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Designer Spotlight

Coast to Coast, Janell Berte Goes the Distance for Her Gowns

January 28, 1994|ROSE APODACA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

As if the 12-hour workdays designer Janell Berte averages in her Costa Mesa studio were not enough, she won't have a weekend to herself for the next four months as she travels the country presenting trunk shows of her latest collection of gowns for brides. But the 36-year-old designer takes the frenetic workload in stride, saying she finds pleasure in sharing her work with customers.

"There's no better salesperson than the designer," she says.

Her gowns, which can cost between $800 and $3,500, are sold in 62 stores across the country.

The bridal line is 40% of her business, with bridesmaid dresses, debutante dresses, formals and special orders accounting for the rest.

Berte was among the pioneers to bring Lycra into bridal wear, a fabric that she predicts will revolutionize the bridal industry in coming seasons.

"It's more form-fitting and allows for more mobility," she says.

Brides have a practical need--comfort--and Berte obliges them with the soft fabric.

"Young women are no longer so fussy with their clothes," she says.

The most popular use of Lycra is in mesh covering arms, decolletage and shoulders.

"It's not itchy or as sheer as tulle," she says. "It's sexy, but in a modest way."

The simplicity and fit of Lycra also fall into current tastes for gowns that are streamlined, tailored and free of froufrou.

Berte gowns don't drip with opulent details, but they are not plain. Romantic details are created with the same fabric as the dress for a subtlety that focuses attention on the wearer.

"I'm so sick of fringe and sequins," Berte says. "My gowns don't have any of that."

Life beyond the Big Day is important for many brides, Berte discovered, especially those who are older or who are marrying again. To meet their need, she introduced a less formal collection of coordinates in 1992. A knee-length dress can be wrapped at the waist with a long, voluminous skirt, later to be stripped away; a jacket can be added for a perfect cocktail party outfit. The separates range from $400 to $1,200.

Her bridesmaids dresses, which start at $250 for a custom order and cost from $200 to $350 for ready-to-wear, are designed to be worn again.

"Bridesmaids want a reusable dress," she says.

Berte is also known for mixing two prints, such as plaid with floral, in her bridesmaid dresses. The patterns are unified by color and offer a slimming silhouette.

Despite starting many trends, Berte says she faces industry bias because of her location and as a result, in June she will pack up her Orange County operation after 13 years and head to the East.

"When buyers think of a California-based bridal company, they think of low-end imports," she says. "So people who have never seen us automatically put us in that category. It's a very difficult shadow to shake."

Even with a showroom in Manhattan, where most of her competition is located, Berte says she must move if she wants to continue to climb the ranks as a respected bridal designer. Other advantages to the move East include a considerable drop in overhead, she says, and an increase in the amount she can charge for custom work.

Her most expensive creation to date sold for $7,000. It entailed more than 80 hours of Berte's handiwork, sewing individual crystal beads onto the silk Shantung dress. In New York, comparable gowns start at $10,000, she says.

However, she says, she never would have been successful had she skipped her stint in California and gone to New York right after earning a degree in fashion design from Drexel University in Philadelphia in 1979.

"I would have been chewed up immediately," she says. "I knew I was going to make it, but I wasn't going to make it in New York. There, designers are a dime a dozen."

At age 21, she came to the West on a job lead with Walt Disney Co., believing that she could make more of an impact in stage design than consumer fashion.

"A lot of people think every designer grew up making clothes for Barbie dolls. I wanted to make costumes from the start," she says.

Arriving three months before the Disney job was to start, Berte went through a "nightmare of a job" with a discount retailer, before landing a dream position doing alterations at a Rodeo Drive boutique. Within a month and a half, she moved on to a neighboring Beverly Hills boutique, Elegance of Paris, where she was elevated from assistant to master tailor within two months.

On her first day at Elegance, Berte faced the intimidating task of cutting $85-per-yard wool.

"Here I'd been sewing half my life and it took me all day to cut a bodice and sleeve. I was so nervous," she says. That day she learned that if she were going to make it, she had to stop thinking about the price of the fabric. Now she works with laces that cost $400 a yard.

Deciding against the Disney job when it became available, Berte instead assumed head designer responsibilities at Elegance of Paris. Her name was added to the label, and her bank account grew.

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