By  on March 16, 1994

LOS ANGELES -- You know that on Oscar night they'll be wearing Armani. And Valentino will deck out his share of big names. But there's another, less-expected label to look for, too. At least one notable in that glittering audience is likely to appropriate 40-year-old Pamela Barish's brand of funky, offbeat chic for the big event.

While her fame is relatively new, Barish's artistic commitment is anything but. The designer's best-selling dress -- a scoop-neck number done in velvet or linen that has attracted the likes of Anjelica Huston and Laura Dern -- takes its inspiration directly from paintings she made at age five.

"As a child, I painted women sitting in chairs, wearing these beautiful dresses, with wild wallpaper behind them," the designer says. "My preference was to hurry home after school to sit at my easel."

Her chic mother, a former I. Magnin model, may have had something to do with it. One of Barish's most vivid memories is of borrowing Georgia Barish's leopard-print cashmere sweater for her Halloween costume the year she decided to trick or treat as a beatnik. Barish also recalls her mother's taste for the exotic, often expressed in a red silk brocade, Chinese-style dress.

It wasn't until Pamela turned 10, however, that the two influences combined in the creation of her first dress. Since then, her career has followed an up-and-down route, but 1994 is definitely the peak.

Now in her second official year of business, Barish expects to post about $1 million in annual wholesale volume. Her ready-to-wear designs -- which wholesale in the neighborhood of $95 to $225 -- sell at selected I. Magnin stores; Maxfield in Los Angeles; Susan of Burlingame in San Francisco and Burlingame, Calif., and Ultimo in Chicago. The silhouettes are simple yet dramatic: Nehru-collar jackets, form-fitting vests with plunging necklines, ruffled pirate blouses, drawstring pants, Renaissance-style dresses and skirts of various lengths."Some people think my clothes are costumey," the designer says. "But it's just what I like."

Nonetheless, it's Barish's custom work that's built her reputation with celebrities -- a cast that includes Huston, Dern, Annette Bening, Rebecca DeMornay, Annabella Sciorra, Faye Dunaway, Daryl Hannah, Ellin Barkin, Drew Barrymore, Jennifer Grey, Anika Poitier, Donna Dixon, Paulina Porizkova, Cher, and Patricia and Rosanna Arquette. The girls bring their men, too. Jeff Goldblum was turned on to the designer's work by his girlfriend, Dern, and Rosanna Arquette, who christened Barish "the rock 'n' roll Chanel," recently commissioned her to design both her own silk brocade wedding gown and the dark purple cotton velvet three-piece suit worn by her groom, restaurateur Jon Sidel."I'm known to be a major shopper," Arquette admits. "And for the past year, I've bought only Pamela Barish. Her clothes are sexy, romantic, chic and funky."

"I think she's brilliant," echoes Laura Dern, who has worn the designer's creations to numerous events, including the Golden Globe Awards. "Not only did we really hit it off as people, we also have the same ideas about what's great in fashion. I'm a big fan of clothes that are comfortable, feminine and sexy -- but not sexy in the way most people perceive, not tight or revealing. I wear a lot of Richard Tyler and Giorgio Armani, but having a dress made from scratch by Pamela is fun. And when I need something quick, she can do it with only one fitting."

Jennifer Grey is another actress who considers herself a friend as well as a fan. "She made me a velvet dress a couple of Christmases ago -- a long chocolate brown one," Grey says. "I told her it felt like wearing a nightgown. The next thing I know, everywhere I go, people can't stop touching it. It's earthy and sexy. It's the only thing more comfortable than jeans. You don't have to dress up to be dressed up in her clothes."

If Barish receives all this acclaim with equanimity, it's not surprising -- this isn't her first encounter with celebrity. Back in 1973, the then 18-year-old produced a sample line of peasant-style blouses and skirts decorated with ribbons. Strolling up Rodeo Drive to peddle her wares to Right Bank Clothing Co. owner Donald Pliner, she spotted Cher on the sidewalk and approached her."I asked if she wanted to see my clothes," Barish recounts. Acceptance was immediate. "Her assistant wrote me a check. Then I said, 'Can I have it back for half an hour to show this store?"' Pliner bought the line, too, for both his Beverly Hills and New York stores.

A year later, in 1974, Barish moved to New York and succeeded in getting Henri Bendel to pick up the collection. It was placed in a department called "Bendel's Fancy" right next to Chloe, Zandra Rhodes and Zoran. Soon after, Barish opened a SoHo atelier where she created gender-bending clothes for Seventies rock 'n 'rollers like Steven Tyler of Aerosmith and Peter Frampton.After a brief early-Eighties marriage to Steely Dan guitarist Walter Becker -- and a hiatus from designing -- Barish moved back to the West Coast. For the next five years, she worked as a stylist for the music industry on acts ranging from Ozzy Osbourne to Chris Isaak.

"For me, it was just a job," she said. "Then I thought, 'If I'm going to work this hard, I'd rather work for myself. That way, I won't have to give pieces of me away."' Her single-parent status -- she gave birth to Jake Faulkner-Barish in 1987 -- kept her from starting her own company until fall 1992, when her son entered kindergarten. "You may think I'm running a business here, but everything revolves around him," she says.

Describing herself as a work in progress, Barish continues to experiment with fabrics, colors and construction. She is eclectic in her approach, and often combines rough, raw textures with opulent ones."It's clothing for the peasant and the queen,"she says.

Last fall, for example, she showed rich cotton brocades in shades of red and purple. This spring, she favors handkerchief linen and silk charmeuse in creamy, buttery colors. Next, Barish will mix somber men's suiting fabrics with shocking pink linings and fake fur to create a Dada-esque fall 1994 collection.

"Every group allows me to do a little better," said the self-taught designer. "I have seven talented people who work with me, including my assistant Coliena Rentmeester. I would not run this business without her, but I don't sell anything that I don't know how to make.

"My clothes can be wild and untamed as well as glamorous," says the designer. "It depends on what shoes you wear with them -- motorcycle boots or Manolo Blahnik."

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