Helene Sidel was born to the fashion business. Her father ran a wholesale dress company. Her mother owned a women's retail store in Cedarhurst on Long Island.
"When you're sitting up on a cutting table at 2 years old, you don't know anything else," Sidel said. "From the age of 1 on, I heard my father talk about reorders at the dinner table."
So it seemed only natural that Sidel would try her hand at the family trade. "They were all for it," she said of her parents' reaction to her decision to become a buyer. "They thought it was a great idea." Starting out as an assistant buyer in the glove department for Allied Stores, Sidel worked her way up the ranks and eventually opened her own buying office. In 1974, she decided to go into manufacturing, starting with a line of blouses, moving into separates five years later and always catering to working women.
"I always address the working woman because, always being a working woman myself, I needed clothes for day and evening. That was my main point of view. But most of all, I wanted the customer to like the way she felt in her clothes, and I wanted her husband to like them," Sidel said.
Sidel is another believer in separate pieces that can be put together in a variety of ways, depending on the occasion.
"It's all a question of how you coordinate them. Spending your money on clothes that have all different uses is very important today."
One of the big influences on Sidel's approach to fashion has been her move to Los Angeles nine months ago after a lifetime in New York.
"My husband wanted to live out here, so it was a question of divorce or sunshine," she said. While the shipping and selling of her line remains in New York, the designing is done here.
As a result, Sidel said, her clothes have become more casual and less structured than before.
"And more fun. The prints are more open," she added, pointing to a brightly colored tropical motif on silk palazzo pants.
Colors are also sunny, with lots of yellow and white. "And the way I put the clothes together has changed. I used to think a tank was only worn under a suit. I was more conservative in New York.
"I love New York," Sidel explained somewhat wistfully. "I love the beat of the city. I love everything about it, but I think California has a lot going to for it too. It would have a lot more if I learned how to drive. I've been cabbing it for nine months."
Helene Sidel's collection is available at Bonwit Teller.
Black, white and yellow are her key colors for spring, but there was designer Michii Moon clad in a Kelly-green tube skirt, which stopped just above her ankles, when she presented her premiere collection under her own label at Bullocks Wilshire. The skirt, she explained apologetically, was a sample that never got made, but it was the only Size 4 garment in her showroom when she left New York.
"I asked, 'There's nothing left at all?' " she said with a huge grin. "We oversold our spring line."
The tiny Japanese woman whose fledgling business is clearly off to a healthy start isn't entirely new to the fashion world. Before starting her own business, she designed sportswear for Christian Dior and Tahari and came away from both companies sharing their belief in the concept of interchangeable separates. She thinks that pieces that can combine as a suit from 9 to 5, and that can be rearranged with other items for casual weekend attire, give women the most mileage for their money.
Her own 65-piece spring collection is full of jackets, both short and fitted, or long and unfitted; long skirts; short skirts, and full trousers, most of which are cut in a linen-and-cotton blend.
"In the summer," Moon said, "I don't like clothes to stick.
"I really like casual clothes--feminine but comfortable. That type of casualness," she explained.
"You never really tire of a good garment that is casual but at the same time elegant. Three years, five years later, it should still look good."
Growing up in a traditional Japanese home in a small village one hour by plane from Tokyo, Moon describes her entry into the fashion world as a "little bit of an accident."
As a young girl, she said, she was given no choice about her future. "My parents wanted me to be a teacher in case something happened to my husband after I got married." Moon reluctantly got her teaching degree in Tokyo and went on to fashion school there, explaining to her family that fashion was her "hobby."
"In the old Japanese families, they don't understand fashion," said Moon, who eventually moved to New York to study English at Columbia University. She transferred to the Fashion Institute of Technology but didn't tell her parents until she was graduated with honors. And even then, she said, "I had to tell them carefully."
Her Japanese upbringing also influenced her taste in clothes. Throughout her school years, including college, Moon wore a uniform consisting of a navy blazer and navy pleated skirt. Today, anything that reeks of a uniform reminds her of her school days.
"A stiff suit in the office looks so wrong to me," she said. "It looks like a school uniform."
Moon prefers to see executive women wear such outfits as her loose, padded-shoulder jacket, tank top and pleated trousers--a look she thinks is even appropriate "for the prime minister's office," she said, adding: "as long as the neckline isn't too open and you don't show too much skin."