July 14, 1997 12:00 PM

WE’RE ORDINARY FOLKS,” SAYS DON BROWN, 33, A RETAILER IN FREEMONT, CALIF. NOT ANY-more. On June 25 he and his girlfriend Deborah Cacciatore, 33, manager of a dentist’s office, happily shelled out $23,000 for a dress once worn by Diana, Princess of Wales. A total of 79 gowns were auctioned off for charity at Christie’s in Manhattan, bringing in an average of more than $41,000 per dress. This may not have caused sticker shock for buyers from the Franklin Mint or the Fashion Cafe, who appreciate the promotional value of Di’s raiment, or for that anonymous female executive who paid $670,800 for 13 gowns. But many of the 1,100 bidders had never even been to an auction before. They just couldn’t resist the chance to bring home tangible proof of Diana’s rare allure—light as chiffon, shiny as a bugle bead. PEOPLE interviewed some of the lucky bidders.


“It’s one of the most enjoyable purchases I’ve made,” says Marilyn Hoffman, 55 (far right), of the satin cocktail dress by Victor Edelstein she bagged for $29,900. “Diana is a special person.” A widow who raises miniature horses in Woodville, Va., Hoffman says she wanted a dress “practical” enough for, say, a grandchild’s christening (“Wouldn’t that be nice?”). For now she’ll lend it to size-8 daughters-in-law Maryann, 32 (who models it), and Katie, 19 (left), plus pal Linda Robinson, 31, a size 6. “If I lose 10 pounds,” says Hoffman, “I’ll get into it too.”


“We’ve never done anything like this,” says Roberta Hurtig (far left), 48, who pooled her resources with those of her sister Linda Sarna, 50, for a beaded Bruce Oldfield dress that set them back $23,000. “Neither of us alone could have done it.” That’s what Sarna’s husband, Gregory, was counting on. “He’s recovering,” says Sarna, an associate professor at the UCLA School of Nursing, laughing. “He hadn’t appreciated the sister factor.” Adds Hurtig, a Boston consulting-firm vice president: “We’ve shared a lot of experiences. Now we’re bonded forever.”


“We got three of the more romantic dresses,” says a delighted Kate McEnroe, 41. That, after all, was her mission as president of American Movie Classics and its new offshoot, the Romance Channel. Her purchases, which totaled $203,750 for a Victor Edelstein satin gown with bolero (left), Di’s personal favorite, and two Catherine Walker designs, will go on tour. But isn’t the divorced princess an unlikely symbol of love’s splendor? “Diana has weathered difficult times,” admits McEnroe, who lives in Manhasset, N.Y., and is engaged to marry this year. But, she adds, “she’s come out an icon.”


Fergie lookalike Deborah Cacciatore wouldn’t dare wear the gown she and boyfriend Don Brown bought for $23,000. “It has Di’s sweat on it, her makeup on it,” she says reverently of the black evening dress by Bellville Sassoon and Lorcan Mullany that the princess wore on a visit to Canada in 1991. Instead, the couple want to display it “somewhere like the Hard Rock Cafe,” says Cacciatore, who is Canadian herself. First things first though. “We have to go to the bank Monday,” says Brown, “and figure things out.”


“I may have looked calm,” says Donna Coffin, 39, recalling the auction’s bidding frenzy, “but my heart was going like crazy.” Afterward the mother of three sons called her husband, Chris, 39, a computer consultant in Lake Forest, Ill., to tell him she had just spent $26,450 for a purple, crushed-velvet Bruce Oldfield design worn by Di for an official portrait in ’87. “There was,” she says, “a little bit of silence.” Luckily, she adds, “Chris is also a Diana fan, through me.” The couple have been entranced by the princess since her engagement to Charles in 1981. “To have a piece of her history is special,” says Donna, who, at 5’9″ is just an inch shorter than Diana but claims no other affinities. “I’m tall,” she says, “but that’s where the similarities end.”


“Thank God someone came to get me and I had to leave,” says Memphis bridal and couture designer Pat Kerr, 55, who managed to spend $133,400 before exiting Christie’s two-thirds of the way into the auction. She came away with four frocks, including a white Catherine Walker silk gown embroidered with falcons. “It reminds me of Jonathan Livingston Seagull,” says Kerr, wife of financial adviser John B. Tigrett, 83 (and stepmother of Hard Rock Cafe co-founder Isaac Tigrett). “I design in the style of these dresses,” says Kerr, whose acquisitions will join the 1,500 items in her trove of royal memorabilia. “This does take my collecting,” she says, “into the millennium in a new and nice way.”


“You don’t spend that kind of money without telling your husband; I’m an old-fashioned girl,” says Lynda Rae Resnick, 54, who paid $151,000 for Di’s famous “Elvis” dress, a pearl-embroidered sheath with high-collared jacket by Catherine Walker. The mother of five, she and her husband, Stewart Resnick, own the Franklin Mint, the memorabilia company that bought Jackie O’s three-strand, fake-pearl necklace at auction last year for $211,500. The gown will be exhibited in the mint museum in Franklin Center, Pa., and tour Franklin Mint stores, but Resnick doubts it will be mass-produced as were the pearls. That’s bad news for granddaughter Danielle, 5. The budding clotheshorse declared, “I want that in my size.”

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