It was not a typical day for New York designer Pauline Trigere, who nonetheless was dressed for one. Trigere does not alter her style to suit her surroundings. So although she was visiting Amen Wardy in Newport Beach for the first time, and although her mostly female, mostly socialite audience was dressed to the nines in daytime diamonds with straw hats and print summer dresses, the visiting designer remained typically understated in a seasonless tailored white coatdress that she'd wear in Paris or New York.
It was not a typical setting, either, for the grande dame of Seventh Avenue. In fact, she said with some awe, "I have never seen such a place as this."
Her surprise was understandable. After more than 40 years of selling dresses through the nation's most prestigious stores, she thought she had seen every conceivable kind of retail layout. But here, beneath a cloudless Southern California sky, with yachts and sailboats bobbing in the water just minutes away, was a veritable Taj Mahal of style: a horizontal palace--measuring 31,000 square feet, complete with a 2,300-square-foot Venetian ballroom. A palace designed not for people but for clothes.
Wardy, a former El Paso retailer, opened the opulent store in 1977 on the site of what once was a J. C. Penney Auto Center. He decided on Newport, he says, because his research showed that it had just about the highest per capita income in the country. And locals reportedly spend a healthy percentage of that per capita on Wardy's wares. (For example, the store boasts the only Galanos salon in America and reportedly sold $1.25 million worth of that designer's spring clothes this year.)
The spectacle of the mirrored ballroom filled with fashionable women, pencils ready so they could write down style numbers to try on after the show, also prompted Trigere to comment to the crowd that perhaps the "fashion center of the world is no longer Paris, but right here in Newport Beach."
The pencils were busy as models came down the runway in Trigere's fall collection, which is precision-cut and impeccably tailored of exquisite European fabrics; clothes meant not for yachts and pool-side parties but for theaters and concerts, luncheons and dinners or traveling around the world.
Trigere made practicality and "intelligence" a focal point of her remarks, explaining how one coat with two dresses or two skirts and sweaters can turn into a complete travel wardrobe. But the jewel-decked women who'd driven up in Bentleys and Rolls-Royces didn't seem to have practicality in mind. No matter. They found what they were looking for: glamour and drama.
Trigere's clothes do something for a woman. They seem to lend stature or stage presence even to those who don't look commanding in some other designer's outfits. By virtue of their couture-type structure and tailoring, they make even average-height women look statuesque.
Her California-weight coats and capes literally sail around a moving body, as if wafted by currents of air. The slim dresses and suits lend a sophisticated kind of sex appeal. They are not madcap clothes, Trigere would agree. And yet, on some customers who tried them on after the show, they seemed downright daring.
A medium-height, curvy-figured heiress, for example, arrived at the show in what she doubtless thought was elegant attire: a silk belted print dress with lots of discreet glitter at neckline and wrist and her hair almost to her shoulders. She looked rich and well-dressed, but not particularly alluring.
After the show, Trigere showed her how she could look. The designer suggested a sheer chiffon hood with sparkling paillettes, under which all the woman's hair was hidden. With that, she had her try a black wool crepe belted dress with fitted bodice and full skirt banded at the hemline in black fox. The transformation was shocking. Other customers and even store employees watched in amazement. The woman could have been taken for a movie star or an international beauty. She bought the dress, the hood, a white mohair coat and a few other pieces.
Trigere, however, was not amazed. She's made her fortune on just such transformations.
The Paris-born daughter of parents who were tailors, she has spent most of her life absorbing and creating high fashion. She arrived in America in 1937, a young married woman with two children. Her marriage broke up in 1941 while she was working at Hattie Carnegie in New York. Carnegie closed shop in 1942 due to the war, and Trigere started her own business in the $50-a-month workrooms previously rented by her employer. She quickly garnered a famous-name clientele, who could no longer get clothes from Paris and who found Trigere's U.S.-made product just as appealing. Since then, significant numbers of well-to-do, fashion-conscious women in America have had, at one time or another, a Trigere in their closets.