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Dressing for an 'Affair'

Van Runkle gave the 1st 'Crown' its chic 60s threads.

July 30, 1999|MICHAEL QUINTANILLA | TIMES FASHION WRITER

Theadora Van Runkle politely refuses to sit at her own party. It's not her style to wrinkle her crisp white linen outfit.

Instead, she carefully cruises through the crowd at a West Hollywood tribute for the Los Angeles-born costume designer. For more than 30 years, Van Runkle has created Hollywood film looks.

And now, with the remake of "The Thomas Crown Affair," the spotlight is once again on the woman who, in the original 1968 film, put Faye Dunaway in mini-skirted ensembles with big hats and expensive pearls; Steve McQueen in tight, tailored suits.

At the party hosted by the Slane & Slane jewelry store, all vie for a moment to meet, chat and air kiss the woman whose Academy Award- nominated films include her first, "Bonnie and Clyde," "New York, New York," "The Godfather Part II" and "Peggy Sue Got Married." She completed her latest film, "I'm Losing You" last year.

Unfortunately, Van Runkle never won an Oscar, but that's not stopping her fans from clamoring around her. They call out her name. Fingers gingerly tap her shoulders. Van Runkle, her chin-length hair ever so chic, her makeup perfectly powdered on, obliges the paparazzi, asking first if her lipstick is OK. F-a-a-a-bulous, they respond.

Click. Click. Click.

With 35 films to her credit, Van Runkle is a living legend to the crowd now seated for her slide show.

There's Julie Andrews in 65 yards of billowing red chiffon, Lucille Ball in a rhinestone-studded gown. And Van Runkle goes on about Liza Minnelli in a white beaded number with an endless train.

But she saves the best for last--Dunaway, her muse, as gun-toting Bonnie Parker in Van Runkle's 1967 trend-setting creations: a long cardigan sweater paired with a narrow skirt and topped with a beret. The midi-skirt look, thanks to Van Runkle, started a major fashion trend.

A year later, Van Runkle and Dunaway did double duty again on "The Thomas Crown Affair." The actress sexily sleuthed her way onto the screen in the designer's mini-skirted, big-belted suits, double breasted coats and a revealing backless, bra-less chiffon creation for a sexy chess game scene that took three days to film.

Vogue called Van Runkle's designs "delicious," she says during her 40-minute party presentation, mesmerizing her audience with stories about an era she calls "the last moments of the golden age of Hollywood."

An Artist Who Got

'Sidetracked' Into Film

That was a time, she says, when costume designers "created movie wardrobes from head to toe. Every single piece of clothing was handmade in those days. That's the story of the old days, before everything changed."

It's the day after Van Runkle's party. Callers tell her the slide show was a hit, she says, relieved. Van Runkle, elegant in beige lace, sits in the wicker-decorated breakfast nook of her cozy, art-filled Hollywood Hills home. Her 23-year-old calico cat, Charlotte Rampling, purrs away nearby, the feline stylishly adorned--of course--with a silk bow around her neck. Van Runkle's other cat, Hazel, 10, guards the grounds.

"I want to be an artist again," Van Runkle says, pointing to her workroom filled with sketches and drawings, a few self-portraits, others of nudes--men and women--and her movie costume drawings from the past.

"I started out as an artist but I got sidetracked into movies because I had two children to support. And now I want to return to art. It's a discipline I want to experience again. It's isolating and it's difficult and you really have to be strong. And even though I'm not young, you can see I'm not old," she says, refusing to reveal her age because "it doesn't really matter, does it?"

Van Runkle also chooses not to talk about her parents or her personal life. Instead, she talks about working hard, about being an artist, a talent she was born with.

"When I was a teenager I knew I needed to have some money and that I could only be a writer or an artist."

She settled for the latter, landing various jobs as a commercial artist. For seven years during the late 1950s and early 60s, she worked at the May Co., illustrating fashion ads, able to combine her love for both art and design.

"But I was at the end of my rope as a commercial artist," she recalls. It was then that she met Oscar-winning costume designer Dorothy Jeakins at a party. "Dorothy told me she needed a sketch artist. And the next day I went to work for her"--for a month.

"She let me go, because, I think she didn't like it that I was such a good artist," Van Runkle says, laughing. "She felt threatened."

Van Runkle says she was "desperately poor. I needed something better. Later Jeakins unexpectedly called, 'I've just been asked to do a little western over at Warner Bros. and I recommended you.' "

Oh, by the way, Van Runkle adds, the western turned out to be "Bonnie and Clyde."

"I'd never designed anything before. I never went to design school. I never went to art school. But I knew fashion. I knew style. I knew construction.I sewed by hand and by machine. I learned construction from Vogue patterns."

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