NEVER MIND THAT THEIR EVER-GROWING list of clients includes celebs Heather Locklear
, Drew Barrymore
and Tyra Banks
. For Evgenia Gvozdetsky and Elena Nazaroff, the New York City design team known as Ev & El, the excitement of spotting someone—anyone—in their clothes has yet to wear off. "We always go up to them and say, 'Oh my God! You look sooo good!' " says Nazaroff, 27. Adds Gvozdetsky, 25: "We ask them, 'Can you put your arms up? How does it feel?' We want to do more and more and more for them."
Not that customer satisfaction is a problem. Since going into business in 1994, the two Russian immigrants have been a hit among the young and hip thanks to clothes that, while simple in design (prices range from $150 to $1,500), don't scrimp on sex appeal. Just ask Barrymore, who purchased two of Ev & El's bouclé
jackets at their Soho boutique, or Mariah Carey
, who in May sang at the White House in their black sheath. "Women should always look beautiful," insists Nazaroff. "Before, we were fighting to be equal to men. Now that we are, we don't have to look like them too." Adds costume designer Denise Wingate, who brought Ev & El to Melrose Place at Locklear's suggestion: "They have a way with cuts that makes the clothes look extremely flattering on practically anyone who wears them."
Growing up in Moscow, the two friends dreamed of finding success. "We always said she would be the big model, I would be the huge designer," laughs Nazaroff, the only child of Victor, a professor, and Irina, a knitwear designer. But with their country then under Communist rule, glamor was, like everything else, in short supply. "To go to the store meant waiting in line for two hours," recalls Gvozdetsky, the daughter of Anatoly, a scientist, and Lydia, who worked in the bureaucracy doling out apartment space.
By high school, the two vowed to make it to America. For Nazaroff, that meant defection. In 1989, at 19, she renounced her Soviet citizenship while traveling in Finland with her new husband, a film director. "It was a big decision," she says. "But I knew I had to do it." The couple settled first in Sweden—where daughter Jacqueline, now 7, was born—and then in Germany before arriving in the U.S. in 1991. Settling in Los Angeles to study design, Nazaroff enrolled at the American College for Applied Arts. "I wanted to know everything," she says. "I spent most of my time in the library."
Meanwhile, Gvozdetsky had also arrived—albeit under easier circumstances. In 1989 she was granted one of the first visas issued under perestroika and moved to Manhattan, where she worked as a model. Despite her success she was restless. "I wanted to use my imagination, my mind," she says. In 1994, after the recently divorced Nazaroff moved to New York City from L.A., the pair launched Ev & El. "We didn't know anything," says Nazaroff. "A lot of people said, 'You'll never survive.' " But backed by a $250,000 loan from a friend, they staged their first show. After their second, a year ago, Nordstrom began buying from their line—as did the celebs.
Now living in a two-bedroom triplex in Manhattan, Gvozdetsky is single (after a brief marriage to a stockbroker), but not alone. In April her half sister Alexandra, 4, moved in after their mother agreed she should be raised in the U.S. "I wanted her to have the best," says Gvozdetsky. And while Nazaroff, who is dating designer Mario Moya, lives farther uptown in a two-bedroom apartment with Jacqueline, the friends are in constant collaboration. "She will call me at 4 a.m. and say, 'I have an idea,' " says Nazaroff. Adds Gvozdetsky: "Fashion's not just our work—it's our hobby." But it's not just the creative impulse that drives them. "When women like the way they look, they feel great," Nazaroff says. "For us, it's the best feeling in the world to make them happy."
STEVEN COJOCARU in Los Angeles