THE DAUGHTER OF FORMER COMEDY WRITER JERRY Segal and nightclub singer Ann Benson Segal, and the sister of actor-turned-director Robby Benson, Shelli Segal had performing in her blood—but not in her heart. Appearing at age 6 in a summer stock production of The King and I, she recalls, "I would get hysterical crying when the king would die every night. So I knew showbiz wasn't for me."

Try and tell that to Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Sarah Michelle Cellar, Friends' Jennifer Aniston and a slew of other prime-time players for whom Segal's signature clothing line, Laundry by Shelli Segal, has become the label of choice. The X-Files' Gillian Anderson faces the supernatural in Segal's cardigans, while Melissa Joan Hart—Sabrina the Teenage Witch—casts spells in the designer's racy microminis and leather dresses. "Her styles are simple and sexy," says Téa Leoni, star of NBC's The Naked Truth. "She's a terrific talent." Notes brother Robby: "Whenever I meet an actress on a set, I always say, 'You'd look good in Laundry by Shelli Segal' Nepotism is a great thing—if it's deserved."

The public apparently agrees. Segal's designs—from a $48 ribbed-rayon cardigan to a $400 beaded-mesh evening gown—are high on the lists of shoppers at stores such as Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus, and generated some $100 million in sales in 1997. Segal thinks she knows why. "My clothes are wearable, sexy, new," says the reed-thin designer, 43, who is partial to tight flared pants and clunky platforms. But, she adds, "they're not costumes. I'm very much rooted in reality."

How come? Raised on Manhattan's Upper West Side, Segal says, "I grew up in nightclubs. My childhood memories are of seeing my mother onstage in sexy costumes looking like Marilyn Monroe. I guess I rebelled by being square." An artistic child who learned to sew from her grandmother, Segal practiced on her teddy bear. "I started by cutting his Peter Pan collar off," she says. "I never did like Peter Pan collars." Then she went to work on herself. As a student at the High School of Music and Art, she says, "when everyone was wearing short skirts, I'd wear long ones. I was an outcast."

Graduating in 1972, Segal enrolled at the State University of New York at Purchase. But as a freshman, in woodworking class, she sliced off her left index finger with a circular saw. Dropping out of school while recuperating from plastic surgery on her hand, Segal says, "gave me a sense of immediacy and urgency. I was always interested in fashion—so I went for it."

A nine-month crash course at Manhattan's Mayer School of Fashion Design landed Segal, then 19, a job at a small company designing what she calls "hot little things for young women." Seven years later she followed her brother and parents to L.A., where she designed kids' clothes and sportswear before Laundry's president, Rea Lac-cone, hired her in 1991. "I have a percentage, I get a salary, my name is on the label," says Segal. "I'm happy."

And harried. Even with the help of a nanny, who lives with them in a modern four-bedroom Hollywood Hills home, Segal and her husband of 11 years, graphic designer Moshé Elim-elech, 50, have their hands full with twin girls Dena and Sam, who arrived 21 months ago. "Since the babies were born," says Segal, "Moshé and I have gone out to dinner twice—and that was on our birthdays."

Segal, naturally, has put her stamp on the girls' wardrobe, which includes black biker boots and tank tops. "I can't stand frills," she says. "I want them to look tough. So those are my girls—little biker chicks." As for those stars wearing her outfits, she rarely catches their acts. "Sesame Street is the only TV we watch," she says. "It comes on at 6 a.m."

DAN JEWEL
STEVEN COJOCARU in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Steven Cojocaru.