Sprinkling the Stressful '90s with '60s Sass, New Mom Charlotte Neuville Shimmies to the Top of the Racks

updated 06/25/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/25/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Madonna adopted a Breathless pose above wool-crepe pants and matching sweater set for a magazine photo session. Ivana Trump ordered one of her snazzy checked coat and twill trousers ensembles. And an unusually zaftig Sigourney Weaver made a point of squeezing into a front-row seat at her most recent fashion show—even though it took place the day the actress's first child was due.

Still, it isn't her burgeoning celebrity clientele that makes Charlotte Neuville a name to watch for in the '90s, but her simpatico designs for real women. "What she has to offer are clothes that work in more ways than one, which is the thing that women really want today," says Maria Zegart, a divisional merchandising manager for the Spiegel catalog. The catalog has offered Neuville designs to 5 million readers this spring because, says Zegart, "A woman can look polished at work in one of her jackets, and throw the same jacket on over a pair of jeans."

Call her Neuville-riche. After a dozen years in the business, the last 3½ designing under her own label, Neuville, 38, is jogging close to Klein and Karan. Sales of her sleek clothes, carried by such upscale stores as Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus, have increased 50 percent this year. And her $3,100 beaded "shimmy" minidresses were the sleeper of the April fashion shows.

It's no accident that Neuville, who thinks of herself as her own best customer, appeals to the thirtysomething (her favorite TV show) generation of urban and suburban nesters. "Thank God I'm a designer," says the working mother of 6-month-old Nell, "because I don't have time to shop."

When she became pregnant last year, Neuville and her husband, Ken Merlo, 36, then a vice president of her company, fled their apartment in Manhattan's Greenwich Village to rent a quiet, century-old clapboard house in the Connecticut suburbs. There, in their scarce free time, the couple fish in the trout stream that runs through their backyard, tend their vegetable garden, give cozy Saturday night dinner parties for friends—who include several costume designers and writers—and continually change their interior design (the house is currently painted the same spice colors as Neuville's new line).

Not that their life-style is at all typical of couples with two percolating careers. Neuville was back at work within two weeks of Nell's birth, summoning her assistants and models to her home while she recovered from a cesarean section. Merlo, on the other hand, resigned from his position at Neuville's company to become a temporary house-husband. "I have a newfound respect for what our mothers did," he says. "At the end of the day, I would say, 'It's 8 o'clock, and I've gotten nothing accomplished. How do people do this?' " Yet in May, when he accepted a new job as manager of the special-order tailoring department at Alfred Dunhill, he turned Nell over with great regret to the nanny he had hired. "I have real bad pains missing her," Merlo says. "I call home three or four times a day. Charlotte doesn't call at all."

Neuville is preoccupied during work hours with what she calls "my first baby," the profession that has attracted her "since I was making clothes for my Barbie dolls." The daughter of Jacques, a German-born retail executive, and Christiane, a French-born homemaker turned high school counselor, Neuville and younger sister Madeleine grew up in Sausalito, Calif. After graduating from Williams College with a degree in art and then from the Parsons School of Design, she trained at Perry Ellis, Adrienne Vittadini and Jones New York. While working as a designer at Outlander in 1984, she met Merlo in line at the movies. They had both arrived an hour early for a showing of Reuben, Reuben. "I knew I wanted to marry her the moment I saw her," Merlo says. "But she was wearing an enormous man's coat, and I was relieved when I noticed her without it in the popcorn line because she easily could have weighed 250 pounds."

When they married the following year, Ken quit his job as a real estate lawyer to help Charlotte start her company. Today, though, he's happy to have a separate career. "You can go to bed with your business partner instead of your wife," Merlo says, "and I didn't want that."

Candlelit tables in the living room for Ken-cooked dinners à deux ensure that the love affair will continue. "I feel incredibly fulfilled," says Neuville, warming a bottle for her baby in the afternoon light of her country kitchen. "I have the best of both worlds. I enjoy designing more than ever, but what I get back from Nell is so much more immediate." After all, it will be another four months before she's ready to unveil her next collection. A smile from Nell will be along any minute.

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