Making the Cut
Eng should know. Her cameo in Celebrity, about an ambitious fashion journalist, may be the first time she has acted with stars, but she's been dressing them for years. Jodie Foster and Annette Bening adore her trademark bias-cut sheaths of silk, satin and cashmere. (Priced from $1,500 to $4,000, they are sold at such stores as Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus.) Geena Davis wore only Eng at last year's Cannes Film Festival, and Eng's navy V-neck gown clung to Reba McEntire when she cohosted the People's Choice Awards in January. Gushes ER's Gloria Reuben, who wore an Eng chiffon halter gown to the Golden Globe Awards in January: "It made me feel beautiful, sexy and classy in every way."
No wonder Allen trusted Eng's instincts. "The next thing I knew," she says, "the dialogue had been completely revised." And all for a part Eng hadn't known existed. Allen, it turns out, had been on the lookout for an Asian designer, but rather than Vera Wang or Anna Sui, says Eng, he wanted "a new face, an up-and-coming designer." She was tailor-made for the part. Although she started her company with $30,000 of her own savings, Eng will ring up an estimated $5 million in sales this year. She also has launched a more affordable line, Melinda by Melinda Eng ($450 to $950), of late-day and evening dresses. "We recognized Melinda's talent long ago," says Joseph Boitano, executive vice president of Bergdorf Goodman, which has carried Eng's designs since 1992. "She understands the sensuality of a woman's body."
The oldest of six children, Eng spoke no English when her family emigrated from Hong Kong to Manhattan's Chinatown in the late 1960s. Her father, Tak Gan, worked in her grandfather's Chinese restaurant, and her mother, Kam Hay, worked in a garment factory. Eager to fit in, the children adopted first names they found in their English primers. (Eng's given name is Mo-Jing, which means "ambitious and pure.") Eng's talent runs in the family: Her mother taught her to sew, and her grandfather was a snappy dresser. "Even when hats weren't popular," she says, "he wouldn't go out without one."
After graduating from Parsons School of Design in 1976, Eng created sweaters for the Pringle, Charlotte Ford and Bill Haire labels. In 1992 she went solo. Inspiration for her spare yet intricately cut designs (most have no buttons, zippers or even many seams) came from watching an actress nearly trip on her gown on her way to accept an award. Eng designs dresses she would wear herself, "something that's easy, comfortable and not contrived—almost to the point where you could do aerobics in it."
Not that Eng, who prefers work to workouts, does aerobics. Unmarried and in her 40s, she spends her free time reading and gardening at her East Hampton cottage or entertaining in her Manhattan apartment. Nor is she about to give up her day job for acting. "When I got the part in Celebrity," she recalls, "people said, 'Aren't you scared?' and I'd say, 'What's the worst that can happen—he'll fire me.' They took me because of who I am. If I didn't do a good job, that's okay, because I can't imagine being somebody else."
Anne Longley in New York City