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Gown for the Count:
Dressing Belles for the Balls

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 13, 1997; Page D01

It's less than two weeks before the inaugural galas are due to begin and saleswoman Rhoda Kates holds up a crimson, multitiered evening gown for inspection. "The skirt is A-line," she says. And then her voice drops low, to a conspiratorial whisper: "It's good for hiding . . . hips." By the time she gets to the offending word -- hips -- she's virtually mouthing its one unbearable syllable.

At formal wear shops, department stores and fancy boutiques, the crunch-time surge for the perfect inaugural evening gown takes place amid hushed tones. There's the gentle rustle of silk taffeta, the barely audible swish of matte jersey and, at Saks-Jandel, the soothing voice of Kates, who also is the boutique's buyer of American designer evening wear.

Kates is a slender woman of average height. She's dressed in a black suit -- fashion's de facto uniform -- and wears a black-and-white scarf looped around her neck. Her sturdy heels and no-nonsense, close-cropped haircut imply that she believes in fashion but not fluff. Amid the array of lace, crystals, duchesse satin and Fortuny-style pleats, she is draped in a cloak of calm. Kates looks as if she would lead a customer resolutely down the road toward fashionability but would never let her plummet off a cliff -- splat, a victim of fashion.

Kates always keeps her eyes open for signs that a customer is about to make a catastrophic choice: a dress that reveals too much of a chubby leg, a neckline that dips toward dangerous overexposure, a skirt that pulls in all the wrong places, a halter-style bodice that emphasizes sloping shoulders and flabby arms.

"It's in the face. I watch the face to see how they feel. I can tell if they like the dress," Kates says. "And I tell them the truth."

The task is a delicate one.

"If a dress looks horrible, if it's too tight but the customer tries it on and says, "I love it. I'll take it,' there's nothing you can do, except maybe get them to try another gown on. Diplomatically," says Sue Yi, a saleswoman and buyer in European designer evening wear at Saks-Jandel.

Evening wear tests a saleswoman's mettle.

"You're dealing with fantasy," Kates says. "They'll come back in a couple of times. You're working closely with her. You become part of it. You know all the details."

The inauguration also tests a seller's patience. In the two weeks before it, shoppers begin to make a run for the nearest rack of formal wear. The alterations staff works overtime. "The worst thing is if [a dress] is too long and she trips," Kates says.

No, Yi says, the worst is when a shopper comes in "the day of the inauguration and says `I need a gown' and she's 5-3."

No, really, the worst is when the store has to stay open late on the actual night of the inauguration while last-minute customers "come in here and get dressed," Yi says, and head directly to the ball.

But that's also part of the exhilaration, the excitement and the challenge. Kates gets to watch a woman transform from working stiff to Cinderella, grande dame or femme fatale.

Inauguration gowns are different from the dresses that mothers of the bride or bar-mitzvah mothers fret about. Those dresses are the ones that have been dreamed about, the ones that will go down in family history. Choosing those dresses produces chronic anxiety.

The stress over the inaugural gown is more acute. Women come in determined to make a purchase and then get back to work, to the kids, to the house.

"The young women that are coming in now want something sleek. They have an idea of what they want and when they see it, they buy it," Kates says.

So far the popular choices have been slim-fitting gowns with a slit, one-shouldered dresses and long tank styles. The store also has special-ordered a lot of chiffon shawls -- that's due to the influence of Carolyn Bessette Kennedy's wedding gown, Kates thinks.

For a saleswoman, the hunt for the inaugural gown begins with questions: What sort of style are you looking for? What color? What ball are you attending?

The first couple of questions narrow the search. The last question is to prevent the most dreaded occurrence: the same dress on two different women attending the same party.

"With European gowns," Yi says, "very rarely will we buy two of the same styles, not if you're spending $4,000 and $5,000." Were such a ghastly duplication to happen, the customer would come back to the store and hunt the saleswoman down like a stray dog.

"With the high-end merchandise, we don't have more than one," Kates says. "With the in-between price points, we might have two. We try to find out where people are going, who's in their crowd." It's especially important if the folks are from Baltimore. "With a city like Baltimore, they all know each other," Kates says.

Never ask a customer how much she wants to spend. Let the shopper volunteer the information. The hunt begins in the middle price range -- at Saks-Jandel, that's about $1,000. Last month, a woman came in the store and bought four gowns . . . at one time. All were in the $5,000 range. One of them was a John Galliano bias-cut gown that she plans to wear to one of the inaugural balls. Yi recently sold another Galliano dress, size 14, for $11,000. (The store had only one.) The silk satin dress in a deep shade of aubergine was cut on the bias and unadorned. It came with a matching jacket. The customer might wear it to an inaugural ball; she might wear it to a family wedding.

Kates also has, tucked away, less expensive dresses. "We try to give them the look of a very expensive dress for $500," Kates says. The diplomatic saleswoman points out a black velvet, one-shoulder Jeanette Kastenberg dress. "It's only," she whispers, "$250."

There's a slinky red crepe one-shoulder dress with a seductive dip in back for -- sshh -- $550.

Size is another unmentionable. "A customer says she's a 6," Kates says, smiling knowingly. "We look at a customer and bring in appropriate sizes.

"Never put it on too small," Kates says, shaking her head in dire warning. A dress can always be cut down. But put a too-small dress on a shopper and a saleswoman is delving into the dangerous realm of self-esteem, ego, confidence, trust. She risks not only the sale, but also a sudden sharp blow to the head.

Never bring more than three dresses into the fitting room at one time. "You don't want to confuse customers," Kates says.

Under most circumstances, Kates stops showing dresses after four or five unsuccessful tries because that generally means the customer is in browsing mode. For the inauguration, though, time is short. "You go as far as you can with it because nothing new is going to be coming in," Kates says. "People seem pretty determined to buy . . . and get it done."

Kates is there to make sure the task is not only done, but done right. After the sale, there are no second chances. Gowns are neither exchangeable nor -- sshh -- returnable.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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