FASHION : Junior Executive : Francine Browner Is Big in L.A.'s Junior Market, the 'Most Creative in the U.S.'

Yorks, a free-lance writer, regularly contributes to The Times' fashion pages.

A Cheshire cat grin creeps across Francine Browner's face as she confesses that the jacket she wears does not carry her own label.

"It's a Calvin Klein," the 44-year-old sportswear designer admits, adding that she has not "interpreted" its look and feel into her own line. Yet.

Klein is one of several top names in the business who inspire Browner's designs for Rue de Reves, a company she founded six years ago and has built into a leader among Southern California's junior market.

But there is at least one major difference between Browner and those who inspire her. She strives for a $100-per-outfit retail price. They get about 10 times that.

"We go for the look and then we work on the prices," she says. "We go for the best garment we can get within our price range."

The approach has paid off. She claimed $75 million in retail sales last year, and experts rank her company among the best in the field.

"Los Angeles is the most important market for junior and contemporary fashion right now," says Mona Danford, co-owner of Directives West, a Los Angeles-based buyer service company. "Rue de Reves is one of the few large companies besides Esprit and Generra to garner a lion's share of it."

New York-based fashion forecaster Pat Tunsky suggests that Los Angeles' junior market rates so high because "it is the most creative in the U.S. The designers aren't always playing it safe, letting themselves be dictated to by economic factors." Designers here are more willing to gamble on unproven trends, Tunsky said.

From the time Browner launched her business in December, 1984, she aimed her collections toward a silent-majority segment of women's ready-to-wear customers. She targeted women like herself, in their 30s, old enough to have a career but physically fit, fiscally limited and young-spirited enough to appreciate the junior department.

This was a break from the traditional profile that said a junior-wear shopper was a teen-ager or a college-age woman.

"It was a real uphill battle trying to get the stores to realize that adult women are junior customers, too," Browner says. "We pretty much created the (contemporary juniors) department, but it was tough teaching the buyers about what we were doing."

Browner's business now includes Hearts, a junior dress line, Hearts II, a junior plus-size label, D'Knits, for knit separates, and several signature lines, including one for petites, one for plus-size separates and one for dressier separates, called Workables.

It was her father who introduced her to the fashion world. He worked for Bobbie Brooks, a pioneering junior label, then started his own business with a showroom in Manhattan, where Browner maintains a space. Like other girls, she made doll clothes. But art was her first love. Before attending New York's Parson's School of Design, she spent a year at Syracuse University studying fine art. Her father kept nudging her toward fashion.

"He thought designers had great jobs and made a lot of money," she explains. But "it wasn't until I got in the work force and had to make a real living that I was happy he had done that."

She worked briefly for Personal Sportswear, a division of Leslie Fay, but after marriage, quit to have children. Seven years later, as a 32-year-old divorcee and mother of two daughters, she was faced with re-entering the work force.

She held a garage sale, sold most of her possessions and in 1977 moved to California to seek work.

Breaking into the design community again was no easy feat--particularly in a new city.

She remembers a job interview at Organically Grown, the natural-fiber advocates of the junior sportswear industry.

"I thought I knew what I was doing, but later I realized I had no idea," she said. "I hadn't worked in years, but when they asked me pointed questions about what I could do, I automatically said yes, because I had two kids I had to support and I was going to get this job."

She got the job.

In time, she decided to start her own design firm. She drove a beat-up car and socked away savings. She found herself trying to dress well on a very tight budget.

That's when it dawned on her: She was to be her own customer.

When she and Neil Afromsky, now her business as well as her life partner, launched Rue de Reves, her concept came alive.

"I design for a young-spirited woman who could be 18 or 40 who's on a budget," Browner says. "I have a real affinity for her because I was in her shoes. A woman goes into a store, looks at my price tag and is shocked because she can afford it."

Dana Fleming, who wears Browner fashions on ABC's "Home" show, says the affordability was important when Browner's clothes were selected as one of her main wardrobe sources for on-air wear. Because Fleming's hosting duties require unpredictable movement, she likes the walking-short ensembles in her spring and summer lines.

"Viewers are watching the show to find out ways to keep from spending a lot of money," says Fleming, who estimates that she has received hundreds of letters about the clothes she wears on the show.

Fleming says that what she likes most about the clothes is the subtle way Browner interprets trends.

"She never copies anything exactly," Fleming says. "Francine is influenced by trends just enough to keep the clothes current, but she's fresh enough to keep everything interesting."

Although Calvin Klein jackets are now a luxury she can afford, Browner isn't consumed with making her line more upscale. Neither is she interested in returning to the Big Apple.

"L.A. is really where junior fashion is developing," she says. "People come here with an entrepreneurial spirit, and that youthful attitude is reflected in the garment industry.

"The kind of clothes that are designed here are free of limitations. They are by and for people who are open to new possibilities. Whether they want to be in the film or the fashion industry, that spirit allows them to reach for their dreams."

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