LONDON — A birthday card displayed on her mantle from Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh is a joke. But it's a good joke.
"Oh that!" Lindka Cierach says with a laugh. "It's from my sister."
Since receiving a commission to design the wedding gown for Sarah Ferguson, who will marry Britain's Prince Andrew July 23 in Westminster Abbey, the 34-year-old designer isn't yet in a position to receive birthday greetings from the queen. But she has suddenly emerged from obscurity to become an instant celebrity of the highest order here--a fashion designer with royal connections.
Her name is all but unpronounceable now (it sounds like Linka Cheerak), but when the world's press descends on London and her artistry is viewed by millions on television, Cierach is well aware that the royal wedding may bring her the same prominence it did for two other fashion unknowns, David and Elizabeth Emanuel. Since designing Lady Diana Spencer's wedding gown in 1981, the Emanuels have enjoyed international attention.
Until recently, hardly anyone knew Cierach existed. She is a private dressmaker who toils in her narrow, turn-of-the-century row house in the not-quite-chic Fulham section of London. Here, the soft-spoken, bespectacled woman of Polish/English extraction and her small staff produce expensive made-to-order clothes that are worn to Ascot, cocktail parties, balls and, of course, to grand London weddings.
Wedding gowns compose one third of her business.
Her clients include the rich and social, from the Duchess of Kent and Duchess of Westminster to young, upper-crust preppies known as Sloane Rangers, of which Ferguson, alias Fergie, and Princess Diana are honorary members.
But dressing Ferguson may be something of a challenge considering that the press here hasn't been kind to either her figure or her taste in clothes. Her curves have been described as "ample," and a striped dress she wore to Ascot last month resulted in a headline reading: "Sarah--A Loser in Fashion Stakes."
Ferguson is probably trusting Cierach to change all that--at least for her wedding day. She has given the designer complete artistic freedom.
"I've been lucky enough to have the complete run of it," Cierach says. "I have no constraints whatsoever, but I really like her to be involved in every step. We talk at least once a week, and I see her for fittings every so often, about once every two weeks."
Beyond that, however, Cierach is tight-lipped. She will reveal neither the wedding dress color (cream or white?), nor size, nor price. Since many of her previous wedding gowns have been encrusted with a hand-beaded layer, it is likely that Ferguson's will be too.
"It's hardly ever I don't put beading on a dress," Cierach says.
Because the designer is quite adamant that her designs verge on the "sensual" as opposed to virginal, it's not likely that the gown will look like it belongs in a fairy tale. Her dresses, Cierach says, "really mold to the body."
To illustrate her point, she holds up a short, black bustier dress made of French lace. "It's very elegant, sophisticated and sexy, but you don't see a thing. "
Possessing what amounts to a state secret, Cierach has had to go to certain lengths to protect herself--and the dress. She has added new locks to her windows and doors and covered the windows in her workroom with a smoky film, so photographers can't see in. She says someone is at home 24 hours a day-- "always. "
More than anything, Cierach has developed a patina of discretion. She has quickly learned to be vague and answer questions by sweetly uttering, "I wouldn't dream of telling you that." When she so desires, she meets a reporter in her living room, but her workroom is off-limits. She complains that the telephone never stops ringing with requests for interviews, and she has had to install a second phone line and an answering machine to screen her calls.
Ferguson is accompanied by a bodyguard when she visits, Cierach says, and the Fulham police go on alert.
"We have marvelous Fulham police. Do say that. And I'm very lucky, my neighbors are wonderful. No one gawks here. She comes in and out without any hassle whatsoever."
And the prince's bride-to-be gets high marks for being "extremely nice and very easygoing, very friendly and a kind person and very bubbly. We enjoy ourselves a lot when we have fittings. Fergie's very independent. She's absolutely delightful."
Born in Lesotho, Southern Africa, raised in Uganda and England, Cierach attended the Lon-
don College of Fashion, spent a "brief, stormy spell" as assistant to Yuki (a designer working in London and Paris) and then went into business for herself, where she would do "literally anything," including alterations, repairs and hooks and eyes for friends.
She quickly discovered that making wedding gowns could be lucrative.
"There's a great tradition of weddings here, with the bridesmaids, the pages--I think it's unique to England," Cierach explains. "My American pals cannot understand this."