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Inauguration Is the Start of Something Good for Texas Designers

January 12, 2001|VALLI HERMAN-COHEN | TIMES SENIOR FASHION WRITER

Texas designers have the inaugural balls all sewn up. Austin dress designer Susan Dell is making the inaugural gowns for the Bush 19-year-old twins, Jenna and Barbara. Dell, wife of computer billionaire Michael Dell, has operated a namesake store in Austin for a year that also houses her couture salon.

Dallas designer Michael Faircloth is making Laura Bush's wardrobe for the inaugural events, and native Dallasite Lela Rose is making the twins' outfits for the swearing-in ceremony.

Laura Bush called Dell to ask her assistance. "She has seen a lot of my ball gowns on women at other major functions in town," Dell said. The Bush camp won't permit her to release sketches (though some incorrect versions appeared, said Dell, on the online news service Fashion Wire Daily). Dell said both dresses are black and feature a "corally-peachy color."

"The girls are very different and the dresses are designed to suit each of their personalities and personal style," she said. One dress is a column, the other a more flowing silhouette.

The timing of the high-profile assignment is perfect now that Dell has refined her business plan. When she launched her Austin store about a year ago, she considered producing a ready-to-wear line, opening a chain of stores and adding some sort of online feature. Today, Dell is pursuing in-home shows, targeting the high-profile and affluent, said Linda Beauchamp, a former Donna Karan menswear executive who now heads Dell's business.

"We physically bring in every size and color that we make," said Beauchamp of the in-home parties. "I took that old men's mentality--where men don't like to shop--and applied it to women. Most high-profile women have personal shoppers and they don't have time to go into a store."

The company has staged only three in-home shows so far, but Dell said those and future shows should help them learn which cities might support Susan Dell stores.

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Another Texan in the news . . . .

Top retailing executive H.W. Mullins is leaving the Lone Star state for the sunny shores of Orange County, where he'll head up women's wear powerhouse St. John Knits. Mullins shocked the retailing industry late last year when he resigned as chairman and chief executive officer of the Dallas-based Neiman Marcus, after only nine months on the job.

"We are delighted to have to him joining us," said the usually gruff Robert E. Gray, St. John's founder, chairman and chief executive. Gray, who sounded downright joyful, will continue as chairman and hand the chief executive title to Mullins, who is expected to arrive in early February.

When Gray learned of Mullins' resignation, he acted quickly. "I immediately contacted him to see if he was interested in working at St. John and moving to California. I think moving to California is the thing that swung it."

Mullins and Gray got to know each other as Mullins helped the Irvine-based St. John become one of the largest vendors at Neiman Marcus. "We have been looking for a replacement for me for several years and we have not been able to find what we considered the right person," Gray said. His daughter, Kelly Gray, will remain president of the company and report to Mullins.

Mullins earned a reputation for boosting Neiman's accessories business, a skill that Gray hopes he will bring to St. John. Most of the company's $300 million in sales comes from apparel. Mullins might expand St. John's accessories, shoes and even add a menswear line. "Anything is possible," said Gray. "That's why he is here--to explore new avenues."

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