She could put on a laundry bag and look chic. Vittadini's fail-safe sense of style has turned the clothing company she started as a "glorified hobby" in 1979 into a $180 million-a-year design empire. But though her client roster boasts Candice Bergen, Kim Basinger and Joan Lunden, Vittadini, 47, has long been her own best advertisement. Called "beautiful, well-heeled and talented" by Women's Wear Daily
, she remembers herself as a "tall, thin and gawky" 12-year-old when her family fled Budapest during the 1956 Hungarian Revolution and settled in Philadelphia. "Beauty and vanity were de-emphasized" in Eastern Europe, she says, but in America she was "drawn to art. I loved painting and, of course, I loved clothes." She began meshing the two at Moore College of Art. "What I do now, the way I mix colors and use yarn, is a wonderful marriage of a certain painterly expression and fashion." Her other blissful union is with Italian-born Gianluigi "Gigi" Vittadini, 53, who manages her firm.
Success, like beauty, fits her nicely. "As you get older, your beauty shifts," she notes. "Makeup definitely helps if you are not 18 and blessed with a healthy glow, but you know who you are, you have more confidence—and that attitude is what makes you beautiful." Vittadini is now turning another hobby, decorating (she's done her own houses in Manhattan, the Hamptons, Florida and northern Italy), into a home-furnishings line. Sometimes it's good not to be so clothes-minded.