April 27, 1998 12:00 PM

Vivica A. Fox coveted Vanessa L. Williams’s. ER’s Alex Kingston wanted one after spying Kim Basinger’s. Eartha Kitt looks purr-feet in hers. In fact, all the stars seem to have decided they gotta have an Amsale Aberra.

Okay, so the 44-year-old Ethiopian-born designer isn’t yet a household name. But while last October marked the launch of her evening wear collection (preceded nine months earlier by the opening of her Madison Avenue boutique), and Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue have just started carrying her collection, she’s no retail rookie.

A successful wedding gown designer ($15 million in projected retail revenues this year) since 1986, Amsale (pronounced am-SA-la) revels in the company her clothes are keeping. “When I watched Kim Basinger win the Golden Globe in my dress I think I was more excited than she was,” she says. Stylist-to-the-stars Phillip Bloch loves the line, which ranges in price from $500 for a cocktail dress to $4,000 for a silk ball gown. He dressed Salma Hayek in a black crepe Amsale with plunging neckline to receive the Outstanding Latina of the Year award in L.A. “Amsale’s clothes are so minimal and chic you can wear them anywhere,” he says. “And I love a designer who doesn’t come from a place of ego.”

The place she came from is Addis Ababa, where her father, Aberra Moltot, was Ethiopia’s vice-minister for National Community Development, and her mother, Tsadale Assamnew, was a housewife. The young Amsale loved creating her own clothes and was thrilled when her half sister Aster Yilma introduced her to Simplicity Patterns after a visit to America. “I could do my maxi skirts and my hot pants,” says Amsale. When she was 19, Amsale moved to Poultney, Vt., to study commercial art at Green Mountain College. No sooner had she got there than Ethiopia was convulsed by revolution. Her father was imprisoned, and she was left without his financial support. Worrying constantly that he would be executed (he survived and was freed seven years later), Amsale dropped out of school and moved to Boston to live with her sister. She was waitressing at a coffee shop in 1976 when she met Neil Brown, a Harvard law student (and her future husband). Though she graduated from what is now U. Mass-Boston with a degree in political science, Brown says Amsale’s true calling was fashion design. “There were always pieces of fabric everywhere in her apartment,” says Brown, 45 (who has started his own film production and distribution company). In 1980, Brown moved to New York City, and Amsale soon followed. She graduated from the Fashion Institute of Technology and got a job with designer Harvé Benard. In 1985 she and Brown decided to marry. “Of course, the first thing you do is go out and buy Bride magazine,” says Amsale. Appalled by the ornate confections that looked more like wedding cakes than bridal gowns, she decided to make her own: a floor-length dress with an elegant beaded chiffon bodice. Six months later, she started her own bridal business. Then Kleinfeld’s, the famous Brooklyn bridal salon, signed on (Amsale’s signature full-length sheath with illusion tank top and bustle train remains a bestseller). Recent clients drawn to her understated styles include NYPD Blue star Dennis Franz’s wife, Joanie Zeck, and actress Robin Tunney.

Although she has no plans to give up wedding wear, Amsale realized there was another market for her look when, she says, “I noticed women wearing their day suits with little pearl earrings and passing it off as evening wear.” The added work leaves less time at the family’s Bridgehampton, N.Y., country house (they also have a Manhattan loft), where Amsale relaxes while Brown plays tennis and skis with their daughter Rachel. A fifth-grader whose sartorial soul belongs to the Spice Girls, Rachel shows no sign of adopting her mother’s less-is-more style. But one thing they do agree on is color. Says Amsale: “At age 11, she’s into black.”

Christina Cheakalos

Sue Miller in New York City

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