tutu she wore weeks later was her way of telling him off! I don't know if there's any truth in it, so I guess we will never know.'

But the tutu incident turned out to be fortuitous for Cardona, and was followed by another big break in his career when he was appointed chief designer for Italian fashion label Cerruti last year.

'The president of Cerruti was due to come to New York to see my collection shortly after the tutu incident. He was a little bit nervous, because he knew he was coming to meet me, but when he saw the tutu he got even more nervous! Regardless, he came and ended up hiring me as their designer.'

At Cerruti, Cardona had big boots to fill, following in the footsteps of acclaimed designers such as Nino Cerruti, Peter Speliopoulos and fellow Hispanic designer Narciso Rodriguez. But he was ready for the challenge.

'I was extremely excited but at the same time there were a lot of problems with Cerruti,' Cardona said.

'I felt that they had finally found the right person and so did they [at the time Cerruti had gone through four designers in four years], but they didn't have enough money.

'I did two collections but they never came out. They showed it, sold it, but never delivered it. People would come in and ask for the collections I did but they never received the product. I was this close but the timing was too late. It was the chance that never came to be.'

Not one to shy away from adversity, Cardona has moved up and on, with new plans to tackle the fashion world abroad.

He now sells his line at exclusive boutiques in the United States and Japan (where it does phenomenally well), but he has bigger things in mind.

'We tried to sell in Europe a few years ago but we were too expensive because we were selling in dollars. We decided to wait a while, but then the euro got really strong and the dollar got low. Again bad timing, but we'll be back,' he said.

Asia is another key market Cardona wants to tackle, with additional plans to develop a diffusion line of clothing aimed at the middle market just as Donna Karan has done with DKNY, or Calvin Klein with CK.

'With the growth of China and all its big cities, they are starting to bring more western products into the country. For the first time in history they are starting to see what exists outside their own borders, and we want to be part of that. There is so much we want to do but it takes time. Ideally, we want to create the next Ralph Lauren. I know it's a high dream but we have to do it.'

Judging by past experience, we won't be waiting too long. Watch this space.

September 6, 2004 I Divia Harilela