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Party Wraps : Pacesetters Choose Fashions: Blockbusters, Subtle Silhouettes

December 09, 1988|ANN CONWAY | Times Society Columnist

Holiday weather forecast: mostly warm, due to a flurry of hot parties blanketing the region. Chestnuts and open fires predicted at points north, south, east and west, decreasing after Jan. 1.

Time for dazzle dressing.

But what to wear? For some of Orange County's fashion pacesetters, it has to be a blockbuster, a dress that triggers an explosion at first sight.

Others look for subtlety, a silhouette that whispers: "See me, not only what I wear."

The difference is something Kitty Leslie, fashion director at Newport Center/Fashion Island, calls "fashion courage."

"There are women who don't mind if every head turns when they walk into a room," she says. "And there are women who want to look wonderful but don't want to be stared at."

In general, Orange County women like to look very dressed up when they go out, Leslie says. "But the Newport Beach woman has the most fashion courage. You'll see a dressier crowd at a Newport Harbor Art Museum party, for example, than you will at one in the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana."

Leslie knows. For years she has staged fashion shows from Fullerton to San Clemente.

But whatever their preference, Leslie says, Orange County women have a glow of health unmatched by women in any other part of the country.

And others lack the fashion resources Orange County women have, declares Worst Dressed List author Mr. Blackwell, who frequently appears at local benefits. "Orange County has some of the most aggressive, independent stores in the country."

As for how local women dress when they step out, Blackwell says: "I don't think they are going to make any first fashion statements for some time. The younger women are going to be dominated by the grand dames of yesteryear, and they're still wearing minks with mothballs." But in 20 years, Blackwell predicts, Orange County may be the leading retail fashion center in the country.

In the meantime, women such as Judie Argyros are turning their holiday closets into fashion centers in their own right. Dangling from hangers in her commodious walk-in on Harbor Island are seven new gowns. "And I may very well be wearing a different one every night," says Argyros, who is active in fund raising for Chapman College and Orangewood.

She hadn't planned to purchase so many. "I'd been recycling old gowns all year--fluffing them up with different accessories," she says.

But then November rolled around and the party invitations started coming. And coming.

"Suddenly, there were a bunch of black-tie events. I don't ever remember having so many dressy things to go to during a holiday season."

Among the events were the Children's Home Society Debutante Ball in Newport Beach, the President's Ball at the Vintage Country Club in Palm Desert, the American Cinema Awards Foundation benefit in Irvine, the opening of the Gene Autry Museum in Los Angeles and the site dedication for the new Newport Harbor Art Museum. Not to mention a slew of private bashes and the hectic dance card Argyros and husband George keep in Sun Valley before and after Christmas.

"I didn't know how I was going to take those dresses I'd been fluffing up all year and do another fluff," she says with a laugh.

So Argyros zipped over to Amen Wardy in Newport Center and picked out an entrance-maker--an amethyst satin by Victoria Royal--and a subdued black Mary McFadden. Then she attended Saks Fifth Avenue's fashion show for the Orange County Philharmonic Society and flew backstage when it was over, selecting five more glamour gowns: a bow-bedecked Bill Blass; a black-silk charmeuse by St. Martine topped with a jet-encrusted, poinsettia-red bolero; a multicolor silk by Ann Lawrence (Argyros calls this her "explosion dress--it sends off gorgeous light reflections"); an emerald green by Ricco Antonio and a fox-caped black wool pants ensemble by Anne Klein.

How does she choose? By the way a dress makes her feel, says Argyros, who spends an average of $1,200 per ball gown. The deep-purple Victoria Royal, for example, "made me feel alive. The minute I saw it I was attracted to its color and energy."

Sandra Beigel of Newport Beach felt the same way about the clingy red jersey by Bob Mackie she bought at Amen Wardy (on sale at half of the original $1,000-plus price), the one she will pack for a trip to Paris this month with her husband, Jerry.

"But the dress wasn't quite there," says Beigel, chairwoman of a recent holiday benefit brunch for Chapman College. "Something was not working."

So she whisked it over to Gildas, a can-can dancer turned couture designer who operates among hills of bugle beads in Newport Beach. For about $350, Gildas added a splash of glitter here, another there. "He is totally fantastic," Beigel gushes. "I use him all of the time. The dress had just one star burst at the waist. Now it has one on a sleeve and one on a shoulder."

What would Bob Mackie do if he knew? Turn over in his salon?

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