By  on February 6, 2002

Sure, William Ivey Long has gone off-Broadway before, but not this far. Because now, theater's top costume designer is digressing to Seventh Avenue, by way of Chelsea, where he will show his first eveningwear collection next week at his 20th Street town house. And he's doing it in that great theatrical tradition: with a little help from his friends, a group that just happens to have more Tonys than the Foreman family has Georgies. Long himself owns three, the most recent for his brilliant effort for "The Producers," in which he clothed nuns, the Village People and countless motley types in between. Then there's Wendy Wasserstein, Susan Stroman, Glen Kelly and Boyd Gaines, all of whom are working on the show, along with a lineup of chorus girls who are tapping their way downtown from the Shubert and St. James.

Wasserstein, Long's partner in the new company and longtime friend (the two go way back to the Yale Drama School), has written a delightful script; Stroman will direct and choreograph the six-scene show, Kelly will play the piano and debut his new song -- written just for the occasion -- "I Love Your Dress," while Gaines acts as emcee. "Even if people hate the clothes," Long says, "at least they should have a good time."

But don't mistake that sentiment for excessive confidence. Lest anyone wonder why someone accustomed to the mega-theatrical opening would fret over a production before a fashion crowd of only 85 guests -- yes, just 85 chairs fit under the trio of mail-order chandeliers in his newly renovated parlor -- Long explains quite simply that here, he is a virgin.

"The humility I am feeling right now -- it is great," Long says with Southern solemnity. "The humility I feel manifests itself about 4 p.m. in the afternoon, when I have been known to toss my cookies."

The venture, always a partnership with Wasserstein, began as a lingerie line, but evolved into a full-fledged eveningwear collection. Working on ideas for the original project, Long found himself sketching fewer bras and panties and more and more slips, which eventually morphed into dancing dresses. And then he thought, why not just go all the way, right up to an ode to Charles James, whom Long admittedly "stalked" as a young man and later apprenticed himself to when both lived at the Chelsea Hotel.But anyone expecting a showgirl-with-headdress extravaganza will be surprised. Long says he wants to design real, elegant evening dresses -- albeit with an ample dose of fantasy -- that fit and move with a woman. "I saw the pictures of John Galliano's Dior couture show, and I thought, 'I can do costumes,"' he says. "But for me, it didn't seem like something I should be doing now."

In fact, rather than opening with the simplest looks and building up to the most theatrical, he is working in reverse. First come the most elaborate looks, those fully boned and corseted ballgowns. The script calls for Gaines to explain the joy various dancers take in dressing up. Wendy Waring is first out. "Wendy's mother always told her the most versatile ensembles were 'Day Into Evening,"' he will tell the audience. "But Wendy wanted a different kind of versatility. She wanted to get lucky, so she switched her clock and her couture to "Evening Into Overnight." Louise Ruck "was a real woman with real curves. She had only one problem: Nothing hugged her the way she wanted to be held." Elizabeth Mills "knew she was a movie star; it didn't matter that she was a nurse."

Long then moves through to still-constructed dance dresses, separates, slips and, finally, the "I Love Your Dress" finale, in which all of his dancers wear the same draped red siren gown.

Yet this is no grown-up Andy Hardy one-nighter, as the partners are very serious about building a business. Wasserstein notes the special elegance Long brings to evening. "William is a uniquely talented person," she says. "He is an artist." She describes his clothes as "reminiscent of the New York El Morocco and Stork Club. These are really dance dresses, the kind you would wear out on a date when the man gives you a corsage or a diamond."

But only a pragmatic approach to business can turn such romance into the stuff of reality, and the partners have signed on Lisa Immordino as president to direct the business side of the project. Immordino, who consulted for numerous Italian houses, including GFT and Zegna, after a stint at Polo, notes that the firm will seek a limited distribution in its first season. "We're looking for partners who want to grow with us, because we want to focus on service," she says. As part of that, she envisions a strong trunk show business, through which Long could do one-of-a-kind pieces. Tentative retail prices for the rest of the collection range from $1,500 for a slipdress to $4,500 for a layered lace dress with embroidery. Separates range from $500 to $1,800.Immordino and Long have spent much of the last several months engaged in due diligence, researching, meeting with retailers and, in Immordino's case, investigating production facilities. (Show samples are being made at the same costume shops Long works with for his other day job.) Along the way, Long revels in his re-education, learning both the business limitations and lingo: "Evening separates! Price points! -- now there's a good one!"

He is also learning the similarities and differences between making clothes for stage and street. "I thought we were closer than we were," he explains. "We are close in the essentials -- it's fabric. It's the lady's body. It's the desire to make beauty. But everything else is different." Most notably, the lack of one-on-one with the client, so essential for the stage. "I know when a lady has put on one of my garments and we have done the technical support that is needed. If that smile comes, then I know we are almost there," Long says, adding that he wants to replicate that sense of client security as closely as possible in his ready-to-wear. "These dresses are intended to make people feel beautiful, confident, empowered. I don't know how to answer the fashion question. It's a big mystery."

Except for one point, about which William Ivey Long -- who, unlike just about any other designer working today, has dressed women for centuries -- is certain. "There needs to be joy in clothing," he says. "And a little fantasy, if not a lot of fantasy, at night. When the sun goes down, all bets are off. You can be whoever you want to be."

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