12/11/2000 at 01:00 AM EST
Chihuahuas in cashmere? Poodles in pearls? Hollywood costume designers Penelope Francis and Yana Syrkin sensed there was a market for such indulgences, especially after a dog sweater Francis spied at a Barneys New York in Beverly Hills in 1998 failed to impress. "It was a plain, machine-knit sweater," she recalls. "I said, 'If Barneys is buying a plain sweater, wait till they see what we're planning.' "
Barneys saw. Barneys bought. So did the Neiman Marcus catalog and Fred Segal. And so, for that matter, did Oprah
Winfrey, Sarah Michelle Gellar and Bette Midler, who, like others, have plunked down $100 to $280 for an embroidered cashmere doggy sweater or a brocade coat sized for a bichon frise. This year Fifi & Romeo, Francis and Syrkin's two-year-old couture line of clothing and accessories for exceedingly pampered small pooches, is enjoying pick-of-the-litter sales—thanks in part to a new L.A. store where customers can tipple champagne while shopping. "My favorite thing about this store is it makes me want to get a dog," says Ally McBeal's Jane Krakowski, who turned to Fifi & Romeo for Christmas gifts. "It's like a girl's fantasy, all the cashmere. It's so luxurious."
Says "Wendy Diamond, editorial director of Animal Fair magazine, of her Fifi & Romeo-clad Maltese Lucky: "She's got a better wardrobe than I do." Or at least as good a one. "If you're a fashionable girl," says Syrkin, who has kept her day job as a costume designer for Ally McBeal, "why would you dress your dog in something ugly?"
Back in 1997, when her chihuahua Yoda caught cold, Syrkin, now 34, cut up and resewed a cashmere sweater to fit the pet. Unbeknownst to Syrkin, Francis, 38, had done the same for her shivering chihuahua Peanut. "I couldn't find anything cute. It was all acrylic," she recalls. While working together on a TV show in 1998, the women admired each others' efforts and joined forces to create Fifi & Romeo, a fanciful name that Francis dreamed up.
The stitchers, who both live in L.A., came to their calling by different paths. Born in Ukraine, near Kiev, Syrkin learned English by watching old films. "I always wanted to be in the Technicolor movies I was enchanted by," she recalls. She moved to the U.S. at 13 and later studied finance at the University of Southern California before a movie job brought her to costume design. Francis grew up in Dallas, earning a degree in fashion design at North Texas State University and working as an art director and photographer's agent before entering the field.
"When people see us, they say, 'How did the two of you become friends?' because we look like polar opposites," says Syrkin, who lives in a one-bedroom guest house in the Los Feliz section of L.A. (Francis, also single, lives in a two-bedroom house in the Hancock Park neighborhood). "But we have exactly the same vision." Of terriers in tiaras, of course.
Irene Lacher in Los Angeles