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Chic Copier Makes Couture Affordable

February 26, 1988|BETTY GOODWIN

Who is the fashion world's new hero of the hour? Oscar nominee Holly Hunter plans to wear his design to the Academy Awards. Ivana Trump, who spends $20,000 a pop on French couture dresses, ordered 22 styles from his spring collection (at about $400 per dress). And designer Christian Lacroix, the rage of the Paris fashion world, embraced him as "his best friend."

Fashion's unlikely leading man is Victor Costa of Dallas, a middle-aged, graying gentleman who has been married for three decades and rather resembles your friendly neighborhood tax accountant.

In recent months, Costa has been canonized in a half-page feature in the New York Times, profiled in the International Herald Tribune and interviewed on Page 1 of the Dallas Times Herald, which proclaimed that this native son has "vaulted to the top of the fashion world."

Costa, who has toiled without kudos and in relative obscurity for 30 years, explains the sudden burst of hyperbole while on a visit to Neiman-Marcus, Beverly Hills, last week: "It's because of the economy," he said.

"Since Black Monday," he continued, "ladies who used to spend thousands of dollars on dresses don't have the money anymore. All of a sudden the stocks dropped; the money in the oil-producing states dried up, and they're clamoring for pretty, role-playing clothes."

In Costa's case, that usually means cocktail and evening clothes that are frothy, feminine and flounced. And, yes, you can add floral.

The 52-year-old designer always uses the word ladies to describe the swelling band of customers--dowagers and debs--who will push his retail sales to $40 million this year, more than double his 1984 volume of $16 million.

On the cover of a popular fashion magazine, he says, "I saw a lady--I won't say who--in one of my dresses. And next to her name the caption read: 'Ungaro couture.' " He leans back in his chair on the N-M selling floor and chuckles. "I found it amusing that one of my short taffeta dresses selling for $380 could pass for couture."

Costa's magic is that he frankly and openly "interprets" the work of top French designers, giving his customers--er, ladies-- "the mood of what is happening," quite literally for a fraction of couture cost (although frequently using 100% polyester instead of more expensive luxe fabrics).

Costa attends the biannual haute couture collections in Paris and then works the ideas into his own collection the following season. "Nobody wants a tortured Ungaro jersey, all draped and wrapped, that she can't wear, but she wants that mood and feeling," he says.

"When Lacroix was here, he kissed and hugged me and called me his best friend. It's a sincere form of flattery to be interpreted."

Sometimes, Costa boasts, he receives engraved invitations to attend a designer's show. "I saw 12 collections last month in Paris. Dior this time was superb," he says.

No, Costa doesn't bother with the American designer shows. "I don't want to slam them, but I can almost see where everything comes from." In other words, Paris.

Price is a point of pride. He considers couture prices obscene. "Last fall for Chanel, Karl Lagerfeld had one short red satin dress for over $100,000. Did you know that?

"I believe in diamonds and antiques, but I don't think clothes should cost thousands," he says.

Costa keeps his prices down by operating his own factory in Dallas. He also employs "tricks of the trade" learned from his many years in the business. For instance, this season he substituted French re-embroidered ribbon lace at $150 to $200 per yard with the American version at $4, and had his seamstresses machine embroider over it. "Nobody can tell the difference," says Costa. "That's how I get my kicks."

The most expensive dress-- a ball gown--in his spring collection is just over $1,000.

Born and raised in Houston, Costa attended the Pratt Institute in New York and then the prestigious Chambre Syndicale school in Paris, where he was classmates with Yves St. Laurent and Lagerfeld. Costa says he always wanted to become a famous designer.

In 1965, he went to work at Suzy Perette, a company that specialized in line-for-line copies of French couture, supplying stores such as Bonwit Teller and Ohrbach's. "In those days, there was no French ready-to-wear," Costa says.

Now that he's entered the big leagues, Costa is looking into creating a perfume and designing accessories of all kinds.

Would he ever design a higher-priced line? "No," he says flatly. "That's playing against type."

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