Designer Diane Freis Adapts to the Pace of Hong Kong

It's not easy being Diane Freis. An artist turned fashion tycoon, raised in the laid-back Los Angeles of the '60s but now living above a Hong Kong shopping mall, she would be the first to tell you she's got her hands full.

While visiting Saks in Beverly Hills during a recent visit to California, Freis talked about her rise to the top. Her young assistant, who calls her "Miss Freis," stayed by her side.

Freis remembered seeing somebody wearing a T-shirt she swears she designed years ago when she worked for other companies and her name wasn't used on the label. Now that her name is on the label, she still has imitators.

"The others are mass produced, mine are individually done; we're in very different markets; it's not at all the same."

One-Size-Fits-All Formula

Freis made her reputation on colorful dresses that mix flower-and-geometry prints as ably as a well-planned patchwork quilt. In silky, no-wrinkle fabrics, she invented a one-size-fits-all dress-fashion formula that has won her thousands of international followers and earned her the "Woman of the Year" award from the City of Hope, which she came to California to accept.

But flattery can't hold her here. Though she and her business-partner husband recently bought a house here and she is opening a boutique in Beverly Hills, Hong Kong is home.

"Shopping is our national pastime there," she giggled, saying she does her share every night on the way to her apartment in Hong Kong's Harbor City-- "the Beverly Center times 10."

Attracted to Orient

She went to the Orient about 10 years ago, solely for business reasons, she said. The free port, the range of fabric choices at the best prices, the relatively low cost of labor attracted her.

Looking back, she said: "I threw myself off the deep end."

Much of the appeal of the place could change overnight in 1997, when Hong Kong, currently a British territory, reverts to Chinese sovereignty. That could affect its free-port status.

"I hate to talk about leaving Hong Kong," she said. "We who live there know it's tremendous draw as a business center. But we've all got a foot outside the country now in case things change."

Freis recently went to France for the first time to buy silk and velvet.

"It's very expensive, but I can afford to gamble now," she said. The collection of dresses she is introducing as a result of that trip are priced up to $1,500. Most of her other dresses sell for about half that.

To describe the current scope of her fashion empire, she said her clothes are sold around the world and that she has "a ton" of employees. In Hong Kong, she said, she has seven boutiques and sells more than 100 dresses a day in the high seasons (March through May and September through November).

Freis' own appearance has changed somewhat since she went into business for herself. Big diamond jewelry, professional-looking makeup, perfect red lacquered fingernails and a short, tailored, blond-tipped haircut have replaced the tousled, light-brown, shoulder-length shag and minimal makeup that once made for a sort of artsy, nature-girl appearance. But her dresses have hardly changed at all, although she said she's "going all out for hot styles" in her fall collection.

But the basics will be the same. "My classics are a good bread-and-butter business for me," she says.

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