At the center of the storm, Bill's wife, Millie, 32, a sometime actress and his adviser-factotum, stood resplendent in white Kaiserman pants and blazer, calmly sipping white wine. "I wasn't always this way," she admits. "I used to have to do everything for Bill from helping with the books and the fabrics to pinning up the models. Now every task is delegated." Well, almost every task, since a certain amount of backstage tumult is de rigueur in the fashion big time, and the Kaisermans' label, Rafael, has indeed arrived.
Already known for his menswear line, Bill, 36, made a Ralph Lauren-like move into women's clothes three years ago. His retail volume has hit $12 million, thanks to his elegant but not absurdly pricey European-made sportswear and suits. His broad-shouldered chenille jacket, at $350, was hot last fall, and he's just released a trendy line of sexy one-piece bathing suits ($65). By fall, says New York Times arbiter Carrie Donovan, "he will be one of the hottest names around."
The Kaiserman partnership really began eight years ago in L.A. Millie (born Mildred Jo Lyons in Louisiana) was just divorced from a contractor, scrambling on the fringes of showbiz and working at a chic Beverly Hills men's store, Eric Ross & Company. Bill, a dropped out actor himself from Brooklyn, walked into Ross's peddling an embryonic line of his own leather clothes and imported French sportswear. He barely got his boot in the door before he and Millie eyed each other. "He had on dark sunglasses, high black boots with pants tucked in and carried this whip in his bag," she recalls. The whip was a prop of his theatrical approach to marketing, and, Millie admits, "I thought he was the sexiest thing I'd seen—but a little scary. All I could think of was Charles Manson." Bill was less ambivalent: "My life was filled with beautiful women, believe me. But I saw her and said, 'My God!' "
They spent the next two days in Millie Lyons' den. And after he tried to split for a night off Bill realized: "That girl had me crazy. She was the first woman who put her foot down and said, 'Straighten out.' " After a few idylls in New York and L.A.—and a business-cum-pleasure trip to Europe—Kaiserman asked her to move in. "As your girlfriend or your wife?" demanded Millie. "Er, as my wife, I guess," he said. They married in 1971.
"I'd have wound up in Morocco as a bum, but Millie brought out the serious side of me," Kaiserman concedes. He had already bounced from studying acting with Uta Hagen and a few off-Broadway roles to the beginning of the Rafael line (he chose the name because it sounded elegant). In Italy he found the craftsmen and fabrics to manufacture his designs, but he was broke. So, to convince a Milanese firm to make menswear for him on credit, Kaiserman tried a small scam, inviting the Italian rep to his tiny office in Manhattan. "Millie became the receptionist and had her girlfriends call up all morning to place orders," he says. "My friends kept walking in to look at the line," he says. "It was so much nonsense, but the guy was delighted. I got the credit."
Now that Rafael is established, Millie wants to return to showbiz. In L.A. she had walked on in the original Laugh-In as one of the body-graffiti girls ("No speaking lines, just the only black girl at the party") and played a small part on the short-lived Don Knotts Show. (Recalls Bill: "I thought when I met her, 'Wow, she's a big movie star, and she'd give that up for me!' ") In addition to taking acting lessons, Millie is now also working on singing in hopes of debuting next summer with two pals, Sarah Dash, ex of Labelle, and another neophyte, Margaux Hemingway.
Bill still relies on his wife to mediate office crises precipitated by his volcanic temper. Millie herself sometimes gets a dose of it when she forgets to lay out a clean T-shirt or her chauvinist baby's favorite scarf in the morning. It's not easy being Kaiserman's chief muse and critic. "If I don't tell him, 'Honey, that's great!' for each design, he gets depressed," she reports.
What has kept their marriage fresh past the "seventh year—the danger year," as Millie terms it, is constant but brief separations. Bill is in Europe half the time. "He'll call me from Milan and say he's just come back from Nepentha [an in disco]," Millie says. "I'll say I just walked in from Studio 54." Then she adds, "I generally go out with gay guys when he's away." Bill insists close work with delectable models doesn't stir him. "When I deal with models, they're just bodies," he says. "If I start with a naked woman and put pieces of cloth together on her, it gives her an allure. I do something until I say, 'Wow, that's it! I want to carry you away.' " But then, Bill adds, "I say, 'Good, now put your clothes on.' When I see her in her real-life clothes, chewing gum, I know she's no one I'd really like to have dinner with."
Both are blunt about not wanting children. "I don't see any reason to compromise my life for the sake of someone else," says Bill. Concurs Millie: "I'm much too selfish and into doing my own thing. It's unfair to bring a child into the world in my circumstance. What is the benefit of giving the baby to nannies?" The interracial aspect isn't the issue, and they've had surprisingly few problems for an alliance between what Bill calls "a black girl from California who likes Fat Burgers and a Brooklyn boy who downs egg creams." He has not always been close with his parents, a textile executive and a fabric designer, but he blends in easily with Millie's nine siblings and innumerable cousins. She, when phoning his mother, begins, "Hi, it's your colored daughter-in-law."
Bill's esthetic comes from his mother, whose family designed the Laverne furniture in the Museum of Modern Art. "Millie," he wails, "would come home with these average-looking paintings to hang on the wall, and we'd start a battle. She would cry, 'They're part of me, things I love.' I'd say, 'Well, why don't you love something with more quality?' " Bill, for his part, never owned a watch until he could afford the Cartier he felt was the ultimate. They can afford it now. The markup on Rafael rags runs up to 75 percent, and the Kaisermans now own an elegant townhouse on Beekman Place, replete with toys like a trampoline, pinball machine and sauna.
As for Millie's revived ambitions, Bill admits that if her career occupied her life to the exclusion of him, "I'm not sure how I'd feel." Both, in fact, are romantic realists. "Bill says we'll be together forever," says Millie. "I say, 'No, Bill.' We'll be together for as long as it lasts."
Frenzy had already become chaos backstage at Bill Kaiserman's spring fashion showing. The models, in various states of deshabille, milled around waiting for a hairdresser who, it developed, never showed. Kaiserman's art director—a typhoon of energy in her neon-pink and leopard outfit—screeched: "Where's the red lipstick? Get the models out of the bathroom. Move. Move. MOVE!" Kaiserman himself had worked up an aureola of sweat around his scraggly beard. "Listen, Daniella," he thundered at the art director. "Grab the models by the hair if you want, but please, please, STOP SCREAMING IN MY EAR!"