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FASHION : A Closetful of Classics : Hillary Clinton doesn’t give a hoot about fancy labels. Sale-rack separates from home suit her just fine.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The day before her wedding, Hillary Clinton sauntered into a local department store and bought her bridal dress--a simple, white linen Victorian number--right off the rack.

Seventeen years later, the word on the next First Lady is that being a clotheshorse still isn’t high on her list of priorities.

“There are more pressing things for her to do than dress up like Vogue,” said Sarah Phillips, who designed the pale-yellow silk suit Clinton wore on the night of her husband’s acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention.

“She doesn’t put a lot of emphasis on clothes,” added Kelle Mills, a sales associate for Barbara-Jean Ltd., the Little Rock, Ark., boutique where Clinton has been a longtime customer. “And if I were the famous designers, I wouldn’t be getting too excited about having Mrs. Clinton endorse one of them. She likes to stick with people she’s known for a long time.”

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In fact, the constellation of New York stars who have begun showering the future First Lady with designs for her Inaugural wardrobe may be left in the dark. According to Lisa Caputo, Hillary Clinton’s press secretary, no decision has been made on the Inauguration outfits. However, Clinton has remarked that since “it’s a special day for her and the state of Arkansas,” a hometown favorite may beat out Seventh Avenue’s big guns. (Connie Fails, an Arkansas designer and friend, may be the front-runner.)

Regardless of whether Clinton cares a hoot about hemlines, for the next four years she’ll be a poster girl for American fashion. With her photograph appearing everywhere from the Arkansas Democrat Gazette to Paris Match, she’s bound to spark trends. Look what Barbara Bush did for pearls, what Mamie Eisenhower did for bangs and what Jackie Kennedy did for just about everything.

“Like it or not, Hillary’s ‘it’ from now on,” said Robin Weir, the Washington hairdresser who tended Nancy Reagan’s lacquered tresses. “People will want to emulate her, not only because she’s the First Lady but because she has the youth, the figure and the hair.” Already, several of Weir’s well-coiffed clients have requested Clinton’s honey-blond highlights.

If Rosalynn Carter, who brought her sewing machine to the White House, represented the nadir of style and Nancy Reagan epitomized the over-the-top extravagance of the ‘80s, Hillary Clinton, 44, falls somewhere between the two extremes.

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She’s a Size 8 who prefers medium-priced labels to sky-high designer tags. She likes softly tailored suits and classic coatdresses yet is adventurous enough to wear black opaque hose, which, in conservative Washington, is considered pretty racy. She shuns drab colors like gray and black in favor of vivid shades of red, cobalt and pink. She kicks back in jeans, a baseball cap and ponytail. And though she isn’t adverse to glamorizing her image, she won’t be dictated to: Her much maligned velvet headband, banished during the campaign, has quietly returned.

“She’s a terrific role model for the fortysomething set who are wives, mothers and career women,” said New York’s Dana Buchman, who designed several of the streamlined suits Clinton wore during the campaign. “She represents the intelligent woman’s way of dressing--tailored and clean-cut, yet soft. And nothing pretentious.”

Cliff Chally, the “Designing Women” costume designer who moonlighted as Clinton’s wardrobe consultant for the Democratic Convention, agreed.

Classic is the word that comes to mind when I think of Mrs. Clinton,” he said. “She doesn’t like fussy clothes and everything has to be comfortable.”

Chally, along with Christophe, the Beverly Hills hairdresser, revved up Clinton’s look at the behest of Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, the producer of “Designing Women” and “Hearts of Fire” and a close friend of the Clinton family.

For months on the campaign trail, Clinton had been criticized as an overbearing, career-oriented lawyer. To silence her detractors, Clinton was eased into a less prominent, more traditional role. A month before the convention, she was given a smarter wardrobe and a shorter, sleeker hairdo.

“I didn’t really change her image,” said Chally. “It was more a matter of pulling clothes from her closet and coordinating them so everything was ‘camera ready’ from the minute she arrived at the convention.” With a few exceptions, most of Clinton’s convention wardrobe was plucked from her own closet, which contained, Chally said, mostly classic separates.

The convention wasn’t the first revamping of Clinton’s style. When her husband sought a second term as Arkansas governor in 1982, she swapped her thick glasses for contact lenses, streaked her brown hair blond and exchanged her no-style outfits for a more fashionable wardrobe.

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Although Clinton may make changes in matters of style, she seems to be less compromising when it comes to price. Don’t expect her to sweep into the Inaugural festivities in a $25,000 wardrobe a la Nancy Reagan or order couture creations from Paris like Jackie Kennedy. Even Barbara Bush’s pet designers, Arnold Scaasi and Bill Blass, are far above Clinton’s price range.

“She doesn’t spend lots of money on clothes,” says Mills of the future First Lady, who has been known to happily poke through Barbara-Jean’s sale rack. “She’s more likely to buy designers like (New York designer) Randy Kemper than Donna Karan, whose price points are a little high.”

Clinton prizes practicality and versatility in her clothes. “She loves separates that she can mix and match to create different looks,” said Chally.

What doesn’t she like?

“Really short skirts,” said Chally.

“Avant-garde stuff,” said Mills.

“I’ve rarely seen her in pants,” said Buchman.

Like her predecessors, Clinton will no doubt draw her share of sniping on the clothes front. “It’s a no-win situation,” observed Weir. “Mrs. Carter was criticized because she didn’t dress up enough and Mrs. Reagan took flak for overdoing it.”

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But Chally predicts Clinton will glide easily through the prickly fashion thicket. “She can handle it,” he said. “She won’t turn into some trendy fashion plate, but she’ll manage to look terrific.”


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