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Stracci Brings 'New Couture' From Hollywood to Newport Beach Shop

May 27, 1988|KAREN NEWELL YOUNG | Karen Newell Young is a regular contributor to Orange County Life

If the original clothing designs at Stracci seem vaguely familiar, it is not surprising. One of the owners of the "new couture" shop in Newport Beach was head costumer for TV's "Moonlighting" for 2 1/2 years, and most of the Stracci garments capture that "soft but businesslike" quality that became a hallmark of the show and its star, Cybill Shepherd.

"We're trying to do here what we used to do for the film (and television) industry," says Susan Swain, 30, the daughter and partner of Dianne Wheeler. "From our years of costuming stars, we know how to make women look more beautiful."

Stracci, which means rags in Italian, displays about 18 outfits in the airy, bisque-colored Bayside Shopping Center shop that has been open about a month. Customers select an outfit, which is later custom-made to fit in a color and fabric chosen from samples.

Called by some the "new couture," shops that offer custom fit and fabrics have taken root in Los Angeles and other metropolitan areas but are rare in Orange County. With their little boutique, Wheeler and Swain believe that they are tapping a long-ignored market.

"The thing started because Suzie was getting so much mail asking, 'where can I get Cybill's clothes?' " says Wheeler, who worked as a Hollywood costumer for more than 25 years, dressing such luminaries as Lynn Redgrave, Stella Stevens and Victoria Principal. "Since these kind of clothes were so hard to find, there seemed to be a real need."

"Cybill's whole look was like this," Wheeler adds, gesturing toward the clothes racks. "Soft, monochromatic jacket and skirt sets."

The women say they were astonished at the number of customers. "We never thought it would take off this fast," says Wheeler. "We haven't even advertised." Last week's Bob Mackie fashion show at Amen Wardy's store in Newport Beach brought a wave of customers.

Swain and Wheeler specialize in a soft, businesslike look, but they say the most important qualities they offer are the custom fit and fabric selection.

"It's a service you don't get at other stores," says Wheeler. "Those extra nips and tucks mean a lot."

Actresses need every bit as much fitting as the average woman, she adds.

"They have flaws too, you know. I had Lynn Redgrave at her fattest, and I think she looked quite lovely when I was through with her."

The shop--with large dressing rooms, comfortable chairs and refreshments--is designed for leisurely fitting and selection. The owners say they don't want customers to feel pressured to buy.

"We're not going to say (to a customer) 'Oh, darling, that's wonderful for you' when it isn't," says Swain. "Sometimes a customer puts on an outfit (here) and we'll say, 'No! It's not right. Take it off.' "

The Stracci outfits take about two to four weeks to make, and prices are comparable to high-quality department store clothes--about the same as Anne Klein II or Calvin Klein. A two-piece "mother of the bride" dress of silk gabardine, for example, costs $800. A peach silk Jacquard dress is $345. A Tussah silk jacket is $355 and silk blouses run about $200.

Every garment has been designed by Swain and Wheeler. The designs are given to a professional pattern maker and then the store's two full-time seamstresses sew them up. All the seams are bound, and outfits are lined for the same price, if requested. Customers stop in for a second fitting before the piece is completed.

Swain says the switch from costuming to retailing wasn't a tough turnabout. Both require long hours and strict deadlines. The big difference is that the women are working for themselves rather than for a network or producer.

"I miss it until I talk to my friends in the business," says Swain. "You have to answer to seven or eight different people when you're working on a show. I think I'll be happier doing this."

Her favorite actress to outfit was Whoopi Goldberg for a "Moonlighting" segment. She has also outfitted Cheryl Tiegs, Eva Marie Saint and Dudley Moore (he was "fabulous, the best"). Her mother's first job was on a film with John Huston and Henry Fonda.

As testimony to their first careers, signed photos from appreciative actresses line one wall. Another portion of the shop features accessories and jewelry. A small sample line of cocktail gowns from Ronald Mann are hung in another area, and the rest of the store is devoted to the Swain-Wheeler designs.

Stracci is located at 1028 Bayside Drive, Newport Beach, (714) 721-1110. Customers may walk in or make appointments.

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