Denise and Daughter: Isn’t It Rich?

Denise Rich has yet to lose one single bugle bead from her Christian Lacroix bustier, or even to break a sweat. This saxophone-totin’ songbird is clearly a survivor, à la Richard Hatch. The multifaceted heinosity of her current situation, and the press coverage thereof, would undoubtedly have reduced a lesser mortal to a doll-gobbling shut-in. Not Denise. Whether belting out a number on the radio with Natalie Cole or chatting volubly with me about space aliens, the most talked-about broad in America has somehow managed to keep her international savoir faire fabulously intact. Ditto Ilona.

Who’s Ilona?

Ilona Malka Rich is the eldest daughter of Marc and Denise Rich, and on March 28 she will change the course of fashion history forever when she unleashes her first–and hopefully not her last–ready-to-wear collection on an unsuspecting public.

Bad timing? Not from Ilona’s vantage point. Denise’s notoriety and transformation into a pop-culture and scandal icon can only help Ilona as she grapples for a foothold in the P.R.-driven fashion business. And the inevitable comparisons with Mom–though galling for a young, groovy chick who wants to be judged on her own merits–will get her plenty of ink. In fact, here comes some now.

Denise ungrudgingly took time from what must surely be a stressful and hellish series of meetings and conference calls with the feds, her lawyers and her publicist, Howard Rubenstein, to chat about her daughter, with whom she said she has “loads in common, especially creativity and a love of fashion.” Ilona is a beauty, but Denise is more voluptuous and alluring. Ilona is pale and exotic; Denise is tanned and glamorous. They are both warm, funny and extremely charming. But, according to her mother, Ilona was “always way ahead. She had torn jeans 15 years before anyone else. She was a rebel. Not me–I go to Lacroix.”

In the 1970’s, Denise co-owned a boutique on Madison Avenue, where Ilona got her first real injection of fashion. “I think it was called Au Grand Caprice, or something like that,” recalled Denise hazily. “Anyway, we used to sell all the emerging designers in the 70’s: Thierry Mugler, Enrico Coveri. Ilona used to hang out after school and do her homework.” The happy times at Au Grand Caprice (or whatever it was called) didn’t last forever. Ilona recalls with a chuckle the day things got sticky. “A pervert came in and did something horrible in the fitting room, flashing and ejaculating,” said Ilona. “My mom was so grossed out, she closed it.”

A quarter of a century after this grotesque occurrence, Ilona stood in the middle of her expansive, elf-filled flower-district studio, surrounded by the frantic preparations for her very own fashion debut. How many people is she employing to pull this off? “I think it’s about 25,” said the endearingly batty Ilona. She is equally noncommittal about her age: She will only tell me that she is ” not 34.” The March 13 National Enquirer pegs her at 33; the same Enquirer claims that Denise and Bill Clinton had “romantic nights alone in the White House.” If it’s true, then mazel tov to Denise! And to Bill, too! Glam, generous Denise makes a hell of a lot more sense than whiny Monica. But let’s not get sidetracked; we’re here to talk about Ilona.

Born in Madrid, Ilona went to school in Switzerland. She’s married to freelance art curator Kenny Schachter, and they live in the West Village with their three boys, Adrian, Kai and Gabriel. They hang out with Kenny’s friends, artists and collectors.

Ilona is an artist, too. She’s exhibited her sculptures at Gracie Mansion gallery in the Village. Her chief influences, she claims, are Salvador Dalí and Andy Warhol. A cursory glance around her studio would suggest differently. As I survey Ilona’s jubilant, infantile, pastel-and-fluorescent-hued fantasy world, I could swear I’m viewing the aftermath of a fabulous and drug-fueled collaboration between Niki de Saint Phalle, Tammy Faye Bakker and Hello Kitty–but not necessarily in that order.

The bulk of the studio is taken up not with seamstresses, but with the construction of large, fun and goofy props and sculptures: a life-sized, 10-legged tiger, candy-striped à la Baskin-Robbins; a similarly decorated giant apple upon which assistants are rendering facsimiles of, among others, Nancy Reagan, Oprah Winfrey, Rodney Dangerfield and Mike Piazza; mutant poodles and boxers; giant, cartoony B-52 wigs and a wiggly, wobbly, pastel-striped runway. “It’s not just a fashion show, it’s a multimedia event,” said Ilona. “I’m hoping my artwork will sell my clothes. Next season, I’ll probably show during Fashion Week. This season I wanted to separate myself–and not get lost.”

With the current pardon controversy swirling around her mother and father, it’s hard to imagine Size 6–as she has enigmatically monikered this event–going unnoticed. Or the fascinating Ilona elle-même . Ilona’s unique personal style is the fashion equivalent of Tourette’s syndrome, combining early Courtney Love grunge with a soupçon of Rainbow Bright. On the day of my visit, Ilona was sporting an oversized, bright, green-and-white-striped vintage Lacoste shirt layered over a Jean Paul Gaultier tattoo shirt. The Lacoste shirt was belted with a wide, early-80’s, fuchsia, faux-ostrich, studded rocker belt. The layering continued below the belt, with a skanky, polyester thrift-shop miniskirt layered over jeans. This insouciantly ratty ensemble was accessorized with pink Buffalo sneakers and a black disco headband with a rhinestone starburst, worn as a choker. She said it was from Ricky’s drugstore. Ilona is a big Ricky’s aficionado. It is where she buys the components of her unique maquillage : Strawberry Shortcake cheeks and thick smidgens of ice-blue metallic eye shadow. Her hands, adorned with heirloom rings, and her lovely Lausanne-finishing-school manners are the only indications that she’s really a posh girl. Her schizo personal style, however, starts to look almost normal when compared with the clothing line she has designed.

The Rich naïveté, already the leitmotif of much of the Denise Rich commentary, has been given full rein in Ilona’s first collection. Uninhibited, wacky and carnivalesque, this unorthodox collection is totally original. There is no discernible theme, and there is certainly no calculated attempt to flag the attention of Bernard Arnault et al. by presenting a sensible, commercial collection. Ilona Fall 2001 is very much what emerging high fashion used to be–i.e., a spontaneous piece of personal expression. For that reason alone, I’m giving her a loud bravo! Floral shepherdess corsets, crinolines, prairie dresses with matching bonnets(!), quilted hoop skirts, floral-lined trousers with corset lacing up the back, and lurex barmaid blouses are all rendered in a mind-blowing range of gaudy fabrics and prints, prints, prints. Kids pajama prints, penile Cape Canaveral rocket prints, car-and-truck prints, florals and–last but not least–Marge and Frisco prints.

The latter are Ilona’s “characters,” and predictably, she has no idea where they came from or what they mean. “They are cute, but they have a little sick thing going on,” she said. “They are often genetically mutated: They have peg-legs and six fingers.” Almost every piece of Ilona is appliquéed with a Marge or a Frisco or both, and there is even a rather gorgeous, multicolored Marge and Frisco silk print.

These kooky little florescent aliens, which popped out of Ilona’s subconscious when she was a child, prompt me to ask her if she herself might be a “walk-in,” Santa Fe, New Age slang for a person who has been occupied by an alien or other spirit. A brush with extraterrestrials might also, I hypothesized to myself, explain the otherworldly nature of Ilona’s entire aesthetic. She liked the idea. “I could be a walk-in,” she said. “Near the place where I grew up in Switzerland, there was a whole town of people who had been visited by space aliens.”

Denise, who spent a good part of March 4 checking out past-life-regression booths and other stuff at a New Age trade show, is equally receptive to the idea. “I wouldn’t be at all surprised if she was a walk-in,” she said.

Mother and daughter have an easy acquaintance with the paranormal. Denise has visited Gurumayi’s trendy Ashram and she has, chez elle , her very own shrine. “Mom’s very spiritual. She has something inside her,” said Ilona. “She prayed like crazy every day at her shrine to get Gore elected.” Ilona might share her mother’s woo-woo tendencies, but she has not inherited her passion for politics. “I’m interested,” said Ilona, sounding totally uninterested. “I vote, but my mom would kill me if I didn’t.”

Denise’s political enthusiasm, generosity and songwriting activities are, at this point, insanely well documented. So what about Dad, Marc Rich, the guy with the 51-count indictment, including racketeering? Has Ilona inherited any of his characteristics? A dollop or two of Mr. Rich’s ruthless canniness will probably serve her well if she wants to succeed in fashion. “I wish I had my father’s business sense,” she said. “Maybe I do.” More probing questions about her father and the infamous Clinton pardon are met with a change of subject–which is just as well, since neither she nor I are intellectually equipped to discuss complex legal and political issues. We move on.

Has she identified her target customer? Is it her mother? “Oh, yes! I love the jeans and the tops,” kvells a wildly enthusiastic Denise. But Ilona is not so sure. “I hope my mom is the target customer. But I’m just starting, so I’m not sure yet who my audience is. But I don’t want to make clothes for teeny-boppers.” Hey! Earth to space-alien Ilona: What’s wrong with teeny-boppers?

My suggestion: get a licensing deal with Seibu and introduce Ilona to those insane Shibuya girls in Japan, those cyber-kewpies with the blond hair, deep tans, white lips and car-battery-sized platform shoes. They’ll adore Marge and Frisco, and they will unquestioningly embrace Ilona! And the prices, for the average Japanese Prada-buying teen, are totally smashing! A car-print ball gown is only $1,200 (a Lacroix couture gown is 50 times the price); a shepherdess dress is $550; the lurex barmaid blouses (my fave) are only $88. And, let’s get real: Who else is going to pay $50 for a milk-maid bonnet? Arigato !

International fashion stardom may or may not come to Ilona. She doesn’t have Denise’s social-Matterhorning skills and inclinations, but she has wisely elected to call in favors and leverage her mother’s music-world connections to make the March 28 show a paparazzi-worthy occasion. “I’ve got Foxy Brown and Salt from Salt ‘n’ Pepa,” she said. “Altogether I’m going to have 10 models and five socialites: Ginny Donahue, maybe the Hiltons, Samantha Kluge and Lulu De Kwiatkowski, if she’s not too shy.”

Momma Denise is, as usual, unperturbed and optimistic. “I’ll be there rooting for her and wearing one of the dresses,” she said. “Hopefully I can fit into it, if I drink a lot of water! I’m really looking forward to it.”

Will her dad get to come? “He can’t,” said Ilona. “But maybe I should say he is coming, and then tons of people will show up.”

Bonjour , Ilona! I don’t think you need to worry about empty seats.

Denise and Daughter: Isn’t It  Rich?