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Perched eight floors above the heart of Manhattan's pulsating garment district - yards of fabric being shuttled back and forth, bike messengers zigzagging around pedestrians - is a more tranquil environment, but one bubbling beneath the surface with excitement. Suddenly, a floppy-haired, grinning kid with a nose ring, faded AC/DC T-shirt and worn-in jeans cheerfully emerges from the backroom of this modest showroom. His look is more befitting a rock concert than a fashion showroom, but it's OK, he just happens to be the boss.
Tomer Gendler's men's label, "Tomer," has recently and increasingly commanded many a fashionista's focus, along with much envy from the international fashion community. Much of the talk around design-studio water coolers lately has centered on this 26-year-old Israeli-born, Texas-raised former amateur DJ who some say is the next Tom Ford.
Gendler still calls Austin home, even when he's shuttling back and forth from the tradeshows, conventions and fashion shows that punctuate his life lately. Not that the reformed club kid who relished his days partying until 6 a.m. is complaining. Last year brought in "figures well exceeding our projections," says Christian Kolarz, Tomer director of sales.
Being catapulted to the highest of fashion stratospheres, Gendler's collections are available at very exclusive, high-end retailers in New York, Denver, Atlanta, Ann Arbor, Chicago and, very soon, internationally.
Still, Gendler has his cowboy boots firmly planted on the ground. Start mentioning the long list of awards he's garnered, such as the Fashion Group International Rising Star Award for menswear earlier this year, and Gendler tries his best to suppress his widening grin.
"There are a lot of designers and they get a lot of honors too," he says, trying to minimize the significance of industry support.
"I was asked to speak at University of Texas at Austin [his alma mater] for a class of 30 fashion students, and I honestly felt just as proud there as I did with the Rising Star award."
Gendler is about as cool as his color palettes; the only way to burst his composure, it seems, is to mention Cat Swanson, a fellow fashion designer who shares both a showroom and a home with Gendler. He designs menswear, she women's wear.
"We'd already known each other for a few years," he gushes about Swanson, whom he met in design class in college. "But on our official first date, I said, 'That's it, this is the girl for me.' You just kind of know."
GENDLER WAS born in Petah Tikva and raised in Herzliya. When he was 10, the family, which includes a younger brother and sister, left Israel for Texas, where his father, a computer programmer, got a job. Growing up, Gendler didn't see himself in fashion, but in finance. Just recalling his long-held dream of wanting to be a financial broker elicits laughter from Gendler, whose inspirations include French designer Raf Simmons and the Italian Neil Barrett.
"When I was young, I always said I would be a businessman; so I wanted to be a broker, I don't know why."
When he was 19, he went to New York for an internship an Wall Street.
"I did not enjoy it. It just was not for me at all," he says. Gendler spent the following year in a study-abroad program in Milan. He found that he loved not only the fashions, but the way of life, staying out late into the night, partying and "taking the town," as he puts it, smiling. In Milan, he began working with a local tailor, learning the finer points of design. When he returned to school in Austin, he filled up his semester with fashion classes, and discovered he had a gift.
When he graduated, he saw two choices before him: he could work for a designer and eventually break off after five years or so, or launch his own line. He conducts his professional life not unlike the way he plays poker - a habit he has promised his fianc e he will try to break - making rash, very fast decisions and doing so competitively. But, as he says, "if you feel it, you feel it."
He chose wisely. His first collections - showcased two years later in what he envisioned as a confluence of art and function - were heralded and soon Gendler wasn't showered with honors, he was deluged by them.
HE'S ON his first Diet Coke of the day, but it's only noon, and the day's still young, insists Gendler. Caffeine has been his saving grace - coffee, soda, Red Bull - it matters little to him, since his over-programmed schedule affords little time for sleep. With a reception in the evening to commemorate his latest, very notable honor - winning the UPS Delivers Fashion's Future award, and a sponsored slot at the esteemed Olympus Fashion Week in New York's Bryant Park in September for his largest show ever - it's a thrilling and nerve-racking time for Gendler, who calls himself "a control freak."
All perfectly mascara-ed eyes will be on this fashion wunderkind who edged out about 300 other designers for the award, earning him a sponsored fashion show, which can easily run up a six-figure price tag. Fern Mallis, vice-president of IMG and executive director of 7th on Sixth, which runs Fashion Week, says, "Tomer Gendler represents one of the finest emerging designers in the world today and we can't wait to see his collection featured at Olympus Fashion Week. His international flair and body of work speak for themselves and we couldn't be more excited to have him participate."
But how hard can it be to stage a 10-minute fashion show?
"I'm so tired, I've been working like a dog. We have been working every day, 12- to 13-hour days for months. Being a small company, we are not afforded the luxury of time, so we have to do everything very quickly," he says wearily.
The process started back in January, when Gendler sketched the collection and went though all of the designs by March, at which point he made all the patterns and samples so that everything would be completed by June.
"I am very hands-on, so I like to oversee everything. I typically have designed the invites and it goes down to almost obsessive-compulsive. I trust everyone around me, but for my own sanity, I need to know everything that's going on."
Still, he says it's all part of the fun. His philosophy is that if you're not having fun with it anymore, you're in the wrong business.
His handiwork has been featured on some of the most sought-after celebrity backs in the world, including Adrien Brody and Jamie Foxx. Though he's obviously gratified, he's less focused on courting celebrities and their stylists than some other designers, who see them as an invaluable commercial platform. But he can't help but mention a few muses he wouldn't mind dressing, including Batman's Christian Bale, to whom Gendler likens himself professionally and personally, and Orlando Bloom.
There's a youthful confidence about Gendler that can easily slip into cockiness, but he makes sure it doesn't. He's about as humble and, according to Karen Cole, spokesperson for UPS, appreciative as they get.
"He's an exceptional talent and quite a great person," says Cole, after meeting Gendler for the first time at the reception for the UPS award recipients. "We select these designers to reflect the diversity of design and the fashion industry itself, and Tomer was selected by industry experts, and insiders helped narrow down who was deserving of a spot of this coveted presence in fashion week."
Gendler concedes his aesthetic has matured in the past few years.
"The first season, you try a little too much, you try a lot of tricks. I just didn't know as much as I know now," says Gendler. His goal is for someone to see a piece of his clothing and automatically recognize it as his.
To know Tomer's work is one thing. To own a Tomer is something completely different. Most 26-year-olds are struggling to pay off student loans, not shelling out for designer clothes, that start at about $300 for a woven dress shirt to about $1,400 for a suit.
"With each season, we better understand who our true customer is," says Gendler. It's obviously a very wealthy one, or at least one who will plunk down up to $1,500 for outerwear.
"I really try to design something that I think is perfect for our customer." But, he promises, "Whoever ends up purchasing the goods is making an investment. We want that investment to be a fruitful one, and I design clothes with a long shelf life to them."