December 14, 1998 12:00 PM

Winona Ryder was torn. The 1994 Academy Awards were a day away and the groovy gamine simply couldn’t decide what to wear: the black evening gown that Giorgio Armani had sent over? Or the beaded white 1950s sheath by designer Edward Sabesta she’d found at Lily et Cie, Rita Watnick’s high-end vintage clothes store. For the outspoken Watnick, 49, it was a no-brainer. “She showed me the dress Armani sent,” she sniffs. “But it was too heavy and black. Too ugly for her.”

Winona wore the white, and the rest, as they say, is Hollywood history. Which is precisely what lures stars like Nicole Kidman, Cameron Diaz and Naomi Campbell to Watnick’s Beverly Hills emporium. At Lily’s plush showroom, shoppers can sift through some 25,000 vintage outfits and accessories that trace Hollywood style from the Gatsby-esque glamor of the ’20s to the shoulder pads and spangles of the ’80s. “It’s like shopping in Barbie land,” swoons Lily-lover actress Gina Gershon, who favors styles from the ’60s and 70s. And with prices ranging from $38 for a blouse from the 1940s to $45,000 for a 1933 silk Chanel evening gown, adds 3rd Rock from the Sun costar Kris-ten Johnston: “This is not the Salvation Army.”

Even if Watnick sometimes rules her racks like a drill sergeant. Jeans, for example, have no place at Lily, though “I suppose they have sociological interest,” she allows. And pity the starlet who doesn’t heed Watnick’s advice. “Until Winona wore our dress, did anyone pay attention to her?” she demands. “Vintage helped to establish her look.” When Demi Moore sought to alter her image in 1992, she, too, went to Watnick for her Oscar gown—a studio-made ’40s lilac chiffon. “Everyone was wearing Calvin Klein and Armani,” says Watnick. “It was a boring, minimalist period. Then Demi came down that red carpet saying, ‘Rita, from Lily.’ ”

Since most vintage styles range only from current sizes 2 to 8, Watnick wears Armani and Karan herself. But she doesn’t worry about offending designers who dress celebs for free. “People used to love celebrities because they had something nobody else could have,” she says. “Now wearing these designer gowns demystifies them.” Gershon, a Lily client for the past two years, agrees. “Style is unique to who you are,” she says. “Rita keys into the personality of her customers and calls them. when she gets something in.”

The only child of Herbert Watnick, a wealthy L.A. carpet and wallcovering manufacturer, and Lillian, a city administrator, Watnick developed an early passion for fashion. “When I got a new outfit, my mom would hang it up so I could see it when I went to sleep at night,” she recalls. But it was while working at Van Cleef & Arpels jewelers—and later Cartier—on Beverly Hills’ Rodeo Drive in the 1970s that she learned to sell. “As a local kid who knew everybody, I was there to tell them who people were,” she says, “and they taught me how to do business.”

Both skills came in handy when she stumbled into fashion years later after her mother offered her a trove of vintage clothing from an estate. Watnick turned down the offer—”I only wanted new things,” she explains—then watched as others snapped up the lot. Chastened by her gaffe, she began collecting vintage clothing and opened a small store in Los Angeles in the late 1970s (she relocated to Beverly Hills in 1995). “I’ve spent the last 20 years of my life trying to outdo that collection,” she says.

Consider it done. In fact, with an inventory of 500,000 vintage pieces that she stores in a warehouse, Watnick can now focus on furnishing the contemporary three-bedroom house in Beverly Hills she shares with her boyfriend and partner of nine years, Michael Stoyla, 38, a former ski instructor. Partial to 1930s art deco French furniture, Watnick makes no apologies for her rarified taste. “I have a weakness,” she says, “for quality.”

Anne-Marie O’Neill

Lorenzo Benet in Los Angeles

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