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Style setter in the flesh; Fashion: New York designer Anne Bowen's eye-popping evening wear makes stars shine.


Talk about a "don't-go-there" dress.

One wrong move and "The Sopranos" regular Oksana Babiy could be arrested for indecent exposure.

The only thing standing between the halter top and long skirt are provocative strands of crystals that skim and shine against Babiy's bare skin. There's no cleavage, but there's major hippage.

"Move over, Jennifer Lopez," hoots Anne Bowen, fashion designer to the stars and maker of this risque dress. Babiy, her model, is strutting through Octavia in Pikesville, where Bowen is having a fashion show.

A version of this bombshell dress will be worn by a "One Life to Live" actress at the upcoming daytime Emmy Awards. Bowen didn't do the Oscars this year. But such a gutsy gown would have been welcome on a night when even Cher played it safe, and the most inspired fashion statement was made by "South Park" creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone in Jennifer Lopez and Gwyneth Paltrow drag.

Bowen, in town for last Friday night's "Luck Be A Lady" fund-raiser and fashion show at Pimlico Race Course, looks Manhattan casual in a midriff-revealing denim blouse and suede flares.

Petite, fit and blonde, the thirtysomething designer swears she's suffering from a caffeine deficit, but you wouldn't know it by the way she's swiftly choosing clothes for Babiy's costume changes and chatting with Octavia execs and clients.

In the often dull world of evening wear, Bowen's clothes offer a sexy, chic twist -- a striking blend of beads, silk taffetas and other luxury fabrics in earthy tones, with a touch of disco or bohemian flair.

The sassy pieces would look at home on any awards show. And that's smart, because Bowen knows that dressing actresses makes good fashion sense.

"The stakes are higher," says Bowen, who lives and works in midtown Manhattan. "A celebrity wearing your clothes reaches [millions], it makes sense to go after it."

Anne Bowen burst onto the scene about five years ago. But long before then, she was designing her own funky wardrobe. She graduated from Stetson University in Florida with a political science degree, and has no formal fashion training. And she's proud of that.

"I just knew how to do it," she says.

A couple of well-placed friends got her started in the celeb-dressing biz. Now her famous clients include actresses Susan Lucci, Kim Cattrall and Anjelica Huston.

Her line is carried at such stores as Saks Fifth Avenue and Bergdorf Goodman. Dresses run from $700 to $1,100, gowns from $1,100 to $2,200.

Babiy was Bowen's fit model before she was cast in the role of Irina, a former stripper turned Tony Soprano's lazy mistress. The tall, moon-faced knockout with long dark hair and a thick Ukrainian accent looks down at the slinky, fuzzy silk dress she's wearing. She laughs and says, "It's not a dress for daily life. You can't wear anything underneath. It makes it very tricky."

Minutes later, Babiy re-emerges from a dressing room considerably more clothed, but no less stunning, in a long, russet mohair coat with beading and flared, flower-patterned lace pants. No amount of airbrushing could improve this picture.

"This is the way to do evening when it's not black tie," Bowen explains.

What about wedding wear?

Ellen Gilman, 52, is in the market for a gown to wear to her son's September wedding. In a strapless Bowen gown with sequins, the Owings Mills resident hunts through a rack of Bowen originals for more possibilities. "I have no idea what I'm looking for," she groans. Her spirits are lifted when she spies a dark green, spaghetti-strapped gown with a copper beaded bodice. She whisks it into the dressing room.

Gilman and other clients aren't necessarily into flash and flesh, and these pieces show Bowen knows how to tone it down.

"She's very talented and she's very accommodating," says Jane Simpson, general manager of Octavia.

She adds that in evening wear, a market very tough to freshen up, Bowen's clothes always offer "some little surprises."

Today, Bowen is hands-on and straightforward as she deals with clients, personally presents them with alternatives and accompanies them into the dressing room.

Don't expect this kind of control in the world of celluloid style. Actresses may say they'll wear your dress and then back out. Sometimes, you may not even know who ended up wearing one of your designs.

Famous fashion statements are often dictated by the stylist, not the celeb, Bowen says. Stylists have all the power because "celebrities don't have the time to really research a look or a designer. There's not time. Imagine their schedule. At the end of the day, they really don't know what's in and what's not."

But Bowen has a pretty good idea of what's in.

And right now, it's sauntering out of the dressing room: Babiy in a tight green silk cocktail dress. Classic Bowen.

"Woo hoo!" Bowen yells. "She looks hot!"

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