May 11, 1998 12:00 PM

When Sandy Dalai, 21, copped the Perry Ellis Award for new talent in February on the strength of just one formal fashion show, his sudden emergence packed a double whammy: “Nobody knew anything about him,” says Fern Mallis, executive director of the Council of Fashion Designers of America. “There was a buzz about this new show. And afterward, people said, ‘His clothes were really fun—and isn’t he cute? Good looks never hurt in this business.”

Which means that the New York City-bred son of strict Indian parents has lots more going for him than masterful tailoring. With his whippet build, chin-length black hair and startling emerald eyes, he is as exotically attractive as the East Asian-influenced designs he first dreamed of creating while in high school, after visiting factories with mom Loma, who ran a garment production business.

His parents (father Mahesh is a C.P.A.) still fret about his long hair. “I thought he looked handsome in the regular, gentleman’s haircut,” explains Loma. But then, she says, if her firstborn realized how good-looking he is, “he would take care of himself better.” Captain of the University of Pennsylvania’s saber squad in 1996, the 5’8″ Dalai now neglects exercise—and pretty much everything else—to pursue his dream. It’s cool, he says, “when people think you are cute or your eyes are beautiful. But it’s not something you earned.”

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