Suppose you need a hard hat with a felt-and-satin banana on top, boots with a mound of plastic spaghetti on each toe or a rhinestone-studded T-shirt (Streisand wore one in A Star Is Born). If conventional fashion is a yawn and good taste belongs to tuna fish, Donald Pliner has the store for you. It’s his Right Bank Clothing Co., home of the Beverly Hills look, where outrageous counts more than anything.
“When I do something because it’s stylish, it never moves,” Pliner laments. “But when I go with my own feelings and jokes, I sell out.” The 34-year-old retailing wonder has built up a million-dollar business by peddling the idea that funky can be fashionable—like his embroidered bovine sweaters (“Wear cows, don’t eat them”).
Half serious, half cynical, Pliner pokes fun at “American women who will wear anything, if they think it’s fashion”—at the same time providing them with the latest in the status look. He once sold 1,700 $3.50 plastic watches in one day by promoting them as the latest in-jewelry. Usually Pliner’s fashions are anything but cheap. His leather jeans, in eight colors, fetch $320.
The son of a Chicago shoe store chain owner, Pliner earned a master’s in art history at the University of Chicago before his older brother persuaded him to open a Pappagallo shoe outlet in Beverly Hills. Donald upped sales tenfold and three years later set up his own Right Bank Clothing Co. (next door to a competitor, Rive Gauche, named for Paris’ Left Bank). Rich hippies slouched in for their feathers and studs, and the celebrities soon followed. After Vogue ran Ali MacGraw wearing his mismatching wedgies, Pliner began franchising boutiques.
In 1974 he sold out for just under $1 million, only to find he was so unhappy he bought the business back the next year (for the cost of the inventory). This time he added a shoe store and a tearoom, which has its own star quality. Suzanne Pleshette uses one of the tables as her office. Joel Grey’s mother has a regular Saturday lunch crowd there, and Cher, Candice Bergen, Jackie Smith, Diana Ross and Linda Ronstadt are all regulars.
The key to the high celebrity head count throughout the store, Pliner thinks, is “constant change. I get bored very easily.” He buys from more than 100 suppliers in 14 countries. “I choose the fabrics, change materials around, ask for a different sleeve,” Pliner explains. Lois Pliner, 28, his wife of five years from whom he recently split, adds, “The only sentence he knows in 10 languages is, ‘Can you change it?’ ”
Although they live apart, Lois has stayed on as RBCC’s stylist, where she connects Pliner’s fantasies to the real world. Who else could teach the sales staff that a raspberry T-shirt will be a knockout teamed with a crocheted vest in orange and Lurex, a jade cardigan and a purple disco bag?
Pliner mixes very little in the fashion world. “I owe most of my success to my ignorance,” he says, explaining why he prefers to be odd man out. The same goes for his home life in Coldwater Canyon, where he lives with his dogs Babydoll and Willy. “It’s not that I don’t like people,” he explains. “I just relate better to animals.”