Maybe not quite all of them, but Duarte—who specializes in one-of-a-kind denim and leather designs—has wrapped his tape measure around some of the best torsos in Tinseltown, from Jennifer Lopez to Gwyneth Paltrow and Sheryl Crow. "The way Henry cuts clothes," says Rosanna Arquette, who ordered seven pairs of white hip-hugger pants for her May trip to the Cannes Film Festival,"it's like he's making an art piece." Adds L.A. stylist Maryam Malakpour, who recently had Duarte fit Aerosmith's Steven Tyler into a $2,600 orange-and-black silk jacket: "His designs are hippie-chic rock and roll."
They're not, however, just for rockers and movie stars. Although custom-made clothes make up 50 percent of Duarte's business, the designer creates items—including $875 low-rider pants studded with bronze and silver grommets and $1,200 leather belts bearing oversize gem-studded buckles—for upscale stores such as Barneys New York and Louis Boston. That limited collection has been so successful (helping to boost Duarte's expected overall sales to $2 million this year) that this month Duarte opened his own boutique, Henry Duarte, in Los Angeles.
Despite the new venture—as well as plans to expand both his accessories and menswear lines—Duarte, 39, says he's not interested in churning out clothes at the level of a major fashion house. "A lot of people are like 'Why don't you make more?' " he says. "But this is all I want to make."
That laid-back attitude is just one legacy of Duarte's surfing years on Hermosa Beach. He still hits the waves on weekends with Daina Jackson, 42, his longtime companion and business partner ("We always get along," she says), and their son Julian, 8, who just got his first surfboard. And although Duarte often works until 9 p.m. , his studio can take on the relaxed atmosphere of a beach bonfire: Not only does Julian sprawl across the leather couch playing video games, but Duarte's friends—including Crow and Tyler—drop by at all hours to "share ideas, listen to music, talk about our families, normal things," Duarte says. Adds Crow: "He's a good hang."
Duarte's offbeat approach extends to the home he shares with Julian and Jackson. Built into the side of a hill in Laurel Canyon, it looks like a tree house on stilts, with some 70 steps down a winding outdoor staircase to the front door—a far cry from the three-bedroom ranch home in Torrance, Calif., where he grew up. The only son of Henry, 60, a longshoreman, and homemaker Irene, 57, Duarte had just two passions as a teenager: surfing—for which he often cut class—and fashion. "In high school," he says," I would go clothes-hunting every weekend."
At 23, after failing to finish junior college, he combined his two worlds, taking a night class at Los Angeles' Otis College of Art and Design while designing a line of surf trunks. He helped a friend start a sportswear line in 1986, and five years later—determined to make it on his own—Duarte started designing, as he puts it," rock and roll suits." Within months his designs started turning up in music videos. "That's how I discovered," Duarte says," that celebrities were wearing my clothes."
These days Duarte has his constantly ringing phone as proof of his success. But he insists that his heart lies elsewhere—with his first love. "My main goal," Duarte says, "is to go back to that surfing life."
Teena Hammond in Los Angeles