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Taking a Bead on Night Life, Designer Fabrice Updates That Old Shimmer and Slither

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“Some people think it’s voodoo,” says Haitian-born designer Fabrice Simon, 32, referring to the rumor that his luminously beaded evening creations bring good luck. That started last year, when three nominees for Broadway’s Antoinette Perry Awards wore his gowns to the ceremony and two of them—Dreamgirls star Jennifer Holliday and Nine’s producer Francine LeFrak—won. But really, there’s no magic, Fabrice insists. “If there were, all three would have won. Anyway, I’m not interested in mystery—only in beautiful clothes.”

Sorcery or no, Fabrice is the magic name in splashy, expensive evening clothes. Celeb fans of his glimmering creations, priced from $800 for a blouse to $8,000 for a made-to-order ball gown, include Mary Tyler Moore, Morgan Fair-child, Pat Benatar, Dionne Warwick, Christie Brinkley and Cheryl Tiegs. Top New York post-deb Cornelia Guest hails the way “he combines old-world craftsmanship with young ideas.”

Fabrice’s trademark is simple shapes—chemises, tunics, slip dresses—adorned with beading in multicolored patterns that are usually crisply geometric and often laced with futuristic squiggles suggestive of some modern art. “Most beading is old-looking, like ’20s flapper dresses,” says Fabrice. “I make mine totally modern. I start playing with a geometric shape until I get it the way I like it.”

Though Fabrice is an immigrant, he was hardly “brought up like a peasant,” he points out. One of his grandfathers was a Haitian envoy to France. He was raised “in the French style,” as he puts it, in a comfortable Port-au-Prince suburb and went to school with Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, now Haiti’s President-for-Life. Thinking that his children would have a better future in the U.S., Fabrice’s accountant father brought the family to New York in 1965 and settled in a Haitian enclave in Queens. Fabrice started out as a designer’s assistant in a Seventh Avenue textile firm, meanwhile taking courses at Manhattan’s Fashion Institute of Technology. Then, weary after five years of doing florals for sheets, wallpaper and women’s clothing, he fled to Europe to paint.

“I started going to museums and observed what people were wearing,” he recalls. “I began to think how to do dresses.” Returning in 1975, he put together five hand-painted frocks. They sold out quickly at Henri Bendel. But Fabrice, who was doing all the designing, painting and sewing himself, couldn’t fill follow-up orders. No banks would lend him money to hire help—”They thought I was just another hippie doing hand-painted T-shirts”—so he persuaded his older brother, a textile stylist, to bankroll him for another season. Then his boomlet ended: “Everyone started hand-painting too.”

Casting about for a way to be different, Fabrice spotted some beaded trimmings in a store window one day in 1979 and discovered that they were made in Haiti. He called his parents, who had returned home following his father’s retirement, to find out who had done the work, then sent one of his blouses to have it beaded. When he brought the results to Vogue, its editors decided to give it a double-page spread. “And so,” Fabrice says, “I got into beading everything.”

Today his annual sales volume is just over $1 million. While that hardly puts Fabrice in the Bill Blass category, it is substantial in view of the work his designs entail. The intricate beadwork, which is done in Haiti and overseen by Fabrice’s mother, takes a Haitian worker 10 days to sew for one dress. Then the fabric is shipped back to New York (by Fabrice’s father), where it is cut and sewn into dresses by a staff of five in Fabrice’s two-story loft on Manhattan’s lower Fifth Avenue. Fabrice’s sister, Brigitte Simon, helps him in overseeing production.

In the loft Fabrice has an all-white apartment that doubles as a showroom. “I’ll party until very late, get influenced by what I see at clubs and restaurants, then come home and sketch all night.” Someday he hopes to take his first real vacation—his Fire Island summer weekends don’t count—but now he’s absorbed in continuing his evening line while also moving into furs and maybe sports clothes. None of those designs will be derivative. “I’m not really interested in what others are doing in fashion,” he says. “I have to satisfy myself first.”