Reveling in the Lap of Luxury

updated 03/21/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/21/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

Rocker Rick James has 100 sport coats, 300 slacks, 400 pairs of shoes, 20 hats, five fur coats, two huge walk-in closets and one traveling valet who keeps it all straight. "I am," he admits, "a clothesaholic."

James is not alone. His fellow clothesaholics include showbiz stars, society matrons and princesses. They share an uncontrollable urge to buy out boutiques, an understandable inability to decide what to wear, and a compulsion to build closets that could comfortably house a family of four. Theirs is an affliction of the affluent, for in the current economic ennui, only the rich can afford to catch it. It is not terminal, but the only known cure is bankruptcy.

The epidemic shows no signs of abating. The housing industry may be hurting, but designer couture is not. "The economy does not affect a certain segment of the population," says Bill Blass. In Paris, Christian Dior's top-of-the-line sales soared by 20 to 25 percent last year. In Palm Beach, says socialite Mrs. F. Warrington Gillet II, "Women dress better than ever when you have a recession." The poor get poorer, but the rich look richer.

Diana, Princess of Wales, is one of the great shoppers of the world, as her wardrobe, valued at $100,000 to $250,000 (with royal discount), will attest. And she's only just begun. She goes on frequent sprees to London's best stores. But if she doesn't feel like going out, the stores come to her. At British Vogue's offices or at designers' studios, she's treated to private showings; she picks what she wants and has it sewn to order.

With more than three million Britons (almost 14 percent of the labor force) unemployed, some consider her expensive tastes tasteless. But others defend Diana. "The everyday man and woman is bored," says London's Lady Rothermere, no shopping slouch herself. "They want fantasy in life. She has brought some fantasy."

As a supershopper, Diana has considerable competition. When some people say "charge it," a country's gross national product can soar. Sheika Dena Al-Fassi has reportedly confessed that she and her estranged husband, Beverly Hills' former sheik-in-residence, Mohammad, each spent $200,000 a month on clothes. Sammy Davis Jr. is one of the few stars who'll say how much he spends: $50,000 to $100,000 a year.

The stores they go to would just as soon be gagged with a shoehorn as have a sale. There is Christian Dior of Paris, which hawks Russian lynx coats for $150,000 and men's cashmere suits for a comparative bargain of $1,492 (cashmere bathrobes for $100 more). A spokesman for the Valentino boutique in New York concedes, "If people wander in off the street, of course they have a heart attack at the prices"—$3,500 for a simple dress to $15,000 for a beaded jacket. Says Martha Phillips, owner of the Martha Shops (Park Avenue and Palm Beach and Bal Harbour, Fla.): "$40,000 or $50,000 a year is not a lot for a woman to spend on clothes."

The ultimate in excess is unquestionably Bijan, on Beverly Hills' Arabian annex, Rodeo Drive, and soon on New York's Fifth Avenue too. Robert Wagner, O.J. Simpson and Spain's King Juan Carlos shop there for suits that start at $1,500 (including alterations—and bullet-proofing on request), chinchilla bedspreads at $95,000 or cotton shirts that cost $400 and come in throw-away boxes worth $12. Iranian owner Bijan Pakzad boasts that the price of his shirts "is the mortgage payment on a home."

Clothesaholics, of course, do not shop the way everyone else does. Like Di, Lady Rothermere has the merchandise—if not the store—brought to her. She browses the boutiques, then has her chauffeur cart home clothes for her to try on; what she doesn't like he returns. Princess Caroline of Monaco attends Christian Dior's shows and leaves with the designs of house couturier Marc Bohan.

When Nabila Khashoggi and her mother, Saroya, want to spend some of the $100 million Mom reportedly got in an out-of-court settlement from Saudi arms agent Adnan, they go to Saks in Las Vegas—and have the store kept open just for them after hours. At Valentino, Nabila found a "balloon skirt" she liked, so she bought four, one in each color (at $765 apiece).

Bulk buying is not unusual for Arab oil potentates. At Henry Poole & Co. of London, former outfitter to Napoleon III and Winston Churchill, where $955 buys a Tasmanian wool suit, Saudi customers tend to shop every five years and buy 20 suits at a time. The admirals of Greek shipping shop similarly; they keep a complete wardrobe in each of their homes (Athens, Paris, New York, etc.).

The ultimate shopping story belongs, of course, to Bijan. Rick James tells of the time he wandered in: "A real exclusive joint, where the door is locked and there's a receptionist sitting there at this ornate table. When I went there she wouldn't let me in. She said I needed an appointment. So that got me pissed off. The owner came out from the back and recognized me, so I went in, but I was real pissed off and walked in very arrogant, saying, 'Just give me the best stuff you've got.' So they made me one pair of boots and one leather jacket. Later they sent me the bill. It was $8,000!" James was nonplussed when the mail brought him an invitation to return. "Like hell I will!"

Why do clothesaholics spend so much? They have as many reasons as Calvin has jeans. Designer Blass says that expensive clothes are an upper for the upper crust. They used to live by the rule "If you got it, flaunt it." But Ellin Saltzman, fashion director of Saks Fifth Avenue, has overturned that law. "If you have it, wear it," she decrees. "If you don't have it, buy it."

In Italy, they call it "making a bella figura"—strutting your stuff in the piazza. Men even more than women take pains—and expense—with their appearance.

Showing off may be a way of life in Italy, but it is a religion in Texas. "I put a lot of time, effort and thought into how I look," says Phyllis Morrow, the size 4 wife of Houston oil pumper T.C. Morrow. "So I do appreciate it when people take an interest in my appearance." She makes sure they do. At one memorable party, Phyllis proudly modeled a brown sequined hostess gown trimmed in brown feathers plucked from wild turkeys on the Morrows' game preserve. But that wasn't all. Every time a new band came onstage, Phyllis changed gowns. There were three bands.

Some clothesaholics have no shame about flaunting their price tags like millionaire Minnie Pearls. "I may not be the best-dressed," says Margie Korshak, a Chicago PR maven, "but I sure try to spend the most." For Barry Manilow, the price isn't so important as the image; he wants his clothes to say that he's on top of every trend. "Once I see it in Gentlemen's Quarterly," he says, "it's too late."

Others just love clothes for their own sake. Says a designer who knows Dynasty's Joan Collins: "She can have a fever of 103 and she comes to life around clothes." Morocco's King Hassan II, natty to the nines, couldn't stand the sight of a slovenly press corps, so he had them all outfitted, from shirts to socks, at a Moroccan boutique where suits start at $500.

All clothesaholics have particular affection for certain items of apparel. For Morrow, it is hats; she owns 200 and says they are her trademark. She's one rare prisoner of Seventh Avenue who'll admit to wearing jeans—Gloria Vanderbilt jeans that her full-time seamstress spends 200 hours embroidering (one pair is adorned with silk cowpaddies). And she has a thing about shoes—when she finds a pair she likes, she looks for a dress to match.

The shoe fetish is not uncommon. Take, for instance, Arndt Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach, a Palm Beach fixture. He shops in Europe for his white suits and frilly, feminine shirts in pink and green silk. He wears enough jewelry to make Elizabeth Taylor jealous—"because I love to look nice when I go out." But what is most special about his wardrobe is his shoes. "I've installed an elevator in my Palm Beach mansion," he says, "because I hate to walk three flights of stairs in my high-heeled shoes."

Then there's underwear. For Rick James, only silk drawers will do. "They feel soft on my body," he explains. "That cotton crap irritates me." An Italian designer, Carlo Palazzi, tells of a client, "an industrialist, a perfectly normal, macho type. We make his underpants to order and when he comes for his fitting you wouldn't believe, he gets almost hysterical about the pleats in front; if they aren't just so he won't approve them."

Where do these fancies and fetishes all begin? Phyllis Diller, like so many other clothesaholics, caught the bug as a child, when she made clothes for her dolls. "They had wardrobes, oh, such wardrobes," she gushes. So does Phyllis—two rooms filled with clothes. The only thing she doesn't own much of is jewelry—she's been robbed about 19 times.

Bonnie Swearingen, the 50ish Chicago society wife of Standard Oil Company of Indiana chief John Swearingen, 64, also was infected in childhood. "As a minister's daughter," she once said, "I was always with rich little girls"—who had more than she did. As an adult, Bonnie has been known to brag to reporters that she cooks breakfast wearing only emeralds. That's not exactly true, she says now. She says that she often cooks John's breakfast in the buff (and they both eat it that way), but she does not wear her emeralds.

Having bought all these duds, the clothesaholic of course has to have somewhere to put them. The queen of closets is unquestionably Carolyn Farb, wife of big-time Houston landlord Harold Farb. Her closet takes up 2,000 square feet—more than some three-bedroom homes. The first of its six rooms, located off her private beauty salon, holds about 50 evening bags and 90 pairs of shoes, each in its own lighted glass shelf. Next is a sitting room, with sofa, telephone, table, 60 hats, glass-fronted drawers for accessories and 20 pairs of boots, plus enough mirrors to make Narcissus sick of himself. Another room holds her furs (since this is Texas, she has only three), still another room contains her gowns (at least 75, each on a special hanger covered in fabric to match the walls), another her cocktail dresses, another her suits and street dresses. "Easily over 1,000 pieces," says Carolyn. And worth $750,000, according to some conservative figuring.

As she shows a reporter her personal department store, Carolyn says: "I hope this isn't poking fun at all of this. I mean, look at what they did to poor Nancy Reagan, and she was just trying to give this country a good image."

The closet clothesaholic suffers a problem other people dream of having: They can't remember what they own. Marianne Rogers, Kenny's wife, has one solution: "I take pictures of certain favorite things to remember." Sao Schlumburger of Paris society keeps a wardrobe book, marking the date a dress is bought, from whom, where it was worn and who saw it. Others make it easier: They never wear anything more than once.

Sometimes, even the clothesaholic's closet gets just too crammed. So many of them give their castaways to charity. Texas TV personality Marvin Zindler has given his extra suits to prisoners so they can look good at trials. Schlumburger presents hers, complete with matching accessories, to fashion museums around the world.

"I don't want to be terribly frivolous," says Marianne Rogers. "I can't justify compulsive buying." She refuses to wear ostentatious jewelry because it upsets her to think that someone might "take your jewelry so that they could have food. You almost think they deserve it."

Not all clothesaholics are so...well, excessive. Diana Ross loves clothes, but she also delights in making less look like more. She's even designed a half-dozen patterns for Simplicity (heaven forbid a clothesaholic should actually sew). Still, Ross spends upwards of $50,000 a year on everything from Maximillian furs to gowns by Saint Laurent.

Sammy Davis Jr. says he has to spend money on clothes because "to dress neatly and nicely on the stage is as important now as being flamboyant was in the old days, the '60s and '70s." But he tries to keep his perspective. "You can stand on 42nd and Broadway, wave at a cab and have it pass you by even though you're Sammy Davis Jr. in a mink coat."

Some clothesaholics even enjoy being sloppy. For instance, Stavros Niarchos entertained a group of friends at his Normandy chateau one Sunday last year wearing an old bathrobe.

Houston's Zindler, the man who forced the closing of Texas' best little whorehouse and made it famous, is the oddest sort of clothesaholic. He wears polyester—and he's actually proud of it. "I know a guy who buys $1,000 suits from Neiman-Marcus and he looks like a damn slob," Marvin says. "Polyester is the miracle fabric of this century." That may be going too far.

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