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Go Ask Alice

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Alice Temperley might just be the Mother Teresa of celebrity fashion. Stars “don’t want to stand out or look tarty,” proclaims the London designer. “They want to look comfortable, attractive and timeless, so in a few months they’re not looking at pictures going, ‘Oh my God, I was wearing that dress?’ ”

They’re not the only ones. Which is why Temperley’s classically feminine—and, yes, comfortable—designs are slipping off the racks at 100 stores worldwide and onto the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow, Liv Tyler and Kirsten Dunst. In addition to her flagship store in London’s Notting Hill, she recently opened a 5,000-sq.-ft. showroom in New York City’s SoHo and has plans for another in Los Angeles. “I think maybe why the label’s done very well in such a short time is that it’s a woman designing for a woman,” says Temperley, 29, who began selling her $300-plus tops and $600-plus gowns four years ago. “I’m basically designing for myself, and if people like it, they like it, and if they don’t, they don’t.”

Clearly many do, including Henri Bendel customers Kelly Ripa and Goldie Hawn. “The designs really cut across a lot of different ages,” says the New York City department store’s fashion director, Scott Tepper. “As modern as the clothes are, they have a romantic edge to them,” adds Fred Segal Flair owner Jeannine Braden about the line. Included in the 2004 spring-summer collection: knit mini-dresses, T-back tea dresses and ruffled tops. “Every piece looks like a little jewel.”

Pretty has been Temperley’s priority since she was a little girl on her parents’ apple cider farm in Somerset, two hours southwest of London. Her nickname as a child was Magpie, “because I’ve always been attracted to shiny, sparkly things,” says Temperley, the oldest of four children. Her first creation? A necklace she crafted from her mother’s favorite Victorian lampshade at age 4. “Mum walked in, and beads were all over the floor. She wanted to be cross, but said it was just so sweet because all I said was, ‘I want to make myself a necklace.’ ”

At 11, she began sewing clothes for herself and her siblings, as well as opulent wall hangings for her parents’ home. She went on to study fashion at Central Saint Martin’s (also attended by Stella McCartney and Alexander McQueen) and earned her master’s in textiles at the Royal College of Art. While a student there, she met her future husband and business partner, Lars von Bennigsen, at a party in 1998. That same year Temperley was offered a job with Donna Karan but turned it down, deciding instead to create her own line; after working for a textiles company for eight months, she spent seven months traveling through Asia doing research. “I wanted to find where all the best silks are made, all the best finishings,” says Temperley, who designs her fabrics herself, a rarity in fashion.

Though being a favorite of celebrities has helped her business along, she looks to her 14 average Jane female employees as inspiration. “Within the collection, I always allow for all sorts of body types,” she says. For the menswear line she’s in the midst of designing, Temperley uses a different muse: Lars, 32, who worked in finance before becoming the company’s business manager in 2000. The pair, who married in 2002 and live above the Notting Hill shop, were nervous about working together, but “she has a special mix of creativity and talent and beauty,” says Lars. “So from that point of view I was never worried.”

Next up for Temperley: cosmetics, and perhaps a bedding and linen line. “The last thing I want is to think of myself as a fashion person,” she says, then echoes, once again, the sentiments of ordinary women everywhere: “Fashion absolutely terrifies me!”

Jennifer Wulff. Courtney Rubin in London, Susan Christian Goulding in Los Angeles and Rebecca Paley in New York City