With Flowers as Her Trademark, Fashion Designer Rachel London's Career Goes into Full Bloom

UPDATED 05/08/1989 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 05/08/1989 at 01:00 AM EDT

She may look like a walking floral bouquet, but Rachel London is no shrinking violet. Last year when she heard that Madonna was to appear on the televised Tony Awards ceremony, she bicycled over to the Manhattan theater where the actress was performing, announced to the guard that she was Madonna's personal designer and breezed into her dressing room with a gown she had whipped together for the event. "This is the dress you should wear tomorrow," she told the startled star. And as it turned out, Madonna turned up the next night in London's slinky black dress festooned with roses. With an audience of 28 million tuned to the telecast, the frock was better than a billboard in announcing the designer's arrival.

Since she made her showroom debut two years ago—at age 23—London has attracted a following that includes actress Lisa Bonet, singer Cyndi Lauper and comedian Sandra Bernhard. She is "the future of fashion," says Bernhard, who praises London's clothes as "funny, sexy and intelligent." But not discreet; when David Letterman saw Bernhard in one of the designer's signature flower outfits on his show, he inquired, "Is it flameproof?"

They are, for the moment at least, certainly hot. "When I first presented her designs to my buyers, they thought I was off the wall," says clothing merchandiser Bernard Ozer. "But you have to be able to look into the eye of the storm—or the heart of the artichoke. Rachel has tremendous potential. She's going to be one of our perennials."

And perennials, of course, are London's passion. Using a 200-pound riveting machine, she sticks polyester posies, roses, daisies and carnations on everything from formfitting gowns to black thigh-high stockings. They're on jumpsuits, on jeans, on Zsa-Zsa-kinis (that's a bikini with hearts and flowers), even on fake-fur coats. "I've always called what I do ha-ha couture," London says. "It's a spoof on high fashion. The fun part is that you don't have to spend $10,000 on something that's so ornate it's not wearable and not sexy." But her prices aren't exactly K Mart either. A popular flower-fur coat is $1,200, and a bolero festooned with roses—like the one Madonna wore over her Tony's gown—is $835.

London's fashion sense began, in part, with the old Laugh-In TV show. Her father, Marc London, was a writer for Rowan and Martin, the show's hosts, but it was Goldie Hawn's body-paint flowers and Henry Gibson's signature posy that caught her eye. By her grade school days in L.A., she had developed her own eccentric style and had become, she admits, "real particular." Her mother, Judy, 52, now remarried, recalls one family party when London "wanted long hair, so she insisted on wearing black stocking tights on her head."

After graduating from high school in 1982, London went to the Rhode Island School of Design but quickly dropped out. "The teacher compared my work to a wet dishrag," she says, almost happily. Making her way to New York, she found work as a boutique saleswoman, a junior designer in a sportswear company and, during one low point, she says, "I got a really great job working with coats. I checked them during lunchtime at Cipriani's restaurant." All the while, though, she schemed to get her own creations off the drawing board and into circulation.

Then Barney's New York, the Manhattan clothing store, placed an order in 1987 and gave her designs a window. Bloomingdale's and Saks Fifth Avenue fell next. This year London and her tiny staff of two full-time assistants expect an estimated $150,000 in sales in both the U.S. and abroad.

For all that, she hasn't stopped bunking in the Manhattan loft where her business is based, nor has she given up the daily Buddhist chant that she credits with keeping her head clear. "It's about 50 small pages, and you have to recite it in Japanese five times over," she says. "When my mother calls after I've finished, she says my voice sounds like 'aaargh.' "

That may soon be the sound gasped by London's competitors as well. With high-profile stars now sporting her designs, she expects to open her first boutique in Los Angeles this summer, another in Tokyo this fall and hopes next to put her designs on bedspreads, rugs, shoes, hair ornaments and even press-on fingernails. Nothing, apparently, is safe. As a gift for her father last Christmas, London created a special pair of red plaid boxer shorts overlaid with roses. It has inspired her, she says, to design for the older man. Who's next? "George Burns, of course."

—Harriet Shapiro, Martha K. Babcock in New York

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