10/14/1996 at 01:00 AM EDT
THE WEDDING GOWN WAS BREATH-takingly simple: off-white, biascut silk with a silk tulle train. But no matter how hard they tried, no one close to its creator, Narciso Rodriguez, a designer for Paris's master couturier Nino Cerruti, could find out for whom it was made. "I thought it might be for an actress, a big American movie star," recalls Marc Bellet, who made the pattern for the dress. "I asked Narciso daily. He didn't say anything." Even one of Rodriguez's closest pals, Brigitte Langevin, the former editor of French Glamour, begged in vain. "Here was this beautiful wedding dress, and I was furious!" she says. "I tried everything to learn who would be wearing it. He just wouldn't tell."
Now, of course, everyone knows the client's name—and Rodriguez's. Credited with helping Carolyn Bessette, 30, a longtime pal, pull off the cloak-and-dagger caper that ended in her surprise wedding to John F. Kennedy Jr. on Sept. 21, the New Jersey-born designer has become a fashion phenomenon overnight. Rodriguez, 35, whose sexy, uncluttered styles have helped Cerruti's women's line go from ho-hum to hip in just two seasons, has been swamped with offers to start his own label (for now, he's not interested).
"It's an amazing skyrocket," admits Rodriguez, who earlier forayed into wedding wear with the ivory satin gown that TV anchorwoman Dina Ruiz wore at her March nuptials to Clint Eastwood. "I have to step back and go, 'Wow!' " But despite the countless hours spent overseeing Bessette's gown (valued in press reports at $40,000) and the blush chiffon frock she wore to the rehearsal dinner, both of which were gifts to the bride, Rodriguez says his efforts were merely "a labor of love." "There are a few things in life I can count on, and Carolyn is one," he says. "She is my rock. We're soulmates in a sense and recently," he laughs, "coconspirators."
The oldest of three children raised in Kearny, N.J., by Cuban émigrés—father Narciso is a longshoreman; mother Rawedia Maria, a homemaker—Rodriguez met Bessette in 1990 when they worked at Calvin Klein, he as a designer, she in public relations (she quit earlier this year). "I saw this breathtaking woman," recalls Rodriguez, a graduate of New York City's Parsons School of Design, "and somehow we became really good friends." So close, in fact, that he was one of the few she told about her engagement. Over a round of cosmopolitans at a New York City bar in March, she revealed her plans to wed America's most sought-after bachelor and asked Rodriguez to design the dress. "I was stunned, so happy for her," he recalls. "I sat there with my mouth open."
Within weeks he had drafted preliminary sketches. But with rumors of the Kennedy engagement already circulating in New York, the two friends agreed fittings would be held in Paris. "It had to be secretive," says Rodriguez. "Any kind of press needed to be avoided." Accompanied by her older sister Lisa, 31, Bessette arrived at Rodriguez's duplex suite at the Hotel Castille on Sept. 2. "I opened the door," he recalls, "and we started jumping up and down and squealing like two little kids. We stayed up all night, playing with the dress. We tried it different ways—tighter, shorter, longer." For Cerruti, the only person in whom Rodriguez had confided, the six-foot-tall Bessette was a dream client. "She has such a perfect body—a model's body," he says. "A tall French 36, which in America would be a size 6."
On Sept. 9, Bessette returned home. Nine days later, Rodriguez followed, nervously hand-carrying the two gowns. (The outfits he had also created for guests Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg and Jessica Weinstein, an ex-Calvin Klein executive, were shipped in advance.) "I tortured everyone on that flight with the boxes," he recalls. "No one could touch them. I must have driven every Air France employee mad."
Now, two weeks after the ceremony on Georgia's Cumberland Island, the designer is learning to cope with fame. "Carolyn warned me," says Rodriguez, who, currently single, also lives part-time in New York City, "but she never warned me to expect all this." Still, he says he cherishes the role he played in the wedding of the decade. "When Carolyn put on that dress, it was worth everything," he sighs. "The wedding, it was so nice, so beautiful. I think it will be the thing I'll be proudest of my whole life."
PETER MIKELBANK in Paris