I'VE NEVER THOUGHT ABOUT CLOTHES SO much in my life!" Hillary Clinton exclaimed to Cliff Chally, the Designing Women costume designer who was helping her pull together a wardrobe for the Democratic National Convention last July. "I've never put this much focus on my image—never!"

"That's why I'm here," Chally replied calmly as he checked out her closet in the Governor's Mansion in Little Rock. "So you don't have to think about it." As he would again six months later for Inauguration week festivities in Washington, D.C., Chally proceeded to tag, label and bag each outfit—down to the accessories—according to the day and the event for which it would be worn. "It worked out great," says Chally, 46, who also helped Hill Clinton select a wardrobe for the debates. "Each outfit had already been fitted. So she just ran into the closet in the morning and unbagged it."

Discussing the few fashion tricks she allows herself is hardly in character for the new First Lady, who acquired them under the tutelage of Harry Thomason and Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, the husband-and-wife producers of Designing Women, Evening Shade and Hearts Afire who are also among the Clintons' best friends. Indeed, as the nation counted down to Inauguration Day, it was apparent that Hillary let others have the discussions for her. The Inaugural Gown Decision, for instance, was played out in the press as a feud between Arkansas designer Helen Benton, who was asked to submit designs, and Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, who supposedly complained that Benton's creations would make Hillary look like Hee Haw. (Bloodworth-Thomason denied making this statement.) Hillary remained safely above the fray.

And yet, fashion pros say that despite her lack of interest in haute couture, Hillary's practical, realistic style will register with American women. Unlike Barbara Bush with Scaasi or Nancy Reagan with Adolfo, the size-8 Hilary has never affiliated herself with a high-end fashion name. "She is not partial to any specific designers, and she does not spend a lot of money on her wardrobe," says Chally. "She loves mixing clothes, taking the blouse from one outfit and wearing it with another. I think people are going to relate to her style. They'll see things that they could go out and buy themselves if they wanted to."

If they do, they will probably Beat Hillary to the racks. She has been a last-minute shopper for most of her life, even buying her wedding dress on the day before her Oct. 11, 1975, nuptials. She went with her mother, Dorothy Rodham, to Dillard's department store in Fayetteville and grabbed a Victorian-style linen dress by Jessica McClintock that satisfied her perfectly.

As she came more into the public eye, however, Hillary began to pay more attention to her image. "I think being the spouse of a Governor, I have to look good," she was conceding by 1987. The most dramatic manifestation of her metamorphosis took place when Hillary lightened her hair and switched from glasses to contact lenses. "I tried wearing contacts from the time I was 16 years old, and I never could get them to work," she says. "I have terrible eyesight. Those glasses were very, very huge. Then they came out with soft, thinner contacts, and it was like a miracle for me."

With the vision thing attended to, the next major alteration came during the presidential campaign, when she had her hair lightened even more and reshaped by Cristophe, the celebrated Beverly Hills hairdresser (see box, page 60). Around the same time, Hillary decided to opt for a more natural-looking makeup palette, on the advice of Little Rock cosmetics consultant Dee Milton.

Revealingly, though, Hillary downplays these changes. "I didn't have a makeover," she insists. "I just changed my hair and have gotten more diligent in the last several years about exercising [she runs, walks, bikes and works out with weights] and all the things we are supposed to do as we get older."

Barbara Baber, owner of Barbara/Jean Ltd., the tony Little Rock boutique where Hillary has shopped for the last dozen years, agrees that the First Lady's style "evolved over time." When she first arrived in Arkansas, says Baber, "she had just gotten out of law school and had not been long in the business world. For a time, she wore little navy suits like lawyers were supposed to 10 years ago. But executive women don't look that way anymore. Hillary always looks beautiful, and she wears her clothes over and over."

Through Baber's shop, Hillary has come to rely on labels such as Randy Kemper (see opposite page), Donna Karan, Sarah Phillips, Joseph Abboud, St. John and Escada. These are names not formerly associated with First Ladies, but nobody expects Hillary to change her ways. "I don't think she's going to turn her back on the people who have always been loyal to her," says Michelle Revere, a buyer for Barbara/Jean. "Let's just say that Barbara/Jean's will continue to have some input."

Little Bock designer and dress-shop owner Connie Fails is another favorite of the new First Lady's. "I keep her measurements on hand, and then I just get in touch with her when I have something," says Fails, whose custom-made suits sell for about $350. "When she comes in, she buys only one at a time. She thinks about what her needs are. She likes conservative suits in colors such as turquoise or jade or red or purple. Sometimes it's hard to find enough color."

What she doesn't like, her inner fashion circle agrees, is to jump on the trends. So designers who have been offering makeover suggestions in magazines shouldn't hold out for a dramatically different Hillary. "She has beautiful hair, nice skin, those huge blue eyes and a nice figure with an especially nice Waist," says Baber. " 'It doesn't take a whole lot to make her look good. But she is not going to be the first person with bell-bottoms. Fashion victim she's not."

ELIZABETH SPORKIN
MARGIE BONNETT SELLINGER in Washington, D.C., and LEAH FELDON-MITCHELL in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Margie Bonnett Sellinger,
  • Leah Feldon-Mitchell.