LOS ANGELES — The feminine, razor-tailored tweed suits shown with flowery blousons, and the printed, billowy dresses look every bit the right combination of retro chic and eclectic mix the marketplace can’t get enough of now.
The collection hadn’t been seen on a runway — much less by the public — in three decades. No matter. The clothes Marilyn Lewis designed under the Cardinali label resonated among the 400-plus fans at a benefit luncheon here last month.
Lewis’ archives had withstood time. And Cameron Silver, the owner of vintage store Decades — responsible for reviving interest in Loris Azzaro, Holly Harp and Ossie Clark — is banking on it. A party tonight kicks off the sale of some 90 Cardinali looks at his Melrose Avenue store, part of a retrospective through June 17 to benefit PBS affiliate KCET.
“The clothes are wonderful,” Silver said. “But for me, this event is twofold: I’m fascinated by Marilyn the personality and her contribution to Los Angeles’ social scene.”
Cardinali, which Lewis closed after a successful nine-year run in 1974, was among the tight California fashion club that included designers James Galanos and Jean Louis. Saks Fifth Avenue, Bergdorf Goodman and other stores bought the line. Among Cardinali’s clients were Nancy Reagan, Betsy Bloomingdale and Dyan Cannon. All kept tabs with Lewis after she no longer dressed them, as did Marlo Thomas, whose character in “That Girl” was defined by her Cardinali wardrobe.
Fashion design wasn’t the only course on her plate.
Lewis was hands-on with husband Harry in the Hamburger Hamlet restaurant empire, overseeing the business the two started in Hollywood in 1952.
After Hamlet grew into a family chain and went public in 1969, Lewis was made chief executive officer.
Lewis began Cardinali because she always wanted to design. The Cleveland native made up the name to refer to her absentee father. But the four packs of cigarettes she went through daily convinced her the dual career wasn’t working.
The original Hamlet on Sunset Boulevard was a hub for Hollywood folk. The Lewises opened it not long after their first date, when Harry, an actor, revealed his dream to have such a place. Neither had restaurant experience, and Harry thought Marilyn could cook.
She didn’t know anything about sewing either. But she could drape her way into an outfit, she said. “I knew quality.”
Lewis also quickly learned — and taught the staff — the nuances of catering to Hollywood, such as maintaining customers’ privacy when it came to inquisitive columnists.
Silver recalled how Kate Mantilini, a Beverly Hills dining institution the Lewises opened in 1987 (named for Marilyn’s uncle’s mistress), was where he and other teens sipped their first cappuccinos.
After the family sold the Hamlet chain (including Kate Mantilini and Gardens on Glendon) in 1987 for $33 million, they bought back the Gardens and Mantilini restaurants and opened another Mantilini in Woodland Hills. Lewis also ventured into film producing
“My friends keep asking me what’s next,” said Lewis, 73. “Maybe I’ll finally take it easy. Maybe.”