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STYLE : Wrapped Up in Elegance : Fine Fabrics, Detailing of European Robes Turn Lounge Clothes Into Evening Wear


Many people think of bathrobes as terry cloth towels with sleeves.

At Between the Sheets, however, robes enjoy the status of high fashion. The linen shop in Fashion Island, Newport Beach, carries mostly European robes fit for a king or queen of hearts this Valentine's Day. One robe maker, Rafael of Italy, even provides robes for the royalty of Europe.

"What we found that was different about European robes was the styling," said Paul Marx, who owns Between the Sheets with his wife, Sandra. "They pay as much attention to the design of a robe as an American manufacturer would pay to evening wear."

Europeans treat robes as fine garments because of their different lifestyles, he said.

"There people visit the spas, and the spa life dictates the wearing of a robe," Marx said. They are more likely to be seen by others wearing their robes as they go from the bath to the mineral pool or the masseuse to the facialist.

"They want to be seen in stylish robes, not just a towel with cuffs and a collar," he said.

Robes at Between the Sheets offer design details not seen in most run-of-the-mill department store robes. Cottimaryanne of Italy's mint green terry robe has intricate embroidery on the collar while Karl Lagerfeld's powder-blue terry robe has bound scalloped edges that extend from the shawl collar to the floor.

European robe designers use fine fabrics for their creations. Egeria of Germany makes a unisex wrap-style robe in a plum-colored sanded silk and a women's wrap-style robe with a watercolor print of pink, peach and gray flowers on fine 300-count Egyptian cotton. Bridgforth makes a robe out of wool--a lightweight wool challis with an updated paisley print of reds and teals.

When they do use terry, European designers avoid the shaggy stuff seen on many cheaper robes. They favor a baby terry with tiny loops, or textured terrys with crisscross or waffle patterns. Marks Pelle of Sweden makes a men's robe of navy terry with red fleur-de-lis that's reversible because the pattern is woven into the fabric. Those worried about the environment can wrap themselves in robes of natural cotton terry made without dyes by the Natural Group of Germany.

Microfiber, the new breed of polyester that looks and feels like silk but can be tossed into the washing machine, is proving an ideal fabric for rich-looking robes. Egeria makes a woman's coral-colored robe made of silky microfiber with a paisley foucard print and a baby terry lining. For men, there's a cranberry-colored paisley wrap with a dotted collar and cuffs.

American designers such as Ralph Lauren are quickly "playing catch-up" to Europe's stylish robes, Paul Marx said. A made-in-the-U.S. white terry robe by Susan Barry has far more tailoring than the simple wrap. It includes a button front, notched collar and drawstring belt with a tasseled tie.

"There's as much work in here as in a dress," Sandra Marx said.

Marilyn Wolf, a U.S. designer, makes one-of-a-kind white terry robes with appliques of flowers, butterflies and garland. Her long robes have princess hemlines that drop in back for a regal touch, while her sportier shorty robes can go to the beach or bath.

Between the Sheets carries robes in small through extra-extra large sizes--there's no such thing as one-size-fits-all in the Marxes' vocabulary.

"These robes are cut for real people," Sandra Marx said. "One-size-fits-all is just a cheap way of cutting fabric. Those robes have no waist. And God forbid if you're tall, heavy or petite."

Under Construction in Los Angeles even makes robes for men 6 feet tall and up, including a wrap of finely woven Egyptian cotton in pink with blue pin-stripes and a white terry lining.

"We've sold them to quite a few athletes," she said.

In addition, the shop has hard-to-find designer robes for children. One whimsical line by Susan Dunn has a duck's head appliqued on the hood.

The Marxes discovered fine robes while living in Germany and working as consultants to American mills.

"During our travels, we met mills and manufacturers that provided these products. When we decided to move back to America, we started thinking about starting our own business and all of these products came to mind," Paul Marx said.

In 1986 they opened their first shop in Corona del Mar. In May they moved to more spacious quarters in Fashion Island's Atrium Court. Next on the couple's agenda is to make products with their own Between the Sheets label.

Between the Sheets also sells fine bed linens that make intimate Valentine's Day gifts, including airy comforters of Hungarian white goose down, sheepskin mattress covers made by Calwer Decken (a Germany company that's been around since 1650) and a bath sheet made for two of natural linen and cotton.

"How's this for a Valentine's Day gift?" asks Sandra Marx, pulling out a king sheet set made of ivory colored Italian silk with a paisley Jacquard print that costs $1,695.

"It's a reward when you go to bed," she said.

Their robes range from $200 to $400, a bit pricey compared to conventional robes. As Sandra Marx said, however, people wear robes more often than any other clothes in their closets so it pays to have one that's well made--and stylish.

"The way these robes look, they are romantic." she said. "You're not running around in a towel."

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