IT was a dream date for any fashion designer, caught by Vogue magazine, on this upbeat day in 1971. Marilyn Lewis makes an adjustment to the beaded blue detailing on a lame gown before the formal shoot begins. The floral chiffon with ruffles was already a signature bestseller. “I didn’t do a lot of ruffles,” remembers Lewis today. “But when I did them, they counted.” Vogue chief Diana Vreeland had dispatched its fashion editor, Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg, to see her collection, and the world came to a stop. Vacation was postponed, models called in, and the Lewises’ Beverly Hills home made ready. Just six years earlier, Lewis and her husband, Harry, were happily running the Hamburger Hamlet restaurant empire they founded when she decided to launch a ready-to-wear line. “I couldn’t sew,” she says, “but I always wanted to design. And I knew quality.”

She christened her collection Cardinali, and Saks Fifth Avenue and Bergdorf Goodman couldn’t get enough of her mix of ‘60s career girl by day, pussycat sophisticate by night. Nor could devotees such as Nancy Reagan, Betsy Bloomingdale, Dyan Cannon and Marlo Thomas, whose “That Girl” character was defined by her Cardinali wardrobe. After a nine-year run, Lewis shuttered the brand.

These days, her influence is everywhere. Marc Jacobs’ recent runway show in New York was steeped in the look of that legendary TV sitcom. So too is the red carpet, where original or inspired versions of Cardinali’s flowing, feminine gowns can be seen -- remember the Marchesa gown Jennifer Lopez wore to the Oscars last month?


Women might dominate L.A.’s latest wave of standout designers, but it wasn’t always that way. Guys like Galanos and Gernreich ruled the boys’ club back then -- save for a spirited entrepreneur named Marilyn Lewis.

-- Rose Apodaca