Ehrlichs to get all decked out for the ball

First couple to show fashion sense, turn it up a few notches

January 15, 2003|By Molly Knight | Molly Knight,SUN STAFF

What to wear?

As Maryland's new first lady, Kendel Ehrlich could have whiled away hours - even days - preening in preparation for tonight's inaugural ball. Twirling in front of three-way mirrors in boutiques from Ocean City to Garrett County, she could have tried on everything from chiffon to silk, from Armani to Amish homespun.

But Ehrlich didn't have the time, or the desire, to play belle of the ball. Instead, she approached the task much like any other frantic mother of a toddler might: one-stop shopping. In less than 30 minutes at Octavia, a Pikesville boutique, she picked out and purchased a gown - the first one she tried on.

Created by New York designer Melinda Eng, the dress is sleeveless with a low back and a jeweled belt. "I knew the second I put it on that it was perfect for me," Ehrlich said of the floor-length red dress. "It's simple elegance, and that's my style."

Her husband, Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., has taken a similarly practical approach to his big night: He will wear a classic black tuxedo - one he's had in his closet for years.

"I bought him a new tux for Christmas," said Kendel Ehrlich. "But we couldn't get it back from the dry cleaners in time for him to wear it."

Tonight, all eyes will be on the Ehrlichs to see what - if any - style they will bring to Maryland's new administration. More comfortable in sweat pants than suits, the Ehrlichs haven't exactly positioned themselves as the state's next big style-setters. And as the first Republicans to fill the closets of Government House in 36 years, they have, until now, embodied a very un-Republican style.

"Republicans are generally glamorous, and their look reflects money," said Terry Bell, owner of ILO spa in Georgetown, which caters to the who's who of Washington. "Democrats, as the people's party, don't usually get into fashion as much."

Since the Bush family came to town, however, the traditional tides of Washington fashion have turned. Contrary to the glamorous, country-club style of Republican first couples like Ronald and Nancy Reagan, the Bushes prefer a more down-home look: George W. the Everyman in blue jeans and worn flannel shirts, Laura the librarian in neatly tailored but unremarkable suits.

It's an image that says, "I may be in a position of power, but I'm just like you." It's an image that the Ehrlichs also hope to project.

"I know that people will look to us for style," said Kendel Ehrlich. "And ours will be young and fresh - something people can identify with."

Betsy Dugan, owner and head buyer of Octavia, predicts the Ehrlichs will have a huge impact on style.

"I think they have a fresh, modern look - one with a youthful twist," she said. "They both always look great, and I think people will feel good about the way they dress. She [Kendel] will make people feel how they did when Nancy Reagan was in office."

Shawny Burns of Saks Fifth Avenue agrees: "I think the Ehrlichs are a great-looking couple. They exude vitality and everything that goes with that," she said. "I'm sure that comfort will be key for them, but they are savvy enough to know that what you wear matters when you're in the public eye."

Other style watchers, however, aren't holding their breath as the curtain rises on Maryland's new first family.

"I don't think they'll bring much style, except for something that's preppy and safe," said Ruth Shaw, owner of Ruth Shaw boutique in Baltimore. "They project a good ol' boy look that's sort of - well - dowdy. They have to look good in their position and understand that they can do that without being style mavens."

Whatever their image might become, there's no danger in the Ehrlichs becoming slaves to fashion. Even though Kendel Ehrlich loves clothes, she has no plans to become Maryland's Jackie O.

"I can't pull off frilly or trendy clothes," she said. "I'm a classic dresser. Am I going to upgrade my clothes a little? Yes. But upgrading means I probably won't be in sweats as much anymore!"

Although tonight's gala will surely be a sign of things to come, an inaugural fashion faux pas won't necessarily doom the Ehrlichs to reputations as poorly dressed political players. As Bell points out, there's always room for improvement.

"If they're going wrong, someone will call in help," he said, noting that with advice from image-makers, Hillary Clinton recovered from the much-ridiculed purple ensemble she wore to her husband's first inauguration and emerged as one of the best-dressed women in Washington.

As first lady of Maryland, Kendel Ehrlich will have help with the grocery shopping. She'll have a chauffeur. She'll have decorators redesigning her new mansion. And she'll have help with her style. It's something that comes with being the governor's wife. With being the belle of the ball, like it or not.

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