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Lingerie Success Suits Designer to a T : What Started as Private Collection Becomes Big Business

November 27, 1987|BETTY GOODWIN

When she worked as personal assistant to Diana Vreeland, considered one of the deans of American fashion, designer Sue Ekahn learned one thing that would serve her well in the future: "The incredible lesson of life," says Ekahn, "is being thorough with a capital T." The second lesson of life? "Anticipation with a capital A," she says. "That means thinking of all the details and knowing ahead what questions to ask next to make informed decisions."

Creator of what she calls "couture lingerie" (sold at Neiman-Marcus, where she visited this week), Ekahn credits her seven years of service to Vreeland as fundamental to her burgeoning career.

"What I learned from her I used in the production of the line, not in the design of the line," explains Ekahn, 32, who enthusiastically recalls her years with "Mrs. V."

For example, she says, "I organized her jewelry collection (which was recently sold at auction). I took Polaroids of the jewelry four years ago and made a code system, by letter, of where in her apartment the different pieces were located so the maid could find them.

"I was also very proud of my solution to the major problem of panty-hose organization," she goes on. "I designed a system, if faced with a drawerful of panty hose, where you could quickly find sandalfoot or reinforced toe, by color, pattern and texture."

Absolute Persistence

Ekahn says absolute persistence was what initially got her the job with Vreeland, but that everything that has happened in her life since has been a series of meant-to-bes.

For years she had collected lingerie--nightgowns, brassieres, tap pants and slips from the '20s and '30s--at flea markets around the world. In effect, she had formed her own historical lingerie library, which she carefully hung on padded satin hangers on a rack next to the bed in her small Manhattan apartment.

After graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design, Ekahn won a design scholarship sponsored by Yves St. Laurent, Pierre Cardin, Dior, Gres and Lanvin to study in Paris. Upon returning to New York, she concurrently worked for Vreeland and traveled the world as a fashion forecaster for large corporations, such as Du Pont and Milliken.

After one particularly trying consultation, Ekahn says she "totally collapsed." For a diversion, she attended the Lingerie Salon in Paris, a trade show for the intimate-apparel business. That was all it took.

Ekahn quickly decided to sink "every penny I ever made in my entire life" into developing a deluxe collection of lingerie handmade from French-embroidered silks. Prices range from $250 for silk tap pants to $5,000 for a hand-painted lace robe with appliques and sequins.

Although Ekahn manages to run her 2-year-old business with utmost thoroughness, she isn't going to be running it much longer. Not even she could have anticipated it, but Tomio Taki (the investor behind Donna Karan and Anne Klein) in partnership with Wacoal, one of the world's largest intimate-apparel companies, have become her backers in a company to be called Sue Ekahn International Inc.

In addition to her high-priced lingerie, next year Ekahn will produce a collection called Feminine Fantasy, with prices comparable to Christian Dior and Fernando Sanchez intimate apparel.

"Up until this moment I've been working in my apartment or in my hallway, but I'm about to have a beautiful showroom on Fifth Avenue with arch windows and columns," she says enthusiastically, adding that "Mr. Taki is a prince."

A few weeks ago, when she was shipping her order to Neiman-Marcus, Ekahn didn't have a box or the tape to pack it with. "I panicked and called Mr. Taki, and he said, 'Come down to Anne Klein and Henry will ship it for you.' "

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