Europe's couture designers know that many women who can afford $4,000 to $20,000 for a custom-made, one-of-a-kind gown, cannot afford the time for all those trips to Paris or Rome for fittings.
Ever sensitive to the needs of their public, they have tried to solve the problem. If it's inconvenient for women to fly to the collections, they have reasoned, let's fly the collections to them. Valentino devotees in Manhattan, for instance, have already grown accustomed to such exalted curbside service.
This season, the Valentino spring couture collection made its initial stop in America at the only Valentino boutique outside of Manhattan: Amen Wardy in Newport Beach.
"Now it's arrivederci, Roma!" Pat Rypinski said cheerily as she arrived for her appointment with fitter Maria Pia Reggi, who'd traveled from the designer's European workshop for the occasion.
"Look, when I go to Europe, I arrive with a full wardrobe. The last thing I want to do is shop," Rypinski said. "But to have Valentino come here? That is an absolutely phenomenal opportunity. Phenomenal."
Amen Wardy, the ebullient proprietor of the store that bears his name, likewise bubbled with enthusiasm.
"We're first with couture in California," he proudly said. "
Rypinski's comments underscored the fact that, unlike many of their Manhattan counterparts, typical Amen Wardy shoppers never did frequent the couture in Europe.
Bill and Elizabeth Milburn of Austin, Texas, for instance, have been shopping at Amen Wardy for years. Though avid Valentino fans and seasoned travelers, this was nevertheless their first experience with Valentino at the custom-made level. They hopped in their airplane and flew in for some serious shopping.
"We bought a lot of (ready-to-wear) Valentino in Europe last August," Bill Milburn recalled in a distinctive drawl, "but that was strictly pleasure. We'll spend a couple of days of serious shopping this trip." (Milburn, incidentally, may be every woman's dream: "Elizabeth is a pretty good shopper," he confided, "but I always have to be there to encourage her to buy.")
Valentino himself didn't come. Reggi, his No. 1 fitter, stayed for a week. The designer sent each one of his 140 spring couture designs--this season showing a bent for boleros, ruching and geometric embroidery.
The procedure is simple: The client chooses a design she finds appealing and exact measurements and specifications are determined. Back in Rome--and at the very least, $4,000 later--the piece will be built from the ground up.
"They're very expensive," Reggi admitted, "but they are made in the precise proportions of the woman. And we change according to their needs. A customer might like this wool suit as it is, another might like it in silk, another could like it in a silk print."
Added Wardy's assistant, Annie Bower: "The dresses are made to your specifications, not altered to your specifications. The woman who buys couture appreciates quality and detail.
Valentino's ready-to-wear customers are counted in the thousands, couture clients in the hundreds. On this particular morning, they numbered two: Rypinski and the Milburns.
But couture not only survives, the number of its devotees is swelling. Indeed, the very democratization of quality that is ready-to-wear also provides the greatest safeguard for the future of couture.
"It's not that (Valentino ready-to-wear) is second rate," Rypinski said. "It's first rate, but it's what everybody can have. You buy couture when you want something different from everybody else."
Reggi seemed pleased, if not exactly overwhelmed, by her West Coast reception.
"California seems interested in high fashion," Reggi said. "We've had a good response to our first time here."
As always, an appreciation of the finest life has to offer is little more than a matter of exposure; by mid-morning, Elizabeth Milburn indicated that her level of appreciation had been raised considerably.
"Other Valentinos are pretty," she said. "If you don't see these, you won't know the difference. But these are the dresses that, when somebody walks into a room, make you say: 'Isn't that beautiful!' "