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125 YEARS: COMMEMORATIVE FASHION SECTION

A Real Original

October 22, 2006|Joan Saunders Wixen | Joan Saunders Wixen has written for the Detroit News, Miami Herald, San Francisco Chronicle and others.

Hansi Landis, who dressed some of the most beautiful women in Hollywood in the days of real Movie Stars, is an authority on how the art of wearing clothes has changed over the decades. Her assessment of 2006: "There is no fashion to it at all. It's just a presentation of body parts. It all started with a fig leaf, and that is exactly where it's going to end up."

She laughs, because she's wearing a blouse unbuttoned almost down to her navel. She looks good in it too, at 97 years old and barely 86 pounds. Hansi (she was known by one name in her heyday) is still the ultimate California fashionista.

She moved here during World War II, a refugee from Nazi Austria. First she worked as a maid, then in a sweatshop, then at Saks Fifth Avenue, earning $18 a week. She designed hats, one-of-a-kind constructions adorned with flowers and worn by her fans at a slant, and attracted the attention of the legendary MGM costume designer Adrian, who sold her creations in his Wilshire Boulevard store. When headgear went out of favor, she found inspiration in bands of fabric: She hung decorative medallions from ribbons, carried them over to Saks and persuaded the manager to throw them around the necks of a few mannequins. "By the time I got back to my shop, the phone was ringing," she remembers. "I did what Henry Ford would do: I got myself an assembly line of people making thousands of those ribbons, which eventually sold all over the world."

Hansi Originals opened in the early 1950s on the Sunset Strip (near Ciro's and the Mocambo), and the design house's first hit was a line of sweaters with hooks and eyes down the front. "Women were very anxious to show off their bosoms, but it was forbidden then," she says. With her sweaters, "women could decide for themselves just when and where--and just how much of themselves--they wanted to show."

Her store attracted "the best-looking clientele," and big stars: Ginger Rogers, Rita Hayworth, Hedy Lamarr, Ida Lupino, Paulette Goddard, Doris Day, Greer Garson, Joan Crawford. "There never was this business about status," she says. "Everyone was equal--with the exception of Frank Sinatra and one of the women he was about to be marry. I'm not sure, I think it was Ava Gardner. One time he almost bought up the place, and I thought he was going into the dress business. Then 20 minutes after he left, his future bride came in and she wanted one of my famous hand-knit sweaters. So I found one in the color she liked, and she took it and told me to charge it to Sinatra." Informed that she would have to pay cash, "she gaped at me as if I were crazy. She asked, 'Do you know to whom you are speaking?' I said yes, and without an account here, you have to pay in cash like everyone else. To me, everyone was just like everyone else."

In the 1970s, she closed Hansi Originals. By then, too many patrons were "spoiled rich women who had more clothes than they knew what to do with." As for the women of today, she's not impressed. "I like to sit on a bench in Beverly Hills and observe them as they go about their foolishness," she says, "carrying their water bottles in one hand and talking on their cellphones with the other." Some things, it seems, never change. "Fashions come and go," Hansi says, "but people remain the same."

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