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BY DESIGN : Double Visions


Costume designers get to help create the TV and movie characters who trigger trends. Catering to Hollywood has its moments, they say, but doing a clothing line for real people--now that's a challenge.

Susan Becker

Probably best known as a designer for Madonna, Susan Becker has had a long run in the fantasy world of glamour and exotica. Now she is establishing herself in the real world with a collection of dresses and separates sold exclusively at the boutique Maxfield in Los Angeles.

The ready-to-wear business has been a welcome aside, she says, to working with individual celebrities and costuming films ("Baby Boom," "Father of the Bride," "I Love Trouble").

"When it comes to designing for individuals, there is more freedom to experiment," says Becker, who started her career as a stylist for print photographers. "But to really influence fashion would interest me greatly."

Shoppers snapped up her summer collection of soft, feminine dresses cut on the bias. The fall line, available next month with prices starting at $350 for a single garment, is centered around silk satin separates: capri pants, skirts, dresses and cocktail gowns--in pink, blue and navy, lined with China silk.

In the future, Becker hopes to expand her venues, adding more boutiques and possibly even department stores. Her plan is to create something of lasting significance:

"In my film work, as in my designs, I try to stay classic and not do anything that will go out of style. I deal with what feels good and with what lasts."

Jerry Skeels

The soaps "The Young and the Restless" and "The Bold and the Beautiful," among many other shows, have featured glamorous special-occasion dresses and suits by Jerry Skeels.

He and partner Randy McLaughlin have an L.A. retail store, Jeran Design, that caters to women who prefer classic fashions to one-night stands. Prices range from $500 for a suit in a Swiss cotton to $12,650 for a hand-beaded gown. The clothing, manufactured on-site, is also sold in better boutiques in Boston and New York.

Exquisite fit, sexy side and front slits, and other shape-enhancing nuances characterize the Jeran look. Certainly they'll apply in Skeels' latest venture, the upcoming TV series "One West Waikiki," starring Cheryl Ladd. (In a dramatic departure, though, Skeels also recently did costumes for ManPower Australia, a troupe of muscle-flaunting male dancers.)

Designers such as Donna Karan may greatly influence the fashion world, he says, but television also leaves a considerable imprint.

"I love doing TV. To me, that is the easiest way to make an impact."

Cindy O'Donoghue

London native Cindy O'Donoghue worked as a seamstress for several British designers ("nobody famous," she says) before moving to Los Angeles to work with such rockers as Billy Idol, Joan Jett and the Bangles. She also did the costumes for the 1985 "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome," starring Tina Turner and Mel Gibson.

Her 18-month-old Los Angeles store, called Joywear, features O'Donoghue's designs as well as those of others, including Manolo and Bella Freud. The Joywear label is also available at Fred Segal and in Japan. Her most recent spring/summer collection is composed of stretch satins and chiffons meant for layering, to create a kind of mosaic. Newer designs feature rayon blends in fit-and-flare silhouettes. Price--from $60 for a dress to $140 for a coat--is something the designer watches closely because she knows shoppers do.

"When you're working on a costume, your budget often fits into what (the producers) want. The challenge in retail is to produce something that looks expensive and still sells at a fair price."

Unlike many of her crossover peers, O'Donoghue finds retail work less profitable than costuming. Still, she prefers designing for the larger audience.

"I think it takes more talent to work in retail. You are not dealing in characters, you are dealing with consumers. The bottom line for me, though, is that I just want to be known as a good designer," she says.

Nolan Miller

Nolan Miller's glamorous gowns, svelte suits and dramatic hats for the long-running TV series "Dynasty" symbolized the excess of the '80s. His gift for using cut and color blocking to make the show's characters appear slender and chic was the draw for many viewers.

Today, Miller continues to create one-of-a-kind designs for a celebrity clientele, as well as a couture collection available through his eponymous Beverly Hills boutique. His ready-to-wear--and a few couture items--hangs in such department stores as Saks Fifth Avenue, where suit prices range from $400 to $800.

A costume designer for 30 years, Miller thinks of his retail business as the "day job" that allows him to "fly around with movie stars and make pretty dresses."

He prefers working in film, he says, partly because of ready-to-wear's budget constrictions.

"When you have a dress on a rack next to 20 others, and your dress is $100 more than the others," he says, "that difference is something a real woman is really going to stop and think about."

Miller also loves the challenge of creating a visually exciting character who can stand up fashionably even in reruns. "You do have to try to guard against things looking too dated when you're doing a show," he says. "But if you're doing a (ready-to-wear) line, you do the sample and move onto the next thing."

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