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The First Lady Sews Up Her Inaugural Wardrobe

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 7, 2005; Page C01

In assembling her inaugural week wardrobe, first lady Laura Bush has enlisted the aid of Seventh Avenue's marquee names, as well as one lesser-known personal favorite.

Carolina Herrera has designed a formal gown expected to be worn during the week's festivities, although not to the inaugural balls. Herrera created the graceful burgundy velvet and organza gown that Mrs. Bush wore to Buckingham Palace in 2003.

Mrs. Bush began wearing Peggy Jennings's clothes when President Bush was governor of Texas. She wore this suit in December to give a tour of White House Christmas decorations. (Dayna Smith -- The Washington Post)

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Oscar de la Renta, whose clothes Mrs. Bush wears regularly, has been tapped as well. Although the White House would not confirm it yesterday, he almost certainly has created the official inaugural gown as well as the swearing-in suit. De la Renta, one might recall, designed Hillary Clinton's second inaugural ball gown, which was a cascade of gold lace.

And then there is designer Peggy Jennings, who has created a formal evening gown for Mrs. Bush to wear to the candlelight dinners planned for Jan. 19, the evening before the inauguration. She has also designed a day dress and matching coat that will be worn during the week. (Notably absent from the list of designers is the Dallas-based Michael Faircloth, who created Mrs. Bush's 2001 inaugural gown, a red sheath encrusted with Austrian crystals.)

The White House will make an official announcement of Mrs. Bush's inaugural wardrobe Monday.

While Herrera and de la Renta are known for their seasonal fashion shows and regularly have stars such as Renee Zellweger and Sarah Jessica Parker photographed in their work, Jennings has always worked without such fanfare. Jennings, whose showroom is far from Seventh Avenue in New York's Waldorf-Astoria, has been in business for more than 25 years and has built up her clientele through trunk shows. In the Washington area, her work is available at Saks Jandel, where her suits are priced from $1,900 and her evening gowns from $3,000.

Jennings is known for her feminine day suits, which incorporate simple lines, cheerful colors and distinctive fabrics such as brocade or silk matelasse. Her eveningwear is pretty rather than sexy and is often stitched from imported laces. Jennings is one of the rare high-end designers who manufactures her collection in the United States. Because her production facilities are in Florida rather than eight or more time zones away, she can accommodate special requests from customers -- from aesthetic tweaks such as a longer sleeve to custom sizing.

On her Web site, Jennings also emphasizes her expertise in mother-of-the-bride dresses, clothes for bar mitzvah moms and what she describes as "kosher fashion" -- that is, the modest attire often sought by observant Jews for weddings and special events.

Jennings, speaking by phone yesterday from St. Petersburg, Fla., noted that Mrs. Bush began wearing her clothes when she was a governor's wife in Texas. Like many clients, the first lady discovered Jennings's work during a trunk show -- this one in Dallas.

Their designer/client relationship continued after Mrs. Bush arrived in the White House. Jennings and her husband, Herb Kosterlitz, recently attended the White House Hanukah party where he helped to light the menorah.

While designers such as de la Renta, Herrera and Arnold Scaasi have received most of the attention in discussions and dissections of Mrs. Bush's attire, Jennings has dressed the first lady on several notable occasions. She wore a red suit by Jennings in early December when she led a tour of the White House Christmas decorations. And in November, when President Bush declared his second-term victory onstage at the Ronald Reagan Building, Mrs. Bush was wearing Jennings's pale pink suit with a nipped waist and frayed edges. "I always try to give her a curve," Jennings says. "The jackets are a little shorter and a little more shaped."

Jennings expects to meet with Mrs. Bush in New York this weekend for a final fitting. She is not nervous. "People always ask me if it's hard being with her and all her Secret Service security. Absolutely not," Jennings says. "She's so easy to be with."

While Jennings refuses to disclose whether she is a Democrat or Republican, the designer does reveal one fact that probably helps her conversations with the first lady flow a little easier: "I voted for George Bush."

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