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THE DRESSMAKER : Los Angeles Designer Irit Ehrlich's Approach to Wardrobe Planning Brings Back the Luxury of Personal Attention

November 05, 1989|BETTY GOODWIN | Betty Goodwin is a Los Angeles-based writer and frequent contributor to The Times' fashion pages

IRIT EHRLICH IS a one-woman revolt against the retail world of boutiques and department stores. Specializing in cocktail and evening clothes, the Israeli-born designer is one of a small number of throwbacks to the European tradition of anonymous dressmakers catering to a coterie of well-heeled customers. For $1,200 to $2,500, about the same price as high-end designer-label merchandise, Ehrlich delivers near-one-of-a-kind dresses and suits--and has built an annual sales volume of $250,000 by trying to provide a rare commodity: personal attention.

Confronting the same shortage of service and exclusivity in the marketplace, other L.A. based designers have resorted to selling their clothes through select stores or opening boutiques of their own. But private dressmakers such as Ehrlich have capitalized on the backlash against high-priced, poorly made ready-to-wear fashions by eliminating the middleman.

She knows that clients want her as much as they want her clothes, and the one-to-one approach is essential. They are women with busy social lives who learn about Irit Designs through word of mouth, and she meets them in her antique-filled Mediterranean-style Hollywood Hills home, which was once inhabited by Errol Flynn. It's part of the sell.

Ehrlich, 41, answers the doorbell in ballet slippers and a long skirt that whooshes past her ankles as she ushers customers into her tiny salon and takes a seat at her Louis XIV desk. After listening to descriptions of a client's needs--perhaps a dress for a son's or daughter's wedding, a charity ball or the Emmy Awards--she whips out bolts of gorgeous silks and laces. Because she cannot draw, she may talk about what she envisions for the woman--a yoke here, fullness there. Or she may show a sample of a dress that someone else has ordered, describing exactly how she would adjust it for another person.

"It's very hard for people to walk into a store and find what they want," Ehrlich says. "They may like the skirt, but not the neck or the sleeve." And, of course, even if a woman finds something she does like, there's always the danger that she'll walk into a party and see her mirror image. "They couldn't do in a store what I do for women privately," she says.

Ehrlich launched her first business, selling gourmet sandwiches, in the late '60s, and she reminisces not so much about her recipes but about how she dressed when she made her deliveries: long peasant skirts, black leotards and hoop earrings when the rest of the world was still wearing miniskirts.

"I always had a style of my own," she says. "People always stopped me and asked, 'Where'd you get that?' " About five years ago, Ehrlich started selling dyed white Victorian antique petticoats in pastel shades with matching silk tops.

Gradually, her look evolved and became more sophisticated. She concentrated on black and began to work with fine four-ply silks, silk velvets, ribbon laces and her favorite prints--polka dots and leopard spots--while never abandoning the strictly feminine look she has always favored.

Each season she repeats favorite silhouettes--long, three-tiered silk skirts; fitted lace jackets; voluminous velvet coats--but Ehrlich acknowledges that her style is varied and hard to label. Last year, for instance, she made a dozen tailored business suits for Susan Dey to wear on "L.A. Law."

Ehrlich does sell wool-crepe suits at the Gloria S. boutique in Brentwood, but she says it was important for her to work closely with clients in her home, which she has done for the last four years. "I just felt I wanted to put the person together. And I felt no one could represent the clothes as well."

Stylist: Michael Huard / Michael H. Productions; hair, makeup: Brad Scott; models: Kae McCullough, Cragan Dixon, Stevie Ellison / the Cunningham Agency

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