With Faith and Enough Sequins, Says Tony Chase, Any Woman Can Look Like Hedy Lamarr

updated 03/10/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/10/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

In Upper New York Bay, the Statue of Liberty welcomes the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. In the world of haute couture, flamboyant designer Tony Chase extends an equally passionate welcome to fashion refugees, those whose amply proportioned masses leave them yearning to breathe without popping their girdles. "I take the victims, the ones who couldn't get anything out of Jane Fonda or Raquel Welch," says Chase. "I don't design for the 17-year-old girl who hasn't lived. I design for the woman with a past who wants a future. My women have waists that are thicker, breasts that are lower. They've had kids and they've had pain. They are ladies who have earned their wrinkles. I want a woman who doesn't feel secure about herself, and I will transform her into a goddess."

The goddess business has been very good to Chase, 33, who doesn't design only for larger women. For years he's provided surface sizzle to, among others, Victoria Principal, Morgan Fairchild, Liz Taylor and Bette Midler, who was married in a gray chiffon Chase gown. But lately he has taken a special interest in the unfashionable physique, to the delight of his customers and his bankers. Last year he sold $4 million worth of his $2,500-and-up couture dresses, and he plans to introduce a line of ready-to-wear clothing this fall. Says singer and Chase customer Patti LaBelle: "Tony designs for women of substance with lots of curves. I do have a lot of curves, thank God, and he knows how to accent them. Instead of making clothes for models, he makes them for women." Says fellow singer Jennifer Holliday: "I trust his opinion. If he says something looks fabulous, I feel untouchable."

Chase's designs tend toward the exotic, employing just about everything from Ming the Merciless collars to flapper fringes and spangled hoods. For the unslim he uses dolman sleeves and drop waists to help camouflage the negative. A self-described "fashion therapist," he believes that addressing his clients' psyches can be as important as dressing their bodies. "If someone is constantly victimized by the media and told they're not okay because they're old or not blond or the wrong size or they don't have a big enough bust, that's wrong," says Chase, who travels seven months a year in an effort to meet and talk to as many clients as possible. "You either lose weight or you deal with it and learn to love it. If I can convince a woman that it doesn't really matter that she's not Farrah Fawcett, then I'm doing more than being some tacky superficial designer."

Chase, who recently moved his base of operations from New York to L.A., is himself something of an exotic. A visit to his home finds him decked out in parachute pants, braided hair and a linoleum-print headband. He is sipping champagne in a room dominated by larger-than-life canvases of Josephine Baker, Joan Crawford and Hedy Lamarr. A dabbler in all things mystical, Chase, who says he is psychic, speaks about ions and positive energy in clothes, and about being a Scorpio. He is also an admitted and enthusiastic sensualist. One manifestation of the latter is that he lines all of his own clothes with silk: "There's nothing more fabulous than the wonderful feeling of silk rubbing against you all day." Chase says he views himself as "a Black Chinese American Indian. I was regressed several years ago under hypnosis and found that I'd been all three in different lifetimes."

In this lifetime Chase was born in New York. Before he was 10, he'd spent four years in an orphanage while his parents went through complicated divorce and custody battles. Though he eventually was reunited with his mother, he says that the dismal orphanage experience inspired his lifelong interest in glamour, fantasy and movies. "Back then I'd take my cats and wrap them around my neck and pretend they were fur," he says. "They felt so warm."

Chase stumbled into fashion. He studied psychology at New York's Hunter College but dropped out to pursue acting. That didn't pan out, but a series of odd jobs led to a gig as singer Grace Jones' road manager. Her outrageous clothing inspired him to try designing and—starting with a line of furs and fur accessories—he gradually began to attract a clientele. "I got attention from women who wanted to get attention," says Chase. "I knew how to turn heads, and that's what celebrities want." One celebrity who wanted Chase's designs was Mick Jagger, but the two parted company after a while. "I told him his T-shirt rock 'n' roll image was tired and to forget it," says Tony. "I was going to make him half man and half animal but he got scared and went back to the tried and true."

As he concludes his interview, Chase passes under the life-size portrait of Louise Brooks, a film fatale of the '20s. "Everyone wants to look like a movie star. I know it sounds superficial, but it's not. There's nothing wrong about putting on a fabulous dress at home and pretending you are Diana Ross. The ultimate high is to walk into a room and be fussed over. Egos do matter."

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