06/02/1997 at 01:00 AM EDT
WHEN MARC BOUWER WAS STARTING OUT AS A DESIGNER IN Manhattan, he emphasized soft, loose shapes. That changed when Raquel Welch became a client. "This was in the early '80s," says the South African-born Bouwer, 35, "when people were very thin and models were like washboards." Welch, then as now, was anything but. "When she put on my clothes," says Bouwer, "I was, like, 'Whoa!' Something clicked. I said, 'I'm going to do tight, sexy clothes.' "
Mission more than accomplished. Bouwer's dresses, so body-hugging they've been compared to bathing suits, have cleaved to the curves of such formidable celebs as Whitney Houston, Diana Ross and Sigourney Weaver. But it's pop diva Toni Braxton who, turning up in some of Bouwer's slinkiest designs, has given him maximum exposure. In January the singer—at 98 lbs. and 5'2", "one of the most amazing bodies that I've dressed," says the designer—was a sensation at the American Music Awards in a white matte jersey gown cut down to there in back and in front. In February she accepted two Grammys wearing a sinuous column of white sueded velvet. "Marc is fabulous," says Braxton, who often collaborates on her gowns. Still it takes confidence to hit the runway in a backless haltertop, as Braxton did at Bouwer's New York City show in April. "And if you're not confident," she says, "you can't let anyone know."
Quality time on the StairMaster might help. "Bouwer is for the woman who works out," says Patricia Dreier, manager of couture at Saks Fifth Avenue in Denver, where shoppers toned from the slopes pay an average of $2,500 for one of his clingy creations. Bouwer, who has dubbed his look the new athletic glamor, makes no bones about his demands. "I became a designer," he says bluntly, "because I wanted to dress the best bodies."
As a boy in Cape Town he started with Barbie. "She was my first contact with the fashion world," says Bouwer, one of four children born to Clive, 64, a pharmacist, and Marge, 63, a cosmetics consultant. As a teenager infatuated with the high glamor of old Hollywood, he made party gowns for the local girls. "Marc was very creative," says his mother. "He just had something different."
In 1981, after finishing only eight months of a two-year compulsory stint in the South African Army ("the worst period of my life") and graduating from a design course in Johannesburg, where he won a South African Vogue magazine competition, Bouwer moved to New York City. His first job was with the fabled designer Halston. His advice to his new apprentice: "Try to use fewer seams." Bouwer went out on his own within a year, eventually creating costumes for Dynasty and slowly building a clientele that included Houston (who owns 500 of his designs) and Victoria Principal.
Now, with stars like Braxton winning him headlines, Bouwer, who lives in a one-bedroom Greenwich Village apartment with a Yorkie pup named Goliath and a cat named Cosmo, says he couldn't ask for more. There has been one disappointment, though. "I found out that Barbie's measurements were way out of line with reality," he says. "That was a hard lesson to learn."
MARIA SPEIDEL in New York City