A Fitting Ritual Shopping: Women with inaugural balls on pTC their agendas dance into Washington's fancy boutiques to step into, and then walk out with, the perfect special-occasion gown.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON -- Tracey Pinson is sucking in her stomach as far as it will go.

"It's not the right size," she says, voice rising with anxiety as she tugs at the slinky black crepe with 114 glimmering rhinestones trickling down its front. "Somebody has to take this dress out a little bit. It's too tight. Is somebody coming to take this out?"

Pinson is standing partially clothed in Saks Jandel, trying not to have a nervous breakdown in the dressing room. Though she's a Washington native, Pinson has never been to a presidential inaugural ball. So when she learned she was invited to two this year (the Arkansas and Tennessee parties), she marched straight to Saks Jandel, where Washington's wealthy matrons and busy social queens have squeezed themselves into inaugural gowns for decades.

Pinson, an attractive Defense Department executive, needs to buy a fancy gown for the first time in her life. With only a handful of days left for a search, she might well start to panic. But the fashion consultants who fill her dressing room in the exclusive Chevy Chase shop won't let her.

Within seconds, fitter Doi Nguyen is on her hands and knees with a pin cushion, tugging lightly at the gown while searching for 2 extra inches of crepe around the middle. Saleswoman Sue Yi is standing by, gently murmuring "slimming" and "gorgeous" to Pinson's reflection. By the end of the fitting, Pinson is so delighted, she barely seems to realize she has just spent $650 on a dress.

It is times like these when Saks Jandel shows its strength as a behind-the-scenes fashion player in the city's social scene for the past 109 years. The shop is at the height of its powers every time the capital gets ready to put on a show -- like now, just days before the black-tie balls and galas accompanying Clinton's big night.

Of course, it is not the only store in town. Elite women in Washington swear by Andre (a personal shopper at Nieman Marcus), throng to the designer salon at Saks Fifth Avenue and are regularly spotted in suburban Washington boutiques such as Claire Dratch. But Saks Jandel is different -- still family-owned, still only in Washington, still thriving at inauguration time.

Who cares if the inaugural balls are so crowded that no one really notices what you're wearing? Every four years, women throw themselves at the mercy of the boutique's staff anyway.

For their part, the Saks Jandel saleswomen take this party business very seriously. In their minds, buying a gown poses questions more complicated than chiffon or lace. It's about the tough existential issues -- like, who are you, anyway?

"I have one rule," says Sally Marx, a fashion consultant whose husband, Ernest Marx, owns the shop. "Be the person you are. Don't try to be Lauren Bacall because you're not Lauren Bacall; you're whoever it's really comfortable mentally and physically to be. I myself wear Yves St. Laurent because that's what I do. That's what I am."

To uncover your essential being, you first need a decent pair of pumps, which is what someone has just handed Pinson to make her look more statuesque as she flings dresses over her head. You also need a selection. This can be tricky. Pinson passes up a gown that uses two silver metal hoops for arm holes. She foregoes a $1,510 Armani silk outfit. She walks right past a painted-on dress which makes eating an hors d'oeuvre a challenge.

Still, it takes no time for the black sheath dress with the rhinestones to catch Pinson's eye. The 39-year-old -- whose husband is a political appointee with the Small Business Administration -- races past the impeccably dressed mannequins to a private room, where she rips off her black pants and green shirt and goes on a ball gown offensive.

It takes 15 minutes. After trying on a dud (the neck didn't look right), Pinson decides on the rhinestone outfit -- fingering the shimmery ornaments as she listens to saleswoman Yi, who is offering latest wisdom on pantyhose (nude), black gloves (wear them long), and jewelry (don't go overboard). Pinson is ready to make this dress work, no matter what it takes.

"This is beautiful," Pinson says. "I am going to STARVE myself this week."

The sales staff here are too savvy to mention gown prices -- which range from $300 to $5,500 -- and the clientele are usually too rich to ask. Numbers, in general, are taboo. No salesperson ever asks her client her size. Selling a dress is all about trust -- and tact. When clothes make a figure look extra-large, the fashion consultant murmurs "Why don't we try a few more on" or "I think this looks better."

Ball gown sale ceremony

There is a ritual to the sale of a ball gown. Yi and other sales staff make it their business to recognize the wives of senators, ambassadors and foreign royalty so that they can deliver personalized treatment and outfits that always fit the proper protocol.

Then, they research the big parties each season, travel to New York, Paris and Milan and shop with those affairs in mind. They even memorize which customer has purchased which dress, so no two women will show up at a White House dinner in identical slinky Louis Feraud gowns.

Finally, after the sale, the fashion consultants call their customers to see how the gown went over, even picking up a little post-party gossip along the way.

In this world, customers call their designers by their first names (an Oscar de la Renta gown becomes "my Oscar") and sales people refer to gowns almost as if they were people ("Givenchy can go to the inaugural" means "You can wear a Givenchy to the inaugural.")

The owners, the Marxes, circulate in the same social circles as the women they dress. And the store woos customers via an inside track of connections, aiming to keep them for life -- from debutante to grande dame.

When it opened in 1888, the shop was a smaller enterprise run by Mano Swartz, a clothier who also opened the eponymous boutique in the Baltimore area. By the 1920s, when the Saks branch of the family took over, a cousin broke with the enterprise and started his own shop in New York -- an outfitter that would become Saks Fifth Avenue.

Here in Washington, a company merger turned the corporate name to Saks Jandel, and by the 1960s the shop was at the forefront of the ready-to-wear business, importing the latest fashions from Europe to Washington. First located downtown, the shop now has a location in tony Chevy Chase and another at the Watergate.

At first glance, Saks Jandel has the markings of a New York boutique. A saleswoman muses in French on the telephone. A woman with a Gucci bag isn't bothering to look at the whopping price tags on the Chanels, Valentinos and Armanis. Another customer thanks God for the shop because she didn't have time to get to Seventh Avenue this year.

But, of course, this is not New York City. A quick visit makes this clear. Shoppers find an abundance of red power suits. The salespeople can make any customer look like the first lady of their choice. And the customer list is kept as classified as a CIA document.

A certain look

Discretion is the key to all elements of Washington style. Nothing too cutting edge, nothing too racy and, heaven forbid, nothing too tacky. There seems to be an unspoken quota at the shop on beads and sequins.

"I don't think there's anything uglier," says Sally Marx, "than a cheap sequin dress."

Of course, the conservative look can backfire. "If it's 'in,' that doesn't matter a damn in Washington," says long-time Washington socialite Jennifer Phillips. "Just look at the shoes. Or look at the hair -- this is a hair museum. No one has seen this hair in 30 years."

The shop is a regular contributor to the closets of Phillips and other social doyennes -- women who are the purveyors of traditional fashion sense in the capital. The boutique stakes its good name on treatment of such high-profile customers, shuttling outfits to various mansions and picking out designs with their tastes in mind.

"The shop puts together maybe two or three gowns and I look at them at home and then my driver takes them back," says Buffy Cafritz, who comes from a long line of Washington socialites. "Frankly, I don't like stores much."

But they don't all shop at home. On a Saturday nine days before the inauguration, Heng Chee Chan, the ambassador to Singapore, waltzes into the shop in blue jeans and sneakers to pick up a black velvet ball gown -- an unusual purchase for the diplomat who usually arrives at state occasions in a chongsam, her country's traditional dress.

Next through the door is Carole Prest, the wife of a telecommunications lobbyist. She is so excited about buying her first inaugural gown, she brings her mother to look at the dress as it is being altered -- and both gush over the white Oleg Cassini with 39 pins stuck in it.

Pinson is just as thrilled about her rhinestone gown. And she is no naive newcomer to this scene. Her mother worked in the White House, as a congressional liaison under Jimmy Carter, and she herself worked on Capitol Hill for Maryland Congressman Parren Mitchell. Pinson has every reason to be jaded about a staged political event like an inaugural, but she isn't.

Instead, she is buying a gown -- indulging in a ritual she has only witnessed for years. She writes a check, sends off the dress for alterations and stows the receipt in her bag.

The dress will be ready Saturday. No doubt about it, she'll be back.

Pub Date: 1/15/97

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