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Witty Knits

July 18, 1986|PADDY CALISTRO

Designer Maureen Cullinane admits that her capricious sweater-and-skirt ensembles are a definite no-no for women climbing the executive ladder.

"These clothes aren't listed in the dress-for-success manuals--and they're definitely not recommended for the junior stockbroker," asserts the New York-based knitwear specialist, who says her conversation-piece clothes won't lead to promotions in a Brooks Brothers world.

"But once the woman chairs the board, my designs are perfectly OK for her."

Perfectly OK, that is, if the chairwoman wants to wear a sweater teeming with embroidered Scottie dogs to meet her directors or a sweater-knit bodysuit bedecked with pine cones to analyze spread sheets. There's a Hans Brinker motif too, and there's Heidi's brother Peter tending to mountain goats--just in case current business plans begin to read like fairy tales.

It takes guts to wear such highly visible and whimsical clothes and perhaps even more fortitude to produce them. Yet Maureen Cullinane's flights of knitwear fancy have built her Cullinane label into a $15-million business in less than four years.

Despite her company's eight-figure success and despite the fact that intricately patterned and imaginatively textured sweaters are the backbone of her collection, Cullinane blushes when she confesses that she can't knit or purl.

"Even though I don't actually hold the needles, I know the technical aspects of knitting," she explains. "I plan the patterns and let my knitters take it from there. But planning a sweater may take as long as 10 weeks. Some of my patterns are so complex that they break all the knitting rules."

Although the sweaters, skirts and blouses are sold separately, they are pre-coordinated--that is, the Royal Pansy sweater only works with the Royal Pansy skirt, and the Ladies Who Lunch sweater is made expressly for the Ladies Who Lunch skirt. No Pansy sweaters with Ladies Who Lunch skirts, please.

"An outfit is an outfit," Cullinane declares, adding that it's rare to see a skirt sell without its coordinated counterparts. So stubborn is Cullinane about the way her clothes should be worn, she occasionally allows her customers no flexibility.

"My customers like to wear their sweaters outside their skirts, and I want them to wear these tucked in," she says, referring to one of her fall bodysuits. "So I figured if I fastened the sweaters between the legs as bodysuits, they'd understand."

But the 36-year-old designer acknowledges that some consumers still exercise their freedom of choice and buy only sweaters--no blouses or no skirts. "We've found that there is a cult of women who collect the sweaters. They refer to them by name, and they know exactly which buttons were on styles from three years ago."

Because only about 700 pieces are made in each pattern, the hand-loomed sweaters are suddenly being treated like limited-edition works of art, Cullinane says.

"If a sweater sells incredibly well, we will make 2,000, but that kind of production is rare for us," she adds. According to Bullock's buyer Mary Bradley, collectors call her before the collection arrives each season to reserve their sweaters.

The designer incorporates cotton yarns into every collection and for fall, 1986, uses blends of lamb's wool and French Angora, incorporating 76 colors of dyed yarns.

A graduate of New York's Fashion Institute of Technology, Cullinane designed sweaters under the Ellen Tracy label before opening her own business in 1982.

The collection is available in the Country Clothes department of selected Bullock's stores. Sweaters are priced from $96 to $180, skirts from $136 to $180 and blouses from $118 to $136.

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