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New Debate Erupts Over Borrowed Fashions

October 18, 1988|BETTY CUNIBERTI and MARY ROURKE | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — The White House acknowledged Monday that First Lady Nancy Reagan has borrowed high-priced fashions from designers, but it maintained that she didn't need to report the loans on her financial disclosure forms.

The acknowledgement, prompted by a Time magazine report that Mrs. Reagan has accepted more than $1 million in such loans since 1982, set off a new round of debate over her practice of accepting free clothing and jewelry. When the issue first arose in President Reagan's first term, the First Lady said she would donate the outfits to museums.

'Political Timing' Questioned

On Monday, Elaine Crispen, the First Lady's press secretary, questioned the "political timing" of the magazine report and maintained that ethics laws do not require Mrs. Reagan to report the loans. Members of the fashion industry called the loans a standard practice.

"If things are being loaned to her and they are being returned, she doesn't think she did anything wrong," Crispen said. "The things she considers part of her wardrobe that she is keeping were paid for. Anything else that she may have borrowed or had loaned to her was returned."

Among the returned items was a white mink that Time said was worth $10,500.

The President was "very upset about the attacks on the First Lady," said White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater. "Time magazine is on shaky ground."

Los Angeles designer James Galanos, whose four- and five-figure gowns comprise much of the lending library, was unavailable for comment Monday, as was David Hayes, who told Time that he lent Mrs. Reagan 60 to 80 outfits and that the First Lady "has been a sensation for my business."

But Adolfo, a favorite designer of the First Lady, said he has lent Mrs. Reagan clothing since before she went to the White House. "I do expect loans to be returned, and hers are," he said.

Outfits Borrowed, Returned

The Cuban-born designer, known for his interpretation of the classic Chanel suit priced at $2,200, explained that Mrs. Reagan in the past has kept outfits for a month or so before returning them. "I have never given her clothing as a gift," Adolfo insisted.

Several other members of the fashion industry said loans of expensive clothes and jewels are common for preferred customers such as socialites, movie stars and ambassadors.

Academy Awards night, for example, is said to be a grand showcase of borrowed bangled and beads with their astronomical price-tags temporarily snipped off.

At Harry Winston jewelers in New York City, Ronald Winston, president and chairman, confirmed that the First Lady has borrowed expensive jewelry from the store on occasion.

"To the best of my recollection, we have done the same for other first ladies," said Winston, who has headed the family business for 10 years.

Among other reasons cited, he explained: "Just as we don't want to see our President driving a foreign make car, we don't want the president's wife wearing jewelry from foreign companies."

Winston also noted that a prospective client "will ask to take home a pair of earrings to show her husband and will wear them to the X, Y, or Z ball."

While Reagan fashion favorites Bill Blass and Galanos were unavailable for comment, Geoffrey Beene, who said Mrs. Reagan has "bought but never borrowed clothes from me" adds: "If she asked me I would probably have given her a dress. It's to designers' advantage to have her look wonderful."

He said he has lent clothing to other prominent women, who "return it, almost without fail."

In California, Michael Novarese--who dresses Marion Jurgensen and other Kitchen Cabinet wives but not Mrs. Reagan--said: "If the First Lady called me, the answer would be yes."

Tax questions surrounding fashion loans and gifts do not seem of paramount importance to borrowers, Novarese said. "I don't think most women claim gifts of clothing. Not that it's deliberate, they forget," he said.

In the case of the First Lady, "I think there's an element out to get Mrs. Reagan. How ridiculous," he added, noting, "We're talking about a dress, not the Hope diamond."

Crispen questioned "the political timing" of Time's report. Many revelations in the article were credited to former Galanos executive Chris Blazakis, who reportedly is writing a critical book about the Reagans. Blazakis contends Mrs. Reagan only returned dresses when they needed repair.

Controversy developed about Mrs. Reagan's borrowing in 1982 when she asked White House lawyers if she could accept clothes from designers. White House attorneys said she could not accept them as gifts without disclosing them on the yearly financial report required of the President.

Officials in the office of the White House counsel did not respond to inquiries on whether the Reagans were legally required to list the clothes and jewels.

Time said White House lawyers agreed in 1982 that the loans of dresses would be reported annually but Crispen said Monday, "I don't know that there is a law that she has to report" them. "I don't think there's anything illegal right now."

John Russell, a Justice Department spokesman, confirmed: "There is no criminality involved."

Asked how Mrs. Reagan felt, Crispen told UPI, "I don't know how you feel when you see things like this. I think she's always represented her country very well . . . and made us proud, and if some of those things were borrowed and returned and no laws were broken. . . .

"She wore these designers' clothes long before coming to Washington."

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