Worn to Be Wild

updated 06/02/1997 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/02/1997 AT 01:00 AM EDT

IN THE HIT MOVIE AUSTIN POWERS: International Man of Mystery, swingin' spy Mike Myers—who has been frozen in suspended animation since the '60s—sports cravats, lace cuffs and a blue velvet suit. Sidekick Elizabeth Hurley oozes Emma Peel appeal in a silver leather micro-minidress and, later, a clear plastic dress with strategically placed dots. It's a psychedelic send-up that leaves audiences cheerfully shaken and stirred. Says a pleased Myers: "I had my ideas about what my character should wear, but of course Deena came with much better ideas."

That would be Powers costume designer Deena Appel. In a town of thoroughbred clotheshorses, Appel, 34, is a zebra—and perhaps one of the few couturiers who could imagine duds too daring for Myers. "He definitely had a range he wouldn't go beyond," says Appel. "We made some things in paisley he wasn't that comfortable with." To suit the film's campy vision, Appel screened Barbarella and leafed through old Vogue, GQ and LIFE magazines. "Truth is always stranger than fiction," she says. "I think," she concludes, "Austin Powers scared me."

Appel's more subdued offscreen handiworks have also drawn attention. When Patricia Arquette requested an Oscar dress this year, Appel created a curvy black-and-white satin sheath with large embroidered roses that set beholders buzzing. Appel's secret, says Arquette, is her attention to tailoring: "She is fastidious about everything looking perfect." Actress Mimi Rogers, a close friend, says she refused to wear leather until Appel whipped up the perfect little black number for her role in the TV movie A Kiss to Die For. "It was unbelievably sexy," she says. "One of the few times I actually had something in leather that fit perfectly."

Precision is not a new trait. Even as a kid, "I was very opinionated about what I would wear and what I would not wear," says Appel, the daughter of Earl Appel, an apartment builder, and Dale Engelson, who owned a TV-commercial production company (they split when she was 5). Her brother Dan, 30, who produces commercials in New York City, recalls a photo from Deena's elementary school years in which she wore "flared jeans that went straight down and perfectly touched the ground and her three-inch corkies. She would be thoroughly in style and street-savvy today." After high school, Appel became a buyer at Windsor Fashion, a junior clothing chain, and by 20 she was jetting to New York City to arrange million-dollar deals. In 1988, eager to break into showbiz, she apprenticed herself to Vicky Sanchez, a costume designer who was a friend of her mother's, and soon launched a solo career.

Appel, who is divorced after a marriage that lasted from 1984 to 1988, trolls the flea markets around her L.A. town house for inspiration. "She's very big on accessories, and she knows just how to wear them," Rogers says of her friend's "classic, Katharine Hepburn-ish" look. "I really don't like shopping for me," says Appel. "I wear a lot of vintage things mixed in with things I've collected over the years." She admits to "a scary closet" stuffed with three dozen pairs of shoes. "I never have anything to wear, of course," she says, laughing. "It's a girl thing."


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