This is the time of year when designers take their clothes on the road. They consult with clients and put on shows in stores, all for the purpose of stirring up business, of course. Two top designers peddled their wares this week at prestige stores in Chevy Chase. Adolfo, who spent three days at Saks Fifth Avenue, makes the crocheted suits that have become Nancy Reagan's uniform, as well as many of her noticeable evening clothes. Joan Kennedy is a good friend and customer of Alfred Fiandaca, the Boston-based designer, whose clothes were modeled Monday at Neiman-Marcus.
Shirley Feld, whose late husband Israel was a circus owner, kept warm by sitting in her navy blue limousine Monday morning waiting for Saks Fifth Avenue to open. She had the first appointment with Adolfo, the Cuban-born designer who makes twice yearly treks across the country to see his customers. By the time Feld tried on her first outfit, at least a half dozen other Adolfo fans were in dressing rooms waiting for his attention.
Adolfo's most photographed customer, Nancy Reagan, to whom he loaned clothes starting when she was the wife of the governor of California, probably won't catch up with Adolfo on this visit. The first lady, who is directly accountable for a big business increase Adolfo has enjoyed in the last year, prefers to place her orders in his New York showroom.
"I'm sure the increase is much exaggerated," Adolfo said shyly. "I still have the same customers and just a few more."
Among the fans on hand to see him Monday morning was Jean Smith, wife of the attorney general. She was doing more looking than buying, but encouraging Jayne Ikard with her purchases. "How about two for the price of one," Ikard teased Adolfo as she considered adding a silk skirt to go with a white suit and silk blouse. "At one time men got two pants with a suit for the same price -- maybe I could get an extra skirt," she added, as an aside.
Enid Weaver, a real estate broker who owns about 50 Adolfo costumes, most of them suits, had picked out at least one more suit and a one-shoulder dress in gray sari fabric.
Feld worked with Adolfo on the gown she would wear to the opening of the circus in March at Madison Square Garden. "Can you imagine, last year Princess Grace ordered the same dress after she saw me in it. That's quite a compliment," she said.
The wife of a government official said that a maid had stolen her favorite Adolfo coat. "I knew she took it but I also knew I couldn't replace her. When we moved to Washington and I didn't need her anymore, I gave her the skirt that went with the coat."
Adolfo put in three full days at Saks, arriving each morning two hours before the store opened to straighten out the racks of clothes. A store official made him two hard-boiled eggs for lunch each day. At 6 p.m. he'd return to his nearby hotel, dine and turn in early.
Adolfo passed off his arrangement of "loaning" clothes to the first lady and "a few other women who are in a very important limelight," saying that it is common practice in France and England. "I couldn't stay in business if I did it for many women," he added.
Alfred Fiandaca compares his road trips to going to a casino. "You never know what's going to sell or why," he says. It could be the weather, or the models or the customers.In some cities his coats are hot, in other places it's his suits. "It's like playing a card game."
His trump card is his friend Joan Kennedy, who, he says, pays full price for his clothes. He first made her a tennis dress to play in the Robert Kennedy tennis tournament six or seven years ago. Now she lives down the block from him in Boston, and stops by to see him at least every other week. She counts on him for most of her clothes, including the diaphanous green chiffon she wore for a reading she gave as part of Aaron Copland's "A Lincoln Portrait" at La Scala, and the plaid taffeta she wore to the Symphony Ball here.
But not all of her clothes. "Wearing clothes by one designer is like reading just one author. You are not very well-rounded if you do," says Fiandaca. In fact, it was Fiandaca who introduced Kennedy to clothes by Koos van den Akker.
Fiandaca counts heavily on the comments of customers for direction in design. "I'm tired of long dresses," customers have often told him, and now he makes more short, dressy styles. One customer said, "I don't want a heavy coat -- I hardly walk any place anymore," and now most of his coats are light, often handmade in doubleface wool by his skilled tailors. It takes a full day just to make one slim doubleface skirt.
"Clothes are less seasonal, less identifiable in time," he says. "This is a 4-year-old suit I'm wearing and that's how I like my customers to think about clothes," he said, holding the collar of the gray wool double-breasted suit he was wearing, with embroidered suede boots he had bought on sale in Beverly Hills.
Holding onto clothes for a long time, as men do, "is part of the flow of the women's movement," he says. "Men work and go to a party in the same suit. But women would dress up and say, in effect, 'Look what my husband could buy me.' Women no longer want to be that kind of object of attention," says the designer. Now more women are wearing the same dress to the office and for dinner afterward.
Leonore Annenberg, Nancy and Tina Sinatra and Dionne Warwick are among the women who buy Fiandaca clothes off the rack. But others come to his Boston showroom for custom work and wardrobe consultation. He charges $150 "up front" for the first visit and women often bring in sketches or lists, even the actual clothes from their closets. "The $150 discourages those looking for free advice on bridesmaids' dresses," he says.
He gives away lots of clothes to charities to use as door prizes or to sell at auctions, but stands fast on his rule to sell only through stores or occasionally give something away. Never wholesale.
"I always thought of wholesale as demeaning to my talent," said Fiandaca. "I don't claim to be a Picasso but I can't believe that he gave his paintings away wholesale."