WARSAW -- What becomes a legend most? A Polish legend, that is, prone to rumpled suits, a cowlick and the physique of a fire hydrant?
Warsaw fashion designers have been grappling with that question since last month when Lech Walesa, the electrician turned conqueror of Communism, let it be known that he was shopping for a sharper image.
"His advisers wanted to know if we could dress the candidate," said Krysdyna Wasylkowska, the leading menswear designer at the state-owned fashion house, Moda Polska. "I think it was the first time in Polish history that this thing happened -- a politician turned to a professional for advice on his image."
Walesa, soon to be president, had few demands.
"He didn't want to see drawings or even samples. He had only one condition -- no red," Wasylkowska said. "He's allergic to red."
Moda Polska once did a lot of red. The house was founded by the Polish Communist government in the 1950s. It was to be the socialist answer to Dior and Balmain. The idea was to provide high style, at low cost, to the working man.
But the best ready-to-wear designs were inevitably rejected by the party bureaucrats who decided what designs would be made. In the end, Moda Polska's top designers spent a lot of time dressing the top Polish Communists and their wives, including the party matron whose chauffeured car always dropped her off a block from the salon, so she could pretend to have arrived on the cross-town bus.
Moda Polska never won much attention outside Poland, and even in country, the reception among non-Communists has often been cool. "Moda Polska, all they ever did was copycat what they saw from the West," sniffs artist and costume maker Aleksandra Laski, one of Warsaw's new crop of private image consultants.
For Moda Polska, the Walesa commission was a brief bright spot in a general atmosphere of anxiety and gloom. In addition to crushing debt (from a desperation purchase of European fabric last year) and confusion over how or even whether the company will be sold into private ownership, Moda Polska now faces daunting competition.
All over free-market Poland, the blooming of sidewalk markets and beginner boutiques has rekindled a dormant interest in clothes and appearance. Women whose fashion lives had been spent at the Moda Polska outlet choosing between dingy Dress A and drab Dress B now watch "Dynasty" and glossy German daytime soaps on their satellite dishes. They window-shop until they drop, then parcel out wads of carefully counted zlotys to buy Turkish silk scarves, Italian bluejeans, French berets and fake but fashionable "Giorgio Ariani" shoes.
"The change is tremendous -- our incomes are falling, but the general appearance has vastly improved," said Laski.
Even the slate-colored ranks of the Polish male have been infiltrated by flashy entrepreneurs in shiny sharkskin suits, silk socks and the odd pair of patent leather wingtips. Not everyone's ideal, perhaps, but a start toward beating back the male notion "that if a man takes care of his looks, he must be a narcissist," Laski said.
So how to spruce up the icon without losing the man?
Moda Polska's Wasylkowska sketched and smudged and resketched, rushing to be ready by election day. "His shape is not ideal, so I was scared, but my opinion is that you can dress any person with any kind of silhouette," she said. "It's a challenge I understand, because I am small and round too."
She stitched up four outfits -- two double-breasted wool suits, then two sport jackets, one in brown tweed, the other in gray flannel. Finally, a Chesterfield coat in buttery khaki-colored Italian wool, a few neckties, some shirts, and a color chart for the bedroom wall, to help him figure out what matches what.
Someone was satisfied, because the Walesa order was followed by clothing orders from two of his top aides, who'd grown unhappy with their own suits once they'd seen the president's new clothes.
But on inauguration day last month, Wasylkowska was disappointed to see Walesa pledge his allegiance in a ready-to-wear Italian suit.
"The lapels were too wide for his proportions, the sleeves were too wide. ... I saw all the flaws," Wasylkowska said this past week, sipping a coffee at the downtown Moda Polska salon.
"I don't think he likes the coat -- I've never seen him in it," she allowed. "But I heard that he fell in love with the gray flannel jacket."