The Woman Behind the Clothes


Not the least of the hoopla over “Terminator 2” has to do with the way its stars are dressed.

Linda Hamilton’s black tank tops, which show off her vein-popping biceps, got her instantly tagged as the ‘90s woman: muscles, brains and clout. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s mirrored sunglasses and biker leathers made magazine covers. And along the way, the limelight bounced back on the woman behind the clothes--costume designer Marlene Stewart.

She’s caught that glow before, as far back as the Boy Toy days of the early ‘80s when she first hooked up with Madonna. “It was like two little girls at dress-up time, starting with a pile of clothes,” she said of working with the singer to put together costumes for music videos, photo shoots and concerts, not to mention her wedding. The images may burn in our brains forever.


Before all that, Stewart had her own ready-to-wear label, Covers. She says meeting Madonna marked the end of her career in designer wear. “I never dress anybody in anything fashionable now. When I started dressing Madonna, I started looking for clothes that had to do with character. It’s a relief, not being so aware of what’s in .”

Her trip beyond fashion led to photo shoots where she dressed actor Julian Sand in a white linen suit with a strand of pearls instead of a tie, Grace Jones in purple stretch leggings under a taffeta ball gown, and Jody Foster in sleek hair, high-heel pumps and a Chanel-like suit. It became Foster’s new, grown-up look for the movie “Siesta.”

Stewart seems far too tiny to lug around the tons of clothes it takes to make a movie. Elbow deep in a striped satin chaise in her West Hollywood living room, her peach blazer a match for her long pale hair, she seems minuscule. And, in fact, she never intended to haul costumes.

Born in Boston, educated at UC Berkeley in European history, she eventually picked up a few courses in pattern making. She fell into a small business, shopping American and European flea markets for items to stock a Mediterranean resort boutique. Finally, in 1978, she launched Covers in Los Angeles.

Her collections slipped from fey to flamboyant, with Latin dancers, hippie vagabonds and Medieval maidens supplying steady inspiration. Strapless flamenco dresses with triple-tier ruffle skirts were a specialty. She made them with bed sheets one season, upholstery fabric the next. Recently, one of her assistants brought her one, found in a local thrift shop.

Her fashion shows moved steadily closer to theater. In one of her last seasons, she showed Juliet- and Lady Macbeth-like dresses, in a dark room lit by candles. After five years of squeaking by, her financial backers pulled the plug. “I was showing sexy dresses when the look was oversize Italian sportswear and big Japanese things,” she recalls. “I sold them well in the East, but I’d be darned if I could sell them here.”

Next came a career as a designer and stylist for music videos, with an occasional movie. There was Frankie Avalon’s and Annette Funicello’s “Back to the Beach” in 1987. But her big film break came this year with “The Doors,” a movie about the ‘60s group’s rocket ride to fame. The cast consisted of 20,000 extras, including about 350 pounders, and some as tall as basketball pros. “I have seen every shape and size of humanity,” Stewart said. She dressed them so well--in Nehru jackets, velvet blazers, bell-bottom jeans and psychedelic shirts--that many fashion watchers liked the clothes better than the movie.

Now, the film’s director, Oliver Stone, has asked her back to do “JFK,” a feature about President Kennedy. “The secret is to imagine . . . what is in the director’s mind,” she said of the way she works. When “JFK” opens late this year, audiences might want to see it because Kevin Costner is the star. But if it’s like Stewart’s other films, they will come away talking clothes.