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Fashion 89 : Albert Nipon : Pumping New Life Into Classic Image

January 27, 1989|BETTY GOODWIN

Don't yawn yet, but the classic little dress is back. Drum roll, please, for white collars and cuffs, ladylike bows at the neck, tucks, pleats--the works.

It may sound like deja vu, but that's the scenario Albert Nipon, chairman of the clothing company of the same name, is not only envisioning but witnessing.

It does make sense now that kinder and gentler are the new sociological buzzwords, and Marilyn Quayle, wife of the vice president, has been spotted shopping in the Nipon showroom in New York. And Newsweek, in its Dec. 5 cover story on the slump in the too-fickle women's clothing industry, deemed Nipon one of the year's few "fashion winners," alongside Yves St. Laurent and Valentino.

"We're clean, we're feminine," said Nipon during a showing of his spring collection at Bullocks Wilshire, where he was given a hero's welcome and a private luncheon with special customers. Asked to pinpoint when classic styling returned, the clothing executive announced: "It was always there."

That may be stretching things, but it certainly was true at the outset of the decade when former-First Lady Rosalynn Carter was photographed wearing Nipon dresses, as was Nancy Reagan. The Albert Nipon label was compatible with style and good taste, and it pretty much had the upscale dress market to itself. By 1985, Nipon had become a $60-million fashion empire.

Then tastes changed. Even designer Pearl Nipon, Albert's wife, tired of the collar-and-cuffs signature look, and sales were off.

In May, 1985, to make matters worse, Albert was sentenced to three years in prison (he served 20 months) for attempting to bribe Internal Revenue Service agents to avoid payments of personal and corporate income taxes.

Even with that ordeal behind him, Nipon isn't a self-promoter in the garrulous manner of designers Bill Blass or Oscar de la Renta. It has been noted that Albert and Pearl are as unflamboyant as the clothing they manufacture.

Indeed, the impeccably groomed Albert (Pearl was back home in Philadelphia) is soft-spoken to the point of being inaudible. Occasionally he whispers into a microcassette recorder, which he says he uses for keeping thoughts and ideas.

Realizing that "you always need newness--always--but you should never give up your signature," he said Pearl began to reintroduce the Nipon trademarks last year, after having phased them out completely in 1984 and 1985. Last year, he said, was the strongest year in the history of the company.

The clothing business, Nipon said, is all about identity; if you can maintain it, "you become an institution," he added.

Nipon admits that he isn't a fashion visionary--he and Pearl were in the right place at the right time when they entered the dress business in 1972.

Nipon was in the maternity-dress business when a merchandise manager at Saks Fifth Avenue suggested he make some dresses for Saks. Even though it was when practically all women were wearing trousers, the dresses were an immediate success, Nipon recalled. Making dresses ran "counter to the trend. That's what made it so successful."

Last year, the Nipon company was sold for an undisclosed sum to the Leslie Fay Co., and the Nipons continued in their roles of Pearl as designer and chief executive officer and Albert as chairman. Leslie Fay Co. is infusing the company with money "enabling us to expand our presence in the marketplace tenfold," and to open new divisions, Nipon said. A women's suit division opened in November, and two more divisions will open this year--occasion dresses and, possibly, sportswear, he said.

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