Originally created 02/22/98

Designer helps Hollywood's biggest stars shine



HOLLYWOOD -- A petite bleach-blonde in a sheer leopardprint blouse and skinny black cigarette pants, evening-wear designer Pamela Dennis is a bundle of nervous energy one recent Sunday afternoon at Neiman Marcus.

"This is totally a Helen," she says, clutching a beaded chiffon slipdress from her spring collection. "And this one, this would look totally hot on Anne," she offers, fingering a super-short black lame wrap dress with lace trim. "How about this one for Meg?" she says, proffering a beaded ivory tulle gown. "With her coloring, this would be perfect."

That's Helen as in Helen Hunt, Anne as in Anne Heche and Meg as in -- who else? -- Meg Ryan. All of this first-name-only dropping means one thing: It's awards season again in Hollywood, and Ms. Dennis, fresh off the plane from New York, is hawking her wares with the same zeal you'd expect from a merchant moving carpets in a Persian bazaar.

At 36, Ms. Dennis has been on the fashion scene for nearly a decade, during which she has dressed some of Hollywood's biggest stars for important occasions.

"I usually try to be around a few days before an event. It's very last-minute with celebrities, and they seem to wear whatever they feel like that day," she says, gathering the folds of a gown into a duffel bag for a waiting Daisy Fuentes, who may (or may not) decide to wear it for that night's People's Choice Awards.

Celebrity stylists drop in, browse, then stuff $3,000 and $4,000 gowns into duffel bags with little more care than they would give items on final clearance at Loehmann's. Ms. Dennis doesn't mind.

"The bottom line is, a celebrity could be in one of these gowns tonight and be photographed," Ms. Dennis says. "You have to be Johnny on the spot."

That's something she has gotten good at. Last year, when Ellen Degeneres and Ms. Heche chose her designs on the eve of the Emmys (Ms. Degeneres a brown tapestry pantsuit and Ms. Heche a brown beaded mini-dress), Ms. Dennis had to have the outfits lined, fitted and shipped from New York -- all in 24 hours.

Dressing women for big events has always been Ms. Dennis' forte. It is, after all, how she discovered her own flair for fashion and, in turn, how she was discovered.

"It all started when I was looking for something to wear to a friend's wedding," the New Jersey resident remembers. "The only thing out there were ball gowns, but I wanted something young, simple and sexy."

So instead of studying for the law school entrance exams, she designed and made a dress for herself. It was plain and black, with a plunging back, bordered in black feathers. A guest at the wedding was a stylist and wanted to use the dress for a De Beers diamond commercial. Voila! Ms. Dennis had a contract and the confidence to start her own business.

Her big break came when Jamie Lee Curtis called.

"She wanted to wear one of my gowns to the Cannes Film Festival. Her body in my stretch georgette dress -- it was like the perfect marriage," Ms. Dennis remembers.

Even now, when dozens of big-name designers have entered the competition for young-evening-wear customers, Ms. Dennis is still in demand. She dressed Kate Winslet (Titanic) for this year's Golden Globes.

But for all the glitz and glamour of working with celebrities, she really loves meeting ordinary people at trunk shows, she says. She has found that the needs of her regular clients and actresses aren't very different.

Her advice?

"At a party, you want to make a splash, but I don't think anyone wants to look like they're on top of a piano anymore," she says. "Understated elegance. Less is always more."

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Also, women should be realistic about their body types when looking for evening wear, she says.

"If you are very thin, light colors are great. Periwinkle, liquid silver, those colors of the moment are great on waifs. But if you are heavier, stick to dark colors," she advises. "I also really like cashmere wraps around the shoulders for evening. They're very classy, old Hollywood."

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There is one major difference between her real women and the celebrity shoppers -- and it's evident at the cash register. Stars have the privilege of borrowing gowns for awards shows.

"Sometimes celebs want to keep the dresses. Even if they'll never wear them again, the PR value from one appearance is invaluable," she says.

In an effort to make her clothes more accessible, a secondary line, the Pamela Dennis Collection, has been launched for spring. It includes evening suits, beaded cashmere twinsets and cocktail dresses, all in the $1,000 range.

Those who want their own piece of Hollywood glamour can find both collections at Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus.