Fashion 88 : Amen Wardy: Quintessential Shopkeeper

Times Staff Writer

It takes a man of vision to look at a J. C. Penney auto-supply store in Newport Beach and see a rococo monument to fashion that is the talk of three continents. But Amen Wardy, the man behind the boutique makeover, is used to seeing things his own way.

His name, by the way, is the same as his Lebanese father’s. It’s pronounced A-men, with the accent on the A. At 47, Wardy still walks with such bounce in his step it’s as if his

shoes had springs. Actually his shoes have rubber soles, and he liked


them so much he bought 10 pairs at a time.

“I’m a shopper,” he says.

He’s a compact, cupid-shaped shopper, inclined toward euphoric glee if he’s talking about what he likes to buy best: clothes. After that, dinners in Italy, decorations for the house in Montecito he’s remodeling, and travel, especially to Rwanda, Africa, to track wild apes.

He likes his store the most, however, because it lets him do what he does best--spend money on clothes to sell. Wardy all but attacks the world’s fashion centers twice a year on buying trips, which he approaches as if they were bombardier missions.

In Paris and Milan he orders clothes in quantity, and the designers remember his name. “I’m one of Valentino’s biggest customers,” he says of the Paris-based couturier, who has an entire room at the store dedicated to him. There are rooms too for Emanuel Ungaro of Paris, James Galanos of Los Angeles, Mariuccia Mandelli for Krizia of Italy. But the most interesting rooms in Wardy’s extravagantly overstocked emporium in Newport Beach are those that display the clothes he makes.

It’s a hobby, or so it would appear, and a way of ensuring that certain items he carries aren’t available anywhere else. And it’s a way to keep prices a bit lower than the designer-label equivalents.

For fall, he styled a party outfit with the help of accessory designer Judith Leiber. She added a jeweled collar and cuffs and a matching purse to his satin dress with elastic waist and long sleeves, something a glamorous mother-of-the-bride might wear. With a big-name New York designer’s label inside, it might sell for $5,000. Wardy’s model costs $3,500.

Another Wardy creation is his alternative to the classic Chanel suit. “He likes his version better,” explains Annie Bower, Wardy promotions director, with no false modesty. It’s wool and silk plaid, priced at $1,625.

Wardy used to carry the genuine article, which now sells for as much as $3,000, but the suit didn’t fit his customers, he says. “Too broad at the shoulders, too narrow in the hips.”

His private-label look-alike and his bejeweled satin dress cover two extremes in Wardy’s taste. “I like classic, tailored things for day and big glamour for night,” he says.

There are other signature items in the store, including a fragrance named after him--a sweet floral scent--and a collection of quilted handbags with the initials AW on the clasp, available nowhere else. Whatever the world may think of visible logos and labels, Wardy seems certain that his customers want to advertise where they shop.

“I’m in the store every week,” says Maria Crutcher, a social figure in Newport Beach, who lives at the Big Canyon country club not far from Wardy’s store. “And if friends come to town, the first thing they want to see is the Amen Wardy store.”

By now he has amassed a client list as long as the flight path from San Francisco to the heart of Texas, and it’s studded with socialites and celebrities. Joan Collins, Joan Rivers and Kenny Rogers’ wife, Marianne, have all sent Wardy their autographed pictures. Rivers made the best-dressed list the year she hosted her own TV talk show, and Wardy supplied her wardrobe.

It appears that the bulk of Wardy’s best customers, however, are mature, social women of a certain age and an advanced level of financial security; women accustomed to service, at home and elsewhere. To accommodate their vast expectations, Wardy installed a private kitchen for in-store parties, a “Venetian ballroom” with its own fashion runway for shows, valet parking and a “clothesmobile” he packs with dresses and drives to homes up and down the coast.

Sixty percent of his customers live near the store. But, he says, “the out-of-towners buy every thing. They’ll buy three or four suits, a couple of cocktail clothes, evening clothes, all at one time. They’ll spend $50,000 or more, and they’re here twice a year.” Wardy’s eyes sparkle just to think of them, touching down from Dallas or Midland, Tex., or driving in from Santa Barbara or San Diego, booking a hotel room, spending a day or even two at the store, trying on clothes, meeting with the seamstress, not to mention schmoozing with the store owner.

“The good customers walk out if he’s not here, and come back later, or they’ll stay but they won’t spend as much,” says Wardy’s daughter, Soffia. “He has the confidence they like. He tells them what looks right.”

Soffia, 21, is one of Wardy’s three children. When she finished school in Florence, Italy, she joined her father and is learning the business. Her brothers, Amen and Jean-Paul, are still students. Friends say Wardy, a single parent, is close to all his children.

If husbands accompany their wives on their shopping trips, they wait in the den, a cozy room decorated in a safari motif with a big-screen TV, a VCR, a collection of video feature movies and a push-button phone.

Much as he likes to regale listeners with stories of how the rich spend their money, Wardy sways gently from conversations about his own income. What little he does say is of a broad nature.

“I worry about money,” he admits. What does it cost him to stock his store for a new season? “You’re not talking about thousands of dollars, you’re talking about millions. One bad season can put you out of business.”

What could also put him out of business is socialites who don’t pay their 5- and 6-digit bills. Wardy says he’s only had that happen once, and the matter is being settled out of court. “I don’t want to comment about it,” he says. “I’ve never had this problem before.”

For money worries and other such ailments, extravagance is Wardy’s best revenge. In fact, Bower says, “the best and the most are the two phrases Amen uses most often.” One of his 60 employees, she joined him about a year ago from Detroit’s Saks Fifth Avenue store. “He’s a very kind, gentle man,” she says of her boss. “He’s much different from what I expected.”

What would anybody expect of a man who opens a glitter-box boutique in a parking lot beside a vast shopping mall--Fashion Island--and ships in masses of silk and velvet and designer labels to a place known for its T-shirts and Madras shorts?

“Ask me to describe myself and I’d say I’m successful,” Wardy offers, hardly pausing to think it over. “And happy.” Ask others to describe him, his daughter for example. “He’s cute,” she says with affection.

Accessories designer Leiber, whose work is featured at the store, describes Wardy as a perfectionist. His fantasyland for fashion, with its turtledoves cooing in their cage, its Venetian chandeliers lit up all day, life-size porcelain jaguar, exotic statuary, fountain, potted fruit trees, parquet floors and classically pretty clothes, most of them carrying 4- or 5-figure price tags--may seem a bit out of touch with real life. But, Leiber says: “In this world you need a to be a little frivolous.”

After 20-odd years doing business together, even the New York-based Leiber has been won over to Wardy’s customer list. “I call him and say, ‘Amen, I need some clothes,’ and then the boxes arrive. I’m a mature woman and not skinny. Still, everything he sends is perfect.”

In the store, Wardy has a lavish office, tucked away like a secret apartment. It is decorated in an eclectic mix of Japanese screens, statues of Venetian angels and exotic Moors, Staffordshire birds and other indicators that Wardy is, as he says, an avid shopper.

He sits on a velvety brown couch. Soffia sits beside him. He’s wearing his usual low-key sport shirt and linen pants. But she is wearing a Krizia suit--retail value not less than $1,500. She’s also wearing a ring so studded with sparkling stones that it lights up her share of the room.

She’s not the typical image of the 21-year-old, but she doesn’t seem aware of it. There is something remarkably unself-conscious about the glitz and glitter at Wardy. Even his dogs, Poppy and Lafeete, a pair of enormous, standard French poodles, are accustomed to it. One of them recently modeled an $80,000 necklace during a store fashion show.

“No pictures of the dogs on Tuesday,” Bower will caution. “They’ll just be back from the weekend in the country. They won’t have time to be groomed.” It’s all too rich for most blood. And it’s a long way from El Paso, where Wardy got his start. He was 13 when he entered the fashion business--through the door of his great-grandmother’s wholesale electronics store. Somehow he convinced her to let him sell jewelry among the wall plugs and extension cords. “She gave him $500 to start with,” explains Bower, who knows the story by heart.

In the ‘50s, Wardy went off on his own and opened his first fashion boutique. That was in El Paso too, but he bought the clothes in Hollywood. “He’d get a limousine and go shopping in California,” recalls John Leavell, a fellow Texan who met Wardy years ago on one of his West Coast buying trips.

Leavell now owns an upscale Dallas boutique called Marie Leavell that’s been in the family for 60 years. “Even back then, Amen loved dressing up the ladies,” Leavell says.

In those days Loretta Young was Wardy’s inspiration. He watched her Sunday night show. “She’d come through the door in a different gown every week,” he recalls of her legendary entrances.

Wardy would check the credits at the end of the program looking for the names of fashion designers. That’s how he found Bill Travilla, the Hollywood costumer and ready-to-wear designer, and began carrying his styles. He added other Hollywood designers to his stock as well, notably Helen Rose, who dressed Grace Kelly for movie roles and made her wedding gown.

“He should have gone to California years before he did,” Leavell believes. As it was, Wardy opened his first in-state store on Bayside Avenue in Newport Beach in 1977. Five years later he moved to Fashion Island.

People who know him don’t seem to wonder about the secret of his success. “He does everything in the store,” Leiber says. “One fingerprint on a piece of glass and he’s there to fix it.”

“He opened a store for women who think most others aren’t romantic enough,” Leavell says. “And he knows how to sell to very sophisticated, rich women.”

Newporter Crutcher says: “Sometimes I think maybe I spend a little too much money there. But I always come back. Amen is so anxious to please. Nothing is too much trouble.”