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Fashion 87 : Debut of Vittadini Shop Signals Knit Empire's Growth

September 25, 1987|DIANE REISCHEL | Times Staff Writer

Adrienne Vittadini--mega-star of knits--still calls her work "a glorified hobby." When she sees her clothes in store windows, "it's as if another person, a twin, did it." She squirms at the thought of herself on TV: "I'm so aggressive. I hate myself," she says in a whisper.

All modesty aside, Vittadini's empire is exploding. When her first free-standing boutique opens on Rodeo Drive in November, it will be but the latest blip on the growth chart that has taken New York-based Vittadini from a small hand-knit business in 1979 to what she calls a $100-million, multidivisional corporation that designs casual knits, a dress line and evening wear and licenses swimsuits, leg wear and accessories in four countries.

All of these will be housed in Vittadini's new 2,000-square-foot Beverly Hills shop, which was designed by contemporary Italian architect Gae Aulenti--also responsible for the look of the Musee d'Orsay in Paris.

"She's brilliant. I'm so lucky because I was so sure she'd refuse me," said Vittadini. There you go again.

Without a taint of Seventh Avenue braggadocio, this elegant, Hungarian-born designer seems more suited to the life in a country manor than tussling with New York garmentos . And although Vittadini helped fan this decade's obsession with knit sportswear, she's more apt to compliment others than herself.

"It's very easy to feel humility in our business," she said, readjusting her trim peplum suit while attending a recent show of her fall designs at Saks Fifth Avenue, Beverly Hills. "I could point to 20 people I admire for different reasons. I admire Ralph Lauren's marketing."

Vittadini credits her president of three years, Richard Catalano, with her firm's burst of growth. Long before Vittadini had even pondered her own boutique, Catalano, a former Evan Picone executive, advised her to move the Vittadini line out of knitwear departments and into "bridge" areas--those departments devoted to lower-price designer clothes. By redefining her clothes as designer apparel, Vittadini clinched a new image and audience.

Now she's also redefining her shapes.

"We were well-known for tunics and oversize silhouettes. I'm tired of that," she said, noting a move toward fitted waists, peplums and short hemlines.

But attempting cutting-edge over conservative fashion is risky, as she learned. Last year, Vittadini guessed wrong when she placed her entire faith in short skirts. "Women would not buy it. It hurt us. I could have done much better if I'd had more long skirts," she said simply.

So this year, Vittadini offers variety while emphasizing shapely, knee-length styles. Her fall collection, priced from less than $100 to about $600, includes slim-waist knit suits, suede circle skirts and black knit-and-taffeta pouf dresses. Her broad palette touches on punchy black-and-white plaids as well as soothing camel and ice cream tones.

She says she felt Austria and Hungary "in the air" for fall fashion. A vintage military jacket she bought at a Budapest flea market gave rise to gray, soutache-trimmed suits and dresses.

Although matter-of-fact about business, Vittadini gets intense about her craft. "I grew up in knits. I'm emotionally tied to my medium," she said. "I love the complexity of the challenge of knits."

That passion extends to the opening of her boutique, which she calls "a learning process" that will set the course for future Vittadini stores. "I want to chisel our stores. Perfect them," she said. "Then, my dream is to have a flagship store in New York City."

Her love of career, however, has its limits. Vittadini admits she's stingy about privacy, hates to be recognized and is far happier at home, "with my things around me," than in some luxury hotel.

While this unlikely empire-builder contemplates her next moves--she'd like to design shoes and children's clothing--Vittadini and her husband, Gianluigi, the company co-chair, still manage to escape most weekends to their blond-tone Long Island home.

There, the designer, who says she craves balance in her life, "recharges" from the fashion flock.

"In my private life," she assures, "I can step back from it."

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