Oh, the Possibilities!

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

You can run, but you can't hide from the Infinite infomercial. Suddenly, it's everywhere. It reaches out to grab you in the middle of the night, and it won't let go. Hostess and infomercial denizen Jenilee Harrison admonishes her audience to buy the only dress that can be worn in more than 30 styles and for the onetime low price of $59.95.

And so I do. For 30 straight days I wore, and only wore (except at the gym and while sleeping), the Infinite Dress--with the occasional machine washing, of course. I've always been a style-obsessed clotheshorse, albeit an eccentric one, but never has a sartorial manifestation invited so much participation or commentary from my friends and colleagues. We were all in this thing together.

Day 1: Style 4

Starting off simply, with a style that has sleeves and ties at the waist. Off to friends Collin and Charlie's, where we watched the Infinite instructional tape. I did and undid the dress to the video with increasing dexterity. C & C were very impressed.

Essentially, the Infinite Dress is a tube of polyester-Lycra with two long tails that can be wrapped in different configurations. While the DuPont slinky fabric is decidedly down-market, it drapes nicely, and the design itself is ingenious. As for the wrapping styles, some are clearly ridiculous, like the ones incorporating a choker necklace or some of the one-shoulder numbers, but others aren't bad at all, particularly when they're trim or Japanesque.

Wrapped clothing, in and of itself, has a distinguished heritage in many cultures, including the Japanese kimono, the Indian sari and the Polynesian pareo (starring at Club Meds worldwide, which give popular classes in pareo wrapping). Stateside in the '70s, Diane Von Furstenberg's wrap dress was such a smashing success that it made the cover of Newsweek and earlier this year, she relaunched her line as Diane to a receptive public.

Day 2: Style 6

As I look through the Infinite instruction booklet, I see that all but three of the 34 styles are backless. Consequently, my convertible dress is going to require a convertible bra. Friend Susan and I went to the bra department at Bloomingdale's and found the bra, the Convertible BackLess Push Up by Smoothie for $27, which can be configured into a crisscross mode, a halter mode and a wide set / deep back mode. I couldn't figure it out without her help, but together we managed. I also learned that the insider lingerie term for this item is a "3-way."

Unfortunately, when I got home, I discovered the saleswoman had put the wrong bra in my bag, so later that night when I got ready for a birthday dinner and was planning to wear Style 2 in the halter mode, I couldn't. I did manage to unearth an old bustier, though, and ended up in backless Style 6.

Day 5: Style 22

It's not Style 22's fault, but the Convertible BackLess Push Up by Smoothie in the halter configuration gave me such a literal pain in the neck that within 30 minutes of putting it on, it reactivated a whiplash injury from an accident several months back. I could stand it no longer, so I dug back into the drawer and pulled out the trusty bustier again to climb back into Style 22.

The notion of clothing that morphs into different styles isn't entirely new either.

Convertibility enabled L.A. designer Maggie Barry to put herself through fashion school at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City in the early '80s. It was the first line she ever did, she called it "Cooo Tubes," and it consisted of stretchy tulles in neon colors that could be layered one over the other in different ways.

"I was a real club kid in those days," she recalls, "and I remember going dancing at this disco in Queens with some shady characters. We normally wouldn't go out there, but that's where you ended up after-after-after hours if you wanted to keep dancing; we're talking something like 11 o'clock in the morning. So, I'm dancing away, grooving in my Cooo Tubes, thinking I'm really hot stuff because everyone, but everyone, is staring at me."

Reveling in the attention with fierce reckless abandon, it took her a moment to realize, to her horror, that the tubes had worked themselves down around her hips and she was dancing topless.

Eighties' convertibility was not necessarily just about stretch either. Administrator Anna Carey acquired and traveled around the world in a hemp-like natural-fleck canvas apparatus with drawstrings at either end and a zipper in front, which worked as a sundress, skirt, poncho, tarp and carry-all. In a pinch, it could also turn into a pup tent.

"But we never camped in it," she says regretfully. "We didn't have the poles."

Day 8: Style 2

At the doctor's office, for the first time, others spotted the Infinite as the Infinite per se. All the nurses were fascinated, surrounded me and fired off questions:

"Is that the dress on TV?"

"Does it come in other colors?"

"Do you really have to wear it for 30 days?"

"But why?"

One summed it up with, "All I see is a quick and easy way to make a small waist look fatter with all that material bunched up around the middle." And it was true, it was all bunchy.

Impressing the crowd with my wrapping prowess, I did a few quick turns and showed them different ways to tie it and fast.

Convertibility may be a quirky novelty, but don't think for a minute that it automatically means tacky.

Uber designer Philippe Starck, who usually devotes his talents to interior and architectural projects, has just entered the convertible fray, garnering lots of attention in the haute fashion press along the way. The Austrian luxury-hosiery purveyor Wolford (of $60 pantyhose fame) is manufacturing his StarckNaked, a tights-plus-skirt-that-changes-length piece in its signature Fatal 80 ultrafine microfiber for a retail price of $395.

Reports Wolford Boutique's manager, Laura Fischer, at the Rodeo Drive location: "It's not in yet, but everyone sure wants it. The phone is ringing off the hook, and we've started a waiting list."

StarckNaked arrived in Southern California early this month and is selling briskly.

Day 9: Style 24

My friend Sydney from New York stopped by to visit and exclaimed, "Oh! You look really cute!"

I explained that no, I didn't really, that the dress was the Infinite and that Style 24 was ugly.

She said, "Oh, I could see that it's a little ugly, but I thought it was vintage. Still, you look really cute."

I find this puzzling. Maggie explained later that people, men and women alike, always love to see a woman in a dress. It makes everyone happy, she says.

While changeable clothing for women usually involves stretchy wrapping or draping styles, the menswear / unisex picture hails from more utilitarian roots. Without question, one of the most innovative companies embracing convertibility today is the 4-year-old firm Maharishi, the brainchild of Hardy Blechman and his talented design crew in London.

Blechman cites Maharishi's design philosophy as "duality plus functionality," a suitable fit for a successful clothing manufacturer who also voices strong commitment to spiritual pursuits.

Designing for both men and women and utilizing industrial fabrics and hardware inspired by military, camping and hunting clothes, Maharishi crafts reversible windbreakers like the "Pac-a-Duke," which stuffs into a camouflage-print pocket that turns into a belted bag, which in turn can be worn around the hips. Maharishi's signature Snopant has buttons and interior cord loops along the legs, making it easily adjustable to different lengths. And just in, "Combat Deluxe" trousers sporting a cargo pocket (containing a set of small pockets therein), which is in itself adjustable, that can then snap on the front, snap on the back or has a wrist strap to make it into a detachable carry bag.

"In sportswear, Maharishi is one of the most important young design concerns coming up anywhere. It's huge in Europe and Japan, and it's going to be huge here," predicts Alonzo Ester, men's sportswear buyer for Ron Herman / Fred Segal Melrose in West Hollywood, one of the three shops in the U.S. that carries the line. "Their stuff just flies out of the store."

Day 14: Style 4

I've been having problems with my car alarm and knew sooner or later that I'd have to deal with it. This morning as I was on my way to the gym, the alarm kept going off every time I hit a bump or came to a fast stop. I had no choice but to skip my workout, drive home and call the alarm place. The guy there said that if I made it there within 30 minutes, they'd fix it immediately. Presto-change-o, out of the gym clothes and into the Infinite in seconds. I made it, got the alarm fixed and was in a good mood for the rest of the day.

Day 15: Style 16

Halfway through. The strange thing is that since I've been wearing this dress, I've lost a sense of what my body is. The dress is forgiving in a way that my normal clothes aren't. It's my pants that tell me if I'm fat or not. Without them, I have absolutely no idea and this is weird.

Initially when I was trying to track down the brains behind the Infinite, I called the distribution center in Oshkosh, Wis.

"I'm wondering if I could interview the designer in a couple of weeks," I said.

"The what?" asked the woman who answered the phone. She paused thoughtfully for a moment and said, "Oh, I don't think we have one of those around here, dear."

Day 19: Style 29

Went to the lingerie department at Neiman Marcus. I tried on a strapless bra called Fantasie by Rigby Peller, who, the company rep told me, are corsetiers for royalty. Well, gee. The fit was sensational, though, and for a strapless surprisingly supportive. It also converts to a 3-way. I'd stumbled on the strapless of my dreams and it looked terrific under the dress too. It cost $97 but I decided to go for it. I also tried on a bandeau bra by DK Intimates, 18 bucks for a band of stretch fabric, but it was really comfortable and looked smooth under the dress. So I got that too. In the parking lot it hit me. I have just spent nearly $100 for a bra. A bra!

As it turns out, the Infinite Dress is neither the work of a shadow conspiracy nor the offspring of a couple of rubes from the sticks, but indeed the byproduct of shrewd marketing. Marketing director Wendy Fielding and her husband, executive producer Rory Fielding, own Tower Entertainment Inc., headquartered in Boca Raton, Fla. A veteran New York fashionista, Wendy worked in licensing for Calvin Klein, was a merchandising editor at Seventeen magazine in the late '70s and public relations director of the Manhattan Shirt Co. in the 1980s. After relocating to Florida in 1990, the couple produced infomercials for other companies before realizing that the real profits came from owning the product.

"The original dress was something that was designed and patented in the 1970s," Wendy Fielding explains. "Nobody is exactly sure where it came from, but I do know that it was expensive and that it didn't do well at retail because, let's face it, it has zero hanger appeal. The rights had been floating around the industry for almost 20 years but nobody wanted them. Rory saw it and his instincts kicked in. Remember, this is a man who can't put a tie and socks together. But he brought it home, I tried it and we knew this was it."

Fielding is under no delusion that the fabric is deluxe but stands firmly behind her product, "For this price point, we had to compromise a little, but it hasn't hurt us."

The Fieldings acquired and licensed out the rights in 1995 but nothing much happened. When they got the rights back earlier this year, they took the Infinite into their own hands to build the franchise themselves. Media buys on hundreds of stations around the country began in the spring.

"Everyone told us not to do it," Fielding recalls, "because there had never been a successful info mercial on a fashion item in the history of the industry. But it just felt right, so we went with it. Since April, we've sold over 100,000 units and it's not stopping. It sells across the board, in all sizes, to all ages, and a lot of customers buy more than one. We're back-ordered by 8,000 units and we can't ship it out fast enough."

"When we repackage," she sighs with resignation, "we're going to call it the 'Original Infinite Dress' because for sure we're going to get knocked off."

Day 20: Style 6

Went to the chiropractor in Style 5, but the tails kept flapping around my knees and getting in my way and then the shoulders kept falling down, leaving me bare on top. The DK Intimates bandeau bra, well, comfortable but zero support. The chiropractor looked askance when I told him about the Infinite and said he really didn't like Style 5 too much. When I tied the tails back around the waist into Style 6, he thought it looked better. He warned me that halter bras can put too much pressure on the neck and that I should stick with the strapless.

"For you," he explained, "it's a health issue."

Day 28: Style 29

Went to the first night of the Preston Sturges retrospective at LACMA with friends Charlie and Tom. The air conditioning in the theater was on so high that in the Style 29 backless halter configuration, I was shivering. So, seated in the dark and unbeknownst to anyone, I untied the Infinite and rewrapped it into Style 8 with a back and a little sleeve. No one was the wiser (even Charlie didn't notice and he was right next to me) and I didn't freeze.

The Fieldings plan on riding the Infinite wave--it shows no sign of slowing down--for as long as they can. Infinite accessories are in the works too. Meanwhile, they're launching their new product, a portable piece of exercise equipment called the ChestPro 2000, which is, you guessed it, convertible too.

"You know," says Wendy Fielding, "my husband is a sensitive and talented man. He went to NYU Film School, worked in the news for years and produced award-winning documentaries. Now we're making infomercials. Funny how life turns out, isn't it?"

"Before I die," adds Rory, "I want to produce a show that doesn't have an 800 number in it."

Day 30: Style 16

The end is in sight. But I can picture it now, I just know that I'm going to have to trot out the Infinite and take requests once in a while. Tomorrow, I shall reintroduce myself to my clothes. My bra struggles will soon be over. What should I wear? All this freedom and responsibility is a little scary.

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