When Diane Freis designs one of her expensive polyester georgette dresses, she thinks of diets gone wrong, emotions in turmoil, hotel washbasins, cocktail parties and barefoot strolls along the beach.
Because her concept is one size fits all--and all occasions--it comes as no surprise to her that a customer recently took half a dozen Freis dresses on an African safari.
While Freis never meant to make her dresses bush-proof, she does like to think of them as "art pieces" that will ride the waves of a woman's changing emotions and dimensions. (An added perk, she says, is that they travel beautifully.)
Soft, Flowing Collage
To the casual observer, a Freis dress is a soft, flowing collage of florals and geometric patterns decorated with any number of her "trademarks": the pleats, the ties, the tassels, the ruffles, the flounces.
To the American-born, Hong Kong-based designer, her designs are "happy dresses, personality dresses, mood dresses." And part of that happiness is their capacity to camouflage.
Shoulder pads are slightly molded "to give every woman the same shoulder"; armholes are cut deep to accommodate any size arm; and waists are shirred and slightly elasticized to stretch and shrink on demand.
The Freis "model" woman is Freis herself, for two very good reasons:
"I'm the only female in the factory with a European body. I also happen to be slightly larger in the hips than I am on top. So if anything looks flattering on me, I know it's going to be flattering on other women. Every woman is concerned about her hips."
Freis says heredity accounts for what she is today. Her grandfather, she recalls, was a couturier first in Canada, then in Los Angeles. And her mother had aspirations to be a designer, but she succumbed--happily, Freis notes--to marriage and motherhood.
It was left to Freis (and more recently to her sister Susan) to take up the gauntlet. But she started out with visions of a different career. She graduated from UCLA as a fine arts major in 1972 and planned to start work on her master's degree that fall.
During the summer, she made a few Eisenhower-type jackets out of some mixed bits of antique print materials and sold them to a Hollywood boutique where they were snapped up by Kiki Dee, Elton John, Diana Ross and Joni Mitchell.
Within six months, she had a thriving cottage industry and never went back to college. Instead, she went to Hong Kong looking for a special polyester georgette. She liked the "international atmosphere of excitement" there and eventually made the Far East her home.
Recently she was back to her roots--in Westwood at Bullock's--for a special showing of her spring and summer collections.
Her latest works are a lighthearted, seemingly endless array of prints and patterns. (Freis employs 14 artists who carry out her concept of "the checks and the spots and the dots and the flowers and the sprigs.") In addition to her signature dresses, there are novelties, such as pajamas, and she has also just introduced silks and cottons into her American collection. Her Hong Kong factory turns out 200 items a day, and every one is a limited-edition piece.
"There are definitely fewer than 20 of each," Freis calculates.
And each one with a voice of its own, in Freis' view.
"The dress has to appeal to a woman's emotions. She puts on the dress she likes. And then if the dress likes her, she'll know it. She'll see the transformation in the mirror. She'll put that dress on, and the magic happens. She feels special. And the dress seems to say, 'I love you too, honey.' "