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Swathed

Staring at the shelves at Bella Fabrics is like looking inside an ice cream shop’s freezer window. But instead of round buckets of tasty cold treats, there are bolts of designer fabric in every color — Armani chocolate, Valentino cherry red, even the sherbet-hued swirls of Pucci. Manager Ie Hineno, a sweetly elegant Japanese woman with her hair neatly pulled back into a ponytail, and wearing tortoise-shell cat’s-eye glasses and matte red lipstick, points out some swatches. I touch one velvety square and spot a sticker on it. The sticker says Valentino. The sticker also says $295 . . . per yard. I immediately look up at Hineno and ask almost reflexively, “Who shops here?”

She laughs politely and says, “Mostly rich ladies from Beverly Hills and Brentwood. Either they come in or their designer.”

Bella Fabrics has been a fixture in the hidden world of high-end custom fashion for the past 20 years, though the store was formerly known as Elegance Fabrics (you can still buy Elegance-brand fabrics here). An elite group of designers — Nora Mira, Norma Rodriguez, Sedric Ballian, Leon Paule and Carol Lubin, among others — regularly shop at Bella for their clients, some of the city’s very richest women. Bella also sees plenty of Hollywood business.

“The big-budget movies,” Hineno clarifies. And TV too. Fabric for the clothes Vanessa Williams’ character wears in Ugly Betty is frequently purchased here. And Hineno swoons when she mentions George Clooney — she sold the fabric for his Syriana wardrobe. Anne Bancroft was a favorite of Hineno’s as well. “She was so beautiful,” Hineno says, with her hands clasped under her chin. “I was a big fan of hers. She had so much class.”

When I ask if the store sells patterns, Hineno laughs at me, albeit kindly. It’s clear I’m just a silly tourist unfamiliar with the customs of this rarefied land. Bella does sell fabric to customers who want to sew themselves something special, but beyond the costumers and designers, the store’s clients are mostly Asian and Jewish women who take fabric swatches to their personal designers. These are women who would never buy something manufactured and reproduced from a shop. But many of these ladies are 50 to 80 years old. “Some, even 90,” says the soft-spoken sales assistant Yumi Koga, who also is very tidily dressed, with her long gray hair neatly held with combs to the sides. For Bella’s fine fabric traditions to last, younger women are going to have to catch the custom bug.

The shop is owned by Rossano Salicini, who calls in once in a while, playing Charlie to Hineno and Koga’s Angels. He exports all of the store’s fabrics direct from Italy. And while some of the really high-end fabrics and silks are on the more expensive side, you can find lots for $60 to $90 per yard. The ladies say it takes 3 yards to make a suit. So you could potentially have a custom-made Valentino suit for just $180 — if you sew it yourself. To hire a designer, at least one of the regulars referred by Bella, it could cost closer to $1,500 for a custom design with Valentino, or Prada, Ungaro, Ferragamo, Dolce & Gabanna, Missoni or whatever au courant fabric is in at the moment.

The hottest fabrics right now are from Chanel and Pucci — they sell out in a finger snap, according to Hineno. The store also has a roll of Galliano’s rare newspaper-print stretch cotton; attached is a Vogue snapshot of the designer himself wearing the fabric in the form of tight pants.

A woman in her 40s comes into the shop looking for swatches to take to her designer for a dress. She needs to know how much fabric he’ll need. The average, Hineno says, is 2 yards for a shirtsleeve, knee-length dress. The woman checks out a turquoise Roberto Cavalli leopard-print chiffon. I start wondering: Could I acquire the sewing chops to pull off an original Pucci for $180? I vow to take up sewing.

Before leaving, I head to the remnants rack, where fabrics are reduced in price by 50 percent to 70 percent. I don’t find any Pucci, though there is some beautiful silk charcoal Armani chiffon. While I make plans to buy a sewing machine, I find something that momentarily quenches my Pucci bug — you can score a real Emilio Pucci silk scarf for $120, without ever having to figure out how a bobbin works.

Bella Fabrics, 8350 Beverly Blvd., W. Hlywd., (323) 655-8686; Mon.-Fri. 10 a.m.-6 p.m.


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