September 17, 1990 12:00 PM

Eighteen years ago a chubby unknown named John Scher became an overnight sensation in the prickly world of fashion. One late December day back in 1971, the aspiring young designer from Stevenson, Md., sent a fan letter and a stack of his amateur sketches to Women’s Wear Daily. The drawings revealed a genuine flair for fashion. There were a few spelling errors, but those the editors overlooked: John, after all, was only 10 years old.

What followed was a burst of publicity that most couturiers only dream of. No one was more surprised than John, who simply considered fashion a “fun hobby,” when, suddenly, Mademoiselle magazine was toasting him in Manhattan at a lunch with luminaries including Anne Klein and Oscar de la Renta. The latter gave Scher his private phone number, imploring him to “call me if you have any technical problems.” Then LIFE magazine honored him with a story, and TV’s To Tell the Truth grabbed him as a contestant, although “Kitty Carlisle and Peggy Cass disqualified themselves,” Scher remembers, “because they knew who I was.”

But John turned down numerous offers to design collections, as well as countless other TV appearances. “My parents didn’t want me to feel pressured,” says Scher, who, now a trim and balding 28-year-old, is in the spotlight once again. After three small collections, including a group of $190-$260, 1960s-inspired tent dresses for fall, Scher launched his own label last year. His designs have been featured in Elle and are sold at such prestigious stores as New York City’s Bergdorf Goodman and Los Angeles’s Fred Segal. “He’s totally focused,” says Edie Locke, fashion contributor for Lifetime TV’s Attitudes, who gave Scher his big break in 1972 by flying him to New York City when she was Mademoiselle’s editor-in-chief. “I think he’s going to make it.”

Scher wasn’t always single-minded about his vocation. His parents encouraged his participation in other activities. “We wanted John to grow up as a normal kid,” says his mother, Evelyn, a nonpracticing attorney who sparked her son’s interest in fashion by dragging him with her to her tailor, where he would collect scraps of fabric. At one time, John even considered a career in advertising. But he never got designing out of his mind. After graduating from New York City’s Pratt Institute in 1986 and toiling for 3½ years as an assistant at the women’s dress firm Chetta B., Scher struck out on his own with the blessing and the financial backing (some $10,000) of his mother and his father, Ernest, an obstetrician who died last November. “Now John is doing what he always wanted to do,” says a proud Evelyn, “and he’s doing it wonderfully.”

Scher’s philosophy hasn’t changed since he turned out thousands of sketches, complete with hypothetical prices (“Saks, $200”) as a fourth grader. “I’ve always liked very beautiful, rich fabrics in clean, classic shapes,” he says. Working out of a small, gray room in Manhattan’s garment center, he is aided only by a seamstress named Josephine Sorrentino. “I do everything myself,” he says. “All the patterns, draping, sales. I answer the phone, and I’m the messenger.”

He has never traded on his 15 minutes of fame. “I want people to meet me and see my clothes today,” explains Scher, who concedes that the stagnant retail climate makes starting out “very hard.” Some nights, he goes out to dinner with friends such as Michael Leva, Todd Oldham and Zang Toi, who have all been hailed as promising young designers, “and we all bitch to each other about how difficult it is to get something done in time to get it into the stores.” But usually he goes home to the eclectically furnished Greenwich Village apartment that he shares with interior architect Erwin Winkler. He hasn’t had a vacation in a year and a half and, he says, “I don’t even get to go to the gym like I used to, because it closes at 9 and I don’t get home until 10…. When I’m not designing, I basically worry.” The one-time wunderkind is wary of fleeting fame. “I don’t want to be a shooting star,” he says. “I want to be a star that stays up there for a long time.”

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