After a Rough Start, Designer Diane Freis Hopped Aboard the Orient Express to Success
Diane Freis loves you" reads the diamond-shaped tag that dangles from thousands of dresses. It could also read: "Diane Freis means business." Since the 32-year-old designer started manufacturing in a rat-infested factory in Hong Kong six years ago, her ruffly, one-size-fits-all frocks have billowed into a business that now grosses a tidy $2 million a year. In Hong Kong alone, she has four boutiques scattered throughout the fanciest parts of town. Stateside, such discriminating Hollywood types as Carol Burnett, Polly Bergen and Joanna Carson slip into Diane's diaphanous georgette designs splashed with wild floral and geometric patterns.
Delightful as having celebrated clients may be, Freis claims she's actually smitten with a different kind of customer. "I design for real women," she explains. "Real women gain and lose weight and they do not always conform to magazine standards of beauty." In the U.S., Freis sells her airy dresses, priced at from $350 to $700, to such top department stores as Bonwit Teller and Neiman-Marcus.
Many mornings Freis arrives ahead of her staff at headquarters in one of Hong Kong's newest office buildings. Diane has acquired a bit of pidgin Cantonese to communicate with the 70 workers in her company, but she relies heavily on her pattern maker and production manager, both of whom are bilingual. Though her factory in Kowloon is now producing some 2,000 dresses a month, Freis still insists on personally selecting all the fabrics in her mix-and-match designs.
The hectic streets of Hong Kong are a long way from the L.A. suburb of Westwood, where Diane was raised. (Big sister Susan is her U.S. business manager.) Diane plunged into the fashion world after she graduated with a degree in fine arts from UCLA in 1972. In Hollywood she acquired an underground reputation for her denim jackets decorated with feathers, studs and antique fabrics. Then on her first buying trip to the Orient in 1973—she was hunting down offbeat fabrics—Freis fell hard for the place. Six months later she had pulled up stakes and returned to Hong Kong for good. Those early years, she allows, were rough. "I was just making ends meet and I missed my family," she says. "But I always knew if I fell flat on my face they would pick me up."
They didn't have to. Freis brought down the house at Hong Kong's Ready-to-Wear Festival in 1977, and from then on orders poured in.
These days Freis is finally allowing herself a few luxuries. Every night after work her chauffeur-driven blue BMW whisks Diane to her nine-room penthouse in the hills above the harbor. She lives there with her new husband, 24-year-old Richard Bradley, a detective inspector with the Royal Hong Kong Police Force.
Earlier this year Diane worked into the wee hours of the morning designing the gown for her June 8 wedding. It was an airy white-on-white jacquard georgette dress. And you can be sure the new Mrs. Richard Bradley hasn't had time for a honeymoon. She's been too busy turning out copies of her gown for other summer brides.
On Newsstands Now
- Amy Robach: 'I'm Lucky to Be Alive'
- Paul Walker: Inside His Tragic Death
- Julia Roberts: Choosing Family Over Hollywood
Pick up your copy on newsstands
Click here for instant access to the Digital Magazine