Oscars 1993: Richard Tyler -- Meet Hollywood's newest designer darling, who dresses the likes of Julia Roberts, Janet Jackson, and Robert Downey Jr.

By Joanna Powell
Updated March 26, 1993 at 05:00 AM EST

The last time Julia Roberts went to the Oscars she nearly had a meltdown. The dress she had been promised-from Giorgio Armani, word has it-arrived. But Roberts decided it just wouldn’t do.

In an 11th-hour panic, she threw herself on the mercy of Richard Tyler, then a little-known L.A. designer whose luxurious tailored creations she had discovered in his storefront next to Java, her favorite coffee shop, on Beverly Boulevard. ”It was pretty crazy,” Tyler, 44, recalls. ”We had three days.” Like a wizard from the planet Chic, he went straight to his scissors- the same ones he sometimes uses to cut his shoulder-length hair-and without pattern or measurements cut Roberts a monkish black dress like nothing the Academy had ever seen. An austere, floor-length tunic of rich silk crepe, it made the front page of Women’s Wear Daily — and Tyler gained a foothold as the Next Armani.

”Richard Tyler has a great sense of texture and style,” says Roberts, who rarely talks to the press but will do just about anything for Tyler. She’s so devoted that last year she flew to New York to attend a party celebrating his line.

In the two years since Tyler’s Oscar coup, his $1,600-plus suits with exquisitely detailed pockets, buttonholes, and collars have been worn by Janet Jackson and k.d. lang (both to last month’s Grammys). Kathleen Turner chose a black sculpted number for an inaugural dinner honoring Al Gore. And Demi Moore’s painted birthday suit on Vanity Fair‘s August 1992 cover was based on a body-hugging Tyler design.

”Richard Tyler is brilliant,” says lang. ”He listens to what I want and then the clothes come back even more detailed and precise than I ever imagined.”

While most of Tyler’s Oscar work is last-minute, a la Roberts, he is definitely dressing Anjelica Huston and Best Actor nominee Robert Downey Jr. this year. ”You always feel great in his clothes,” says Huston, whose favorite Tylers are a tuxedo and a black evening dress. ”They’re modern and easy to wear.”

Unlike Armani and Valentino, who court nominees with flowers and free or loaner gowns, Tyler can’t afford to give away his designs. ”For us it’s a big deal,” he says. ”We’re a little company and make everything by hand. Our customers buy.” Roberts even bought the bridal dress she never wore to her canceled wedding to Kiefer Sutherland.

”There’s a lot of cachet in wearing Tyler because he’s Hollywood’s best,” says WWD‘s Merle Ginsberg. ”But he’s still a rebel.” In fact, Tyler has been on the far side of the fashion mainstream since the early ’70s, when he got his start in his native Australia making concertwear for Elton John and Rod Stewart. Later, struggling and sewing out of his apartment in L.A., he became a favorite of Diana Ross’. ”She would fly me to New York. I made her white satin tails for The Wiz in my room at the Hilton,” he says. ”For a cutting table I used room-service trays, and I sewed on a little portable sewing machine.”

These days, Tyler and his wife, Lisa Trafficante, 37, who with her sister, Michelle, 32, is a business partner, employ 90 people. But customers still drop by like family to their Art Deco shop, Tyler Trafficante. Roseanne and Tom Arnold picked up their own matching Western-style black tuxedos. Kim Basinger selected a popular $1,200 white sheath, also owned in black by Huston and Downey’s wife, former Elite model Deborah Falconer-Downey — who wore it to meet Queen Elizabeth. Lionel Richie nipped in to select a personal wardrobe and is now choosing tour outfits.

And as the Oscars draw near, Tyler can only imagine who will stroll in. ”A lot of people are so nervous they don’t want to think about what they’re wearing until the last minute,” says Trafficante. ”Then they run over here. They’re not going to the Oscars in something they don’t like!”

Can’t say Armani wasn’t warned.