February 21, 1994 12:00 PM

WHEN RICHARD TOLER PICKED UP HIS recent award for the hottest new women’s-wear designer of the year from the Council of Fashion Designers of America there was a strong undercurrent of irony. At 46, he is the oldest designer to win the fashion industry’s new-talent Oscar, but he’s not at all new. Says Tyler: “At my age, I’m thrilled.”

In fact, Tyler has been haute on the West Coast since 1988 when he and his wife, Lisa Trafficante, now 37, opened the Tyler Trafficante shop in L.A. and began dressing celebrities like Oprah, Susan Sarandon and Daryl Hannah, including designing the gown Julia Roberts was to wear in her canceled wedding to Kiefer Sutherland. At last year’s Oscar ceremony—usually a showcase for Armani duds—Roberts, Anjelica Huston and Diane Keaton showed up impeccably Tylered. Then last spring the designer broke onto the East Coast with a highly acclaimed New York City show.

Since then, Tyler has waded into the American mainstream, becoming design director of Anne Klein, the upmarket women’s sportswear house, last May. Thanks to what he calls his “classic with a twist, wearable but not boring” line, store orders have jumped 30 percent this year. Says Ellin Saltzman, fashion director of Bergdorf Goodman, which carries both Anne Klein’s and Tyler’s labels: “These are incredibly tailored clothes. They’re for a woman who has great authority. These are not Prom Queen clothes.”

The son of a plastics factor•’ foreman and a theatrical-costume designer and seamstress who lived in Sunshine, Australia, he started sewing at 6 to help his mother, Mereia. He quit school at 16 and apprenticed cutting fabric in a bra factory. At 18, Tyler and his mother (he designed, she sewed) sold sportswear at their own Melbourne shop, which attracted wandering minstrels Cher, Elton John and Alice Cooper in search of body-hugging sequined outfits. “It was more rock and roll than what I’m designing now,” he says.

That same year Tyler wed Doris Taylor, who later became Rod Stewart’s tour secretary. The marriage, which produced a son, Sheridan, now 17 and living in Australia with his mother, failed after 10 years. Tyler continued dressing rockers, following the clientele to London after his mother’s death in 1976, louring with Stewart around Europe and America, and then settling in L.A. in 1984. He did odd jobs as well, even designing budget sweats for a San Francisco sportswear firm, which frustrated his passion for detail. When he wearied of custom work for bands, he bunked in an abandoned building and friends’ guest houses, trading gardening and sewing services for rent. Meanwhile, he tried unsuccessfully to find financial backing for a couture line of ’40s-inspired menswear.

Discouraged, Tyler booked passage back to Australia in 1987. A week before the trip, he met actress and decorator-renovator Lisa Trafficante. “She wasn’t starving like I was,” Tyler recalls. “I looked like this stooped, aging rock star.” Says Lisa: “He was shy, his hair hung in front of his face, but he had that passionate feeling about his work. We fell in love.” Trafficanle refinanced two houses to invest in Tyler’s career, and in 1988 they opened their L.A. boutique. Business was soon so brisk that Richard didn’t cut Lisa’s wedding gown until 2 a.m. on the day of their marriage in July 1989. A son, Edward Charles, was born three months ago. A Tyler line for tiny tykes “seems inevitable,” says the designer.

Today, Tyler and Lisa divide their time between a town house in Manhattan and a five-bedroom Spanish-style house in L.A. that once belonged to Dolores Del Rio. Both homes shudder to the sound of Tyler’s beloved head-banger rock.

The trouble with being hot, of course, is that everything must cool. “You can’t worry about things like that,” he says. “There’s always going to be somebody new. You just do your job. If it’s not ‘in’ that season, maybe in two seasons it will be back again.”


ALLISON” LYNN in New York City

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