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Retail Scene: Couture Comes Home

DALLAS -- Seeking to build on its booming in-house custom design business, Lilly Dodson here opened a Fe Zandi boutique last fall that will sell only made-to-measure looks.<BR><BR>Zandi, an Iranian who is based in Los Angeles, designs luncheon and...

DALLAS — Seeking to build on its booming in-house custom design business, Lilly Dodson here opened a Fe Zandi boutique last fall that will sell only made-to-measure looks.

Zandi, an Iranian who is based in Los Angeles, designs luncheon and social occasion silhouettes priced from $1,800 to $9,000.

At Lilly Dodson, a high-end women’s store in Highland Park Village, Zandi’s collection, typically 65 pieces, hangs as samples from which customers make selections. In addition to making adjustments like split-sizing, raising a hemline or adding beads to a bodice, Zandi also designs one-of-a-kind garments for customers.

First-year sales at the 500-square-foot boutique are expected to hit $1 million, according to owner Bill Dodson.

“There’s a void bigger than a football field for custom apparel in the U.S.,” said Dodson. “This customer typically goes to Paris for the couture collections. She’s willing to pay for the look, the fit and the service. We’re bringing it to her at a lower price.”

Last January, Lilly Dodson opened a custom studio manned by local designer Michael Faircloth, where sales are projected up 20 percent over 1993’s $500,000. The store currently counts about 125 women as custom clients, a figure that is expected to grow.

Dodson has aggressive plans for the Zandi business, which he’ll take on the road to select cities starting in February. The first stop is Mexico City, where a two-day show will be staged in the home of a wealthy Mexican socialite. Similar events will likely follow in Houston and Palm Beach, Fla., among others.

Embroidery by Lesage and fabrics and findings from across Europe accent Zandi’s styles, which generally are updated classics. For spring, Zandi will show a panoply of pastels rendered on four-ply silk and cotton and embellished with straw passementerie, among other looks.

Bestsellers from the fall collection included the black silk lace illusion-hem dress, $4,400; the black wool brocade suit with gold Lesage embroidery, $4,300; the loden silk suit with gold Lesage embroidery, $7,900, and the black silk velvet dress with gold Lesage embroidery, $4,600.

Zandi, who started her career designing for the Iranian royal family, fled Iran in 1979 after the overthrow of the Shah and started her custom business.

The designs also are available at Neiman Marcus, which said it has been successful with the looks.

Zandi expects volume this year, excluding sales at Dodson, to hit $2 million at retail, even to last year. Sales climbed to a high of $5 million in 1991, when Zandi also operated a boutique on Canon Drive in Beverly Hills. The store, which opened in 1986, subsequently closed in 1991 after Zandi and her husband divorced and separately moved back to Iran for a short time. They have since remarried. Tentative plans call for the reopening of a namesake boutique there in the near future.

Kamran Behbahani, Zandi’s husband and business director, said the company also is exploring the possibility of producing a ready-to-wear collection, which would mimic Zandi’s custom collection but use less pricy fabrics and trims. It would be priced from $1,200 to $3,500, according to Zandi.

Dodson is so bullish on the custom concept that he thinks the Zandi business could eventually only be eclipsed by Escada sales.

“Escada is the best designer apparel in the world, but it’s ready-to-wear,” Dodson ex-plained. “With Zandi, we’re talking about couture in the purest sense of the word. And the demand is definitely there.”