Not every 36-year-old career woman can get away with wearing giant hair bows and thigh-high ruffled skirts. But Barbara Lazaroff does it all the time. It's part of why people say she has a style of her own.
She's an interior designer who plans traffic patterns, lighting systems and related aspects for restaurants, among them Chinois and Spago, which she co-owns with her husband, chef Wolfgang Puck.
Lazaroff helps manage those particular dining spots too. Seven nights a week she's dressed to the hilt, poised near the door of one or the other.
With no corporate ladder to climb, no career boss to impose a dress code and a captive audience to entertain nightly, Lazaroff indulges her every fashion whim, even on the job.
There isn't just one word to describe her style. It's decorative, dramatic, eclectic, expensive and extreme. It's closer to stage costume than street clothes. And it seems inspired, at least in part, by her training as an actress. She says she studied drama while she was growing up in New York City.
"I wear twinkling clothes, Tinkerbell clothes that glisten with beads and sequins," said Lazaroff, who never cast aside her childhood fashion fantasies.
"Little girls love my dresses. My style is my own dream as a 5-year-old of what I'd look like when I grew up."
A purple taffeta minidress with a full, circle skirt by Karl Lagerfeld; a pale-pink chiffon gown that shimmers with silver beads by Zandra Rhodes; a black bolero suit trimmed with white passementerie designs for a pastry-tube-squiggles effect by Rifat Ozbek. These are a few of the colorful items in Lazaroff's closet.
"Nobody who dresses the way I do can care about what people think," she said contentedly.
She is disarmingly outspoken, open and warm-spirited. Still, she locks the door to her closet. "I don't like anyone going in there, not even Wolf or the housekeeper," she explained of the narrow structure, 20 feet long, that represents far more than a closet to her.
"It's truly, totally, utterly mine," she said. "As a little girl, my family was very poor; I had hardly any dresses."
She estimates that she owns hundreds of them now, and more than 100 pairs of shoes. "To dress is to decorate yourself," she said.
She isn't surprised to see clothes with $10,000 price tags when she's out shopping, she said, and her favorite designers include James Galanos, Valentino and Bill Blass.
But, she also said: "A woman should pay for her own wardrobe. I wouldn't want a man to say 'no, I won't buy that for you, you can't have that.' "
Lazaroff's unusual eye makeup is part of her total look. She draws a shining, black, almond-shaped line around each eye and extends the edges to form exaggerated points.
"I still paint my face as if the audience were looking at me from 50 feet away," she said. "Some people think it's too much."
She styles her dark hair in unconventional ways too. Often it cascades over her shoulders in loose curls. Sometimes she adds an ornament in back. It's a romantic, fairy-princess style that enhances her fantasy-fashion image.
Along with couture-quality clothing, Lazaroff collects paintings, sculptures and pets. She has 28 animals, including parrots, rabbits, cats and dogs. But only her passion for fashion compares to a classic obsession among men--their love of racy cars.
"A man sits in a Ferrari, smells the leather, steps on the gas, takes off and feels so powerful. And a woman feels a beautiful dress against her skin and its one of the heights of being a woman."
She's gone to extremes at times, for the sake of dressing well. For her wedding several years ago--a 17-hour social event, complete with horse-drawn carriages--she planned three changes of clothes. The primary gown was a Rhodes original. "A wedding has nothing to do with the groom," she explained. "It's the woman's day to shine."
If a famous fashion designer comes to her restaurant for dinner, Lazaroff rushes home to change into an outfit with that name on the label. For the opening of Chinois in 1983, she spent $6,000 on a beaded costume made to match the Oriental decor. "You couldn't wear it anywhere else," she said of the outfit, an Ellene Warren original.
But collecting clothes for herself isn't all she does. She buys baby dresses too, even though she has no children. She says she plans to have them some day.
It takes Lazaroff just 20 minutes to get dressed, unless she has to wear casual clothes. Then she needs two hours. "I'm more comfortable in an evening outfit," she explained. "I get dressed up seven nights a week."
She has a dream. It's about a closet--a room with countless outfits hanging close to the walls and a vast dining table in the center. "So 20 women can come over for tea."
Tea and talk, but not only talk about clothes. "The most important thing to me is that women learn to network and support each other," Lazaroff said. "It concerns me that women have an education, a career and that they learn to be financially independent. I may have a personal style but that's just one extension of who I am. I'm also a strong, independent woman."