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Evita Rules!

Style Watchers Believe the Film Can Usher In a New Era of Power Glamour--With a Little Help From Madonna

November 27, 1996|MAUREEN SAJBEL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's a fashion event just waiting to happen.

"Evita," the movie, premieres at the Shrine Auditorium on Dec. 14 and opens in theaters on Christmas Day.

But the hype over Evita, the style icon, is already raging.

Recognizing her potential to be as influential style-wise as Annie Hall, designers have broken out seamed stockings, snoods, big jewelry, ruffled tango dresses and nipped-waist suits that evoke Christian Dior designs from '40s.

With a style diva and publicity magnet like Madonna in the title role, and the Walt Disney Co. in their corner, designers believe they can sell American women on a new look: power glamour.

The real Evita, Eva Peron, acquired both during her reign in the late '40s as first lady of Argentina. Leaping from saucy flared dresses to fine Paris couture, she settled into a sleek facade, with pulled-back hair, tight suits, gloves and heaps of accessories.

Will women buy into such a big change?

"Three years ago [the fashion establishment] tried to launch the '40s look and it didn't go," recalls Allen B. Schwartz, head of Los Angeles-based ABS USA, one in an ever-growing group of design firms reinterpreting the era. "The reason this works now is because it's Madonna."

But Kal Ruttenstein, Bloomingdale's executive fashion visionary and the man who hopes to ring in a new trend with in-store boutiques opening Sunday, feels the rumblings of a larger shift in style.

Indeed, very feminine clothes with a Spanish feel by Karl Lagerfeld, John Galliano and others appeared recently on runways at the spring collections in Europe and New York.

"This is a new look for clothing at the end of the decade," Ruttenstein says. "It's a romantic mood, with clothes that fit and flare and are made of softer fabrics. It's a complete turnabout from the severe, sleeveless Jackie dresses that we've had for three years."

An old pro at movie-fashion tie-ins, having staged similar boutiques filled with clothes and accessories inspired by "Dick Tracy" and "Dangerous Liaisons" (to name just two), Ruttenstein flew to California in May to get Disney's merchandising approval. The studio showed a clip of the film to him, key retail buyers and top design company execs to gauge their reaction.

"At first, there was dead silence," Ruttenstein recalls. "Then everyone burst into applause."

For the film, costume designer Penny Rose found half of the period pieces in vintage shops and costume houses. What they could not provide, seamstresses meticulously reproduced. Madonna was deeply involved in the selection, she says. "Her input was pretty impressive," Rose says via telephone from the London set of her next project, "Lost in Space." "She was very interested in what she was wearing. It was a collaboration."

Designer Victor Costa, who did the most faithful copies of film's costumes exclusively for this newest Bloomingdale's boutique, hopes "Evita" will nudge women out of their minimalist '60s and '70s clothes.

"The youth of today hasn't experienced glamour at all," he says. He's betting on duchess satin suits in sculptured cuts that round at the hip, an homage to Dior's 1947 "New Look." To update the silhouette, he used a sheath skirt that ends just above the knee.

Also featured in the retailer's stores will be such Evita-inspired pieces as peplum suits by Tahari, lace separates by Jill Stuart, tango dresses by Nicole Miller and authentic Peron shoes by Salvatore Ferragamo. Hat, belt and jewelry manufacturers have been working overtime to meet deadlines for the boutique's opening on Sunday. Prices will range from $40 to $650.

If all this merchandise amounts to more than this season's fad, it could give license to a broader range of glamour clothes evoking other '40s icons, like Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich. "The things that are going to spring up out of this are bias skirts, rose prints, pull-on [evening] pajamas and smoking jackets," Schwartz predicts.

But apparel makers realize that women accustomed to a low-maintenance look may snub such a highly polished one. To ease the transition, shoulder pads and ruffles have been scaled down.

"We tried to not make it a costume party," Ruttenstein says. "We wanted to make clothes people would wear. I didn't want them to stand out as antiques. Nothing ever comes back the way it was."

Like Costa, ABS modernized its 40-piece collection, which will be sold in upscale department stores as well as in its eponymous shops.

"They still have the shape, but they're for real people," Schwartz says of the tango dresses and suits. "Eva Peron wore [multiple] collars and we didn't do that. We looked at vintage books and the Valentino, Dior and Givenchy [clothes] that Evita loved, but we didn't take any looks from her. We looked at Madonna."

After a long spell of minimalism, accessories makers are overjoyed by her character's hats, belts, sunglasses, handbags and jewelry, figuring that many women will invest in at least a small piece of the trend.

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