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  • Column:

    Making a fashion statement

    By MARY JO MELONE

    ©St. Petersburg Times, published July 17, 1997


    "We don't have Versace, but we do have The Suit," saleswoman Judy Whittlesey said.

    The Suit?

    She pointed with one French-manicured finger across the designer department at the Jacobson's in Hyde Park.

    There it was, a copy of the suit worn by Deborah Lyons last Friday as her minister husband Henry said there was nothing fishy about his owning a $700,000 beach house with another woman. So what, I suppose, if his wife was arrested on charges of setting fires in it.

    While the Rev. Lyons made his splendidly self-serving remarks, his wife stood mute next to him in a St. John Knits suit. The price tag on the identical suit in Jacobson's read $850.

    "But she didn't buy it here," Judy Whittlesey said.

    The pink suit, flecked with iridescent thread, is trimmed in black. A black bow covers the point of the jacket's V-neck. Just what a woman who looks to have flipped over her husband's suspected infidelity and then said he's wonderful would wear: The suit sends a message that the woman in it wants to have things both ways.

    The suit's overall lines suggest a power suit. The color and bow shout that this is the get-up of a woman who would do anything rather than be a threat.

    There has been some high-minded talk since the Rev. Lyons' news conference that some congregations of black churches want their ministers living and dressing well and don't begrudge them a Mercedes or a fine house or a designer suit. Church members are said to take vicarious pleasure and pride in their preacher's cushy existence.

    It's also been said that this is kooky as hell. I disagree. People who will never be rich have always identified with the rich. It's a self-defense mechanism. Otherwise, most of us would go crazy with frustration at never getting ahead.

    So Ross Perot's followers are working class. Kmart customers can't get enough of Martha Stewart's sheets.

    And we'll soak up every word on Tuesday's murder of designer Gianni Versace in that kingdom of hip, Miami Beach, even though the killing has no impact on the life of anybody outside his family or the fizzy world of high fashion.

    St. John Knits are sold in several bay-area boutiques, as well as Jacobson's. They're meant for the monied woman who lives in a world where it is crucial to be fashionable and not offend anybody.

    You can't buy Versace in Tampa Bay, except his $175-and-up sunglasses. His clothes are too far out, which is another way of saying we're too dull.

    Judy Whittlesey said that a few years ago, Jacobson's sold some of his jeans. Forget denim: A woman paid $400 to wear pants made in a loud fabric meant to copy '60s-ish psychedelic art.

    Jacobson's never tried Versace again.

    Since Deborah Lyons and her husband faced the cameras, the St. John suit she wore has been the subject of almost as much sharp reaction among some Jacobson's customers as those jeans.

    "We don't know whether to throw darts at it or take it down," Whittlesey said.

    They are not taking it down, of course. Somebody else will buy it. Somebody always does, just nobody you know.

    As for Versace, I kept looking for his stuff. They'll be collector's items soon. I looked high and low, even at thrift stores, including Sunshine Thrift Store on S Dale Mabry in Tampa, which likes to call itself "Your First Class Second Hand Store."

    I went straight to the gown rack. Versace was famous for his gowns. Remember the photo of actor Elizabeth Hurley all but falling out of hers?

    The rack was packed with cast-off bridesmaid dresses in jewel-tone taffetas and polyesters.

    This was Red Tag Day at the store. Gowns with red tags were half off and selling for as little as $15. They're just the thing for wearing when you daydream about living like the Lyonses or dancing on Miami Beach.


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