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Grand designs: the magic of Eugene Alexander.

Sarasota's Eugene Stutzman and Alexander Wallace broke into couture 13 years ago with a black velvet water lily jacket. Today, the art-nouveau-styled jacket remains a top seller; and the two have built an enormously successful business around their couture designs, particularly formal gowns and party dresses. Entertainers, politicians and the biggest names in retail besiege the factory, located in a rundown industrial section of downtown Sarasota, with orders and special requests for what the two refer to as their "little works of art." They're artful indeed, blending fantasy, romance and grand theater; a Eugene Alexander dress can dance right on the edge of costume but never falter in its true intention: making the wearer feel and look stunning.

Dubbed by "Entertainment Tonight"'s Mary Hart as "the celebrity's celebrity," Eugene Alexander, as the two call their collaboration, has dressed some of the most glamorous and influential women in America. A black, pearl-studded dress of theirs was worn by feisty Texas governor Ann Richards to her inauguration. Barbara Bush frequently sports their designs. Elizabeth Taylor chose Eugene Alexander to outfit her for the launch of her White Diamonds perfume, and that legendary long red velvet number Julia Roberts wore in Pretty Woman was born in the factory in downtown Sarasota.

There were some rough spots on the path to the pinnacle of high fashion. Early on, Alexander masqueraded as a delivery boy to get to the head buyer of Bloomingdales and was tossed into the street by the office bouncers. Dazed, he wandered out into traffic and seconds later was struck by a cab. (The Bloomingdale's buyer eventually saw one of the jackets in Saks and placed an order; Alexander decided the importance of being in Bloomingdale's outweighed the insult and consented to fill the the end of the season.) Then there was the time in Cleveland when Alexander was not entirely thrilled with the way one of their creations was being displayed in a store window. He climbed into the window and started rearranging the display, but was promptly arrested by security guards, who may have been put off by his ripped jeans and flannel shirt (ever at the vanguard, he was a follower of "grunge" long before the anti-fashion look became a trend). When he tried to explain to the couture manager who he really was, that gentleman shook his head and replied haughtily, "Ridiculous! We know Mr. Alexander and he's an elderly Frenchman."

Eugene remembers his elation at meeting with Sara Fredericks, a "big pencil" who could write hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of orders. But the grande dame was not exactly electrified by his designs, he confesses with a rueful smile. "She was sitting at the table looking at the pieces when I remembered I'd left something in the other room. I left for a moment and when I returned, there she was, in a heap on top of the clothing, out like a light, snoring."

Most major designers work in the heart of the fashion industry, in New York, but Eugene and Alexander say they have no plans to leave Sarasota and its balmy weather. Quiet and unassuming despite all their success, they're convinced the tranquil surroundings here allow them the creative space they need. "A lot of the clothes that come out of New York tend to look the same," says Eugene. "All the window displays, the steady stream of critique -- it's overwhelming. We do maintain a showroom there and like to see what's around, but then we come back to Florida, incubate new ideas and come up with something different."

How different? Consider the spring 1993 collection. Two of the most spectacular dresses were inspired by the artist Matisse, based upon the final cut-outs he did after he was confined to a wheelchair. "The colors and shapes were very exciting -- fluid, transparent," says Eugene. "It's a theme that blends nicely with the movement in fashion today." Silk cut-out shapes in sea themes (starfish, water lilies) and jagged corners are appliqued to chiffon cut on the diagonal to achieve the effect of pasting cut-outs on canvas. It's such imaginative concepts and inspired execution that keeps buyers from such stores as Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus and Harrod's sending orders to Sarasota season after season.

There are really three principal players in this company: Eugene, Alexander and their fashion director, Laura Flesch. Close friends and co-conspirators, they like to start working in earnest after everyone leaves the factory, often coming up with their most inspired ideas between midnight and six. They all have an artistic background: Eugene studied pottery-making, Alexander painting and Flesch learned from her mother who was a fashion illustrator for designer Maurice Rentmer, and her father, who was a commercial photographer.

The pressure of meeting the demand of four collections a year can be enormous, the atmosphere often intense. But they've created an arthouse funk environment that makes their Central Avenue warehouse feel like a cozy, eccentric kind of home. Louis XVI furniture, covered in embroidered damask, is heaped with taffeta pillows, some with Austrian brooches attached. Mannequins share space with 17th-century picture frames. And in the middle of all this are the company's archives, home to one of almost everything Eugene Alexander has ever created.

The archives, crammed with more than a thousand dresses, are like a library for the designers. They're constantly rummaging through previous designs and samples. "We always have a few pieces from the archives hanging around us when we're designing," says Eugene. "There are a variety of reasons, including creativity and inspiration." These ghosts of seasons past are sometimes resurrected. "Say we've pulled a dress out that has a body relevant to the current trend but wouldn't work as it is. We give it an update with new colors and fabric. It's a process we refer to as 'knocking ourselves off.'" Other dresses may have made it as far as the final stitch but never got out the door. They may just have been ahead of their time, and sometimes return to meet the needs of an ever-changing market.

Few Sarasotans would imagine there's such a treasure house of rich fabrics and fairy-princess dresses in the dusty heart of downtown, and the designers have deliberately kept a low profile in Sarasota for years. But last fall, when they saluted local volunteers by featuring them in a fashion show of Eugene Alexander gowns, some fortunate Sarasota women were able to experience the Eugene Alexander magic firsthand. "The women came into the factory to try on the dresses," says Laura Flesch. "Some were stiff and uncertain at first. When they finally found the right dress, it was as if they were transformed. They became immediately free, like children, revealing their innermost being. I think that's what sets Eugene and Alexander apart. They design pieces that will bring out the truth and individuality of each human being they dress."
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No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:couturiers Eugene Stutzman's and Alexander Wallace's collaboration
Author:Turnage, Neil
Publication:Sarasota Magazine
Date:Apr 1, 1993
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