PREPARING FOR AN APPEARANCE on Late Show with David Letter-man last summer, Jamie Lee Curtis called her pal designer Pamela Dennis for a knockout outfit. Problem was, the skintight, supershort black dress Dennis sent wasn't quite revealing enough for the body-conscious Curtis. "She said she wanted it three inches shorter," recalls Dennis with a laugh. "I said, 'Three inches shorter and it's a top!' " Exactly! When Curtis sashayed onstage, a wide-eyed Dave said, "Man...that is one happenin' dress!"
It's a reaction Curtis—and others, including Kelly Preston, Rita Wilson and Paramount studio chief Sherry Lansing—hope to duplicate come March 27, Oscar night, as they compete in the evening's other contest, the fashion sweepstakes. "Pamela understands that women like to have a little glitter," says Curtis, "and she knows how to do it in a simple but elegant way."
The 34-year-old designer earns such praise with evening wear that's a favorite of other buff beauties like Heather Locklear
, Demi Moore
, Daisy Fuentes and Whitney Houston. That kind of success could give a designer a swelled head—more so if, as is the case with Dennis, she's as eye-catching as some of her customers. "She's a beautiful woman, and beautiful women can be intimidating," says client-turned-close-pal singer Anita Baker, who has packed nine Dennis dresses to wear onstage for her current tour. "They can also be pretentious if they have her reputation. She's none of that."
The youngest of three children born in Springfield, N.J., to Hal, a former representative for Cellular One electronics (he died of cancer last month), and his wife, June, a homemaker, Dennis got an early start designing. "I would cut up my clothes and change them around," she says. "My mother would say, 'I dropped you off at school wearing one thing, and when I picked you up, you were wearing something entirely different.' "
Dennis was known as well-dressed when she graduated from Newark Academy in 1979 (her yearbook photo caption read, "fashion, fashion, fashion"), but she was not directed. "At the time," she says, "fashion was more about going shopping and what to wear Saturday night." She bounced from Syracuse University to Boston University before earning a political science degree from New York University in 1983. She then began cramming for the law school entrance exams. "My brother is a lawyer," she explains, "and it seemed like a respectable profession."
But fate, in the form of an invitation to a black-tie wedding, intervened. Unable to find a dress to wear, she sketched her dream outfit—a slim black sheath with marabou feathers down the back—and hired a tailor to create it. So beautiful was the final product that another guest, a stylist, asked to use the creation in a De Beers diamond ad, alongside dresses by Valentino and Chanel. Within the next few months, Dennis was asked by other stylists to make six more formal dresses that appeared in commercials for Clinique, Charlie perfume and Citizen watches. She showed the designs to a buyer at New York City's tony Henri Bendel department store—and wound up with a $23,000 order. "No one was doing understated evening wear," she says. "It was the time of Bill Blass, Oscar de la Renta and big ball gowns. I filled a niche." With an additional $25,000 investment from her parents, she hired a handful of employees and set up shop in her father's office in Manhattan's garment district. "I kind of felt my way through with no knowledge," she says. "My father's accountant was definitely scared."
Now with her gowns gracing the covers of fashion bibles like Vogue and Women's Wear Daily (prices range from $600 to $8,000), Dennis expects sales of $7 million this year, up from last year's $4 million. "Customers like the kind of glamor I do," she says. "Glamorous clothes are body-complimentary, so you feel confident, and when you're confident you have a great time."
Upgrading in 1993 into Bob Mackie's former Seventh Avenue studio, Dennis stays busy crisscrossing the country holding her 22 annual trunk shows and is making plans to launch a line of less expensive gowns and sportswear in the fall. That pace leaves Dennis little time to spend with her husband of eight years, Andy Rothstein, 35, an estate planner and former high school classmate, and cat Chloe at their cozy, bright West Orange, N.J., condo. But even when she's relaxing (antique shopping and watching old Rita Hayworth movies are favorite pastimes), Dennis can't stop thinking about clothes. "If we're out to dinner and there are paper napkins, Pam starts drawing on them," says Rothstein. "Soon the whole table is covered with a collection."
For Dennis, it's not just the creative impulse that drives her. "I've always been the kind of person who wanted to make people happy," says Dennis. "Sometimes I get thank-you notes from husbands saying, 'Your dress made our night.' That kind of stuff gives me chills."
LOIS ARMSTRONG in Los Angeles and FANNIE WEINSTEIN in Detroit