Dana Buchman: Sophistication, sensibly so

February 28, 1993|By Vida Roberts

Dana Buchman is a name on fashion and fiction best-seller lists. Her classic sportswear has a loyal following of women who dress beautifully but hate to fuss with clothes -- count Hillary Rodham Clinton and Tipper Gore among them. And mystery-book fans may have noticed that the sting operation in Elmore Leonard's latest thriller, "Rum Punch," dodges around the Dana Buchman department of a Macy's designer salon. Talk about name recognition.

Ms. Buchman was pleased to figure in the action of a popular thriller, and not at all rattled by the crooks-and-clothes connection. Her husband is an assistant district attorney in New York. "We share stories," she says. "I tell him about silk and he tells me about career criminals."

A two-career marriage and two young daughters give the designer a solid insight into what busy career women want in fashion. Her line of clothing, the high-priced division of Liz Claiborne Inc., has found favor with America's busiest woman.

"Hillary Clinton has had to carry a lot on her plate, so her clothing requirements are those of a lot of American women, only more so. She was a customer of ours throughout the campaign and I hope she continues to be one," says Ms. Buchman. "She seems to be a real sportswear customer -- [clothes] tailored with the sort of femininity that is just what we make."

Ms. Buchman is a refined voice in the wilderness of grunge get-ups, maharishi tunics and bell-bottoms -- the styles that have been getting big play in the media.

"Some designers push the limits to give the press and buyers something to react to. I'm not interested in the theatrical approach to fashion," she says. "I was when I was in college. You know, Rit-dyed T-shirts and hip things." Now she believes in fashion that will get her through the day looking and feeling good.

"I'm a conservative homebody. I like to be with my girls, I cherish the chance to read more than two pages at a sitting, I'm not in the social swing set," she admits. "But Karen Harman, my co-designer, is. She's single, and goes out and keeps me updated."

But Ms. Buchman does get a sense of the street in her daily commute. "In five minutes in Manhattan you'll see 19 outrageous outfits you'll not see in any other place on earth. Some influences trickle in, but I design for real women."

That reality is seen in her treatment of the working woman's staple suit and jacket -- she cuts them in the softer mood of the season without resorting to the droopiness that marks other collections. "You can't ignore fashion; you have to wear something," she says. "However, clothes should only be an adjunct to a woman." She doesn't believe in designing for fashion victims. "I don't do domineering."

At 40, Dana Buchman has successfully traveled the baby-boomer career track -- college, credentials and dues-paying. She graduated from Brown University, attended Rhode Island School of Design as a President's Fellow and earned an advanced degree from St. Martin's School of Art in London. These degrees gave her a step up to the bottom of the professional ladder.

"When I finally got to New York, I didn't know anything and was grateful to be paid something like 25 cents an hour," she says. "I was a gofer for the right to learn something useful, how to get things done.

"Actually, Ellen Tracy was my first job. Linda Allard [designer of the Ellen Tracy line] was very good to me, and I worked there off and on for several years. Then I jumped around -- you have to at the beginning of any career."

A job as designer for Liz Claiborne, a label familiar to legions of working women, eventually led her to the prestigious label in her own name.

"I came to Liz in 1982. She was my mentor. There was interest in doing a more expensive line and I was asked if I wanted to do it. Yes! She has left me alone with it ever since. Liz retired in 1985, but we still keep in touch. She's still a friend."

As the high-priced division of Liz Claiborne, the Dana Buchman line is creatively independent but at the same time "in the loving arms of a very well-organized parent," as Ms. Buchman puts it.

She started doing the line two months after her first daughter was born and it has been non-stop ever since. She wouldn't have it any other way.

"We have a great team -- about 50 people in design, sales, marketing, pattern makers from all over the world and the world's best seamstresses.

"I go to Europe twice a year and the Orient once a year, and then around the country on personal appearances. It's very helpful to NTC get out and see the customers, what they look like and what's in the stores."

At a public appearance and fashion show at Nordstorm in Towson Town Center several months ago, Ms. Buchman was expressing some of the typical concerns of the kind of women she dresses.

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