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She'll take Manhattan

It wouldn't turn heads at the mall. It might not sparkle in a discotheque.

But an ankle-length stretch of moss-green Italian wool with a seamed waist and a jewel neckline is what Sue Blankinship calls the Perfect Dress.

"It drapes, it flatters. The fabric is rich, and it's comfortable," Blankinship said from the studio in her home where she designs and sews clothing. "You could pack it and take it anywhere, and it will look great."

Blankinship, 46, knows this from experience. Two weeks ago, the businesswoman and mother of two put on a similar dress _ this one a calf-length bias-cut style in a herringbone fabric _ and headed to Manhattan's garment district. For five days straight, she wore it in front of fashionably critical eyes as she showed the clothes she calls "evolved wear" to prospective buyers and store reps.

Apparently they liked what they saw, because she had to change into trousers and a sweater to come home. The herringbone dress _ as well as the green wool model, three jackets and 25 other pieces _ stayed in the Seventh Avenue showroom where Sue Blankinship Inc. now has floor space.

The company's fall 1997 line soon will go into production from the Beach Park home where Sue Blankinship Inc. was conceived out of frustration with the state of retail fashion.

"It just seems like no one is doing dresses these days. Everyone is focused on sportswear," Blankinship said. "And then when I did find dresses, everything looked like it was made for a 21-year-old, with a tie in the back or a shape that was too revealing. Or it was made badly with cheap fabric and didn't hang right."

Blankinship already was familiar with dressmaking techniques when she quit her job as manager of the H.B. Plant Museum store last December so she could design full-time. A graduate of New York's Parsons School of Design, she had worked for a Dallas-based clothing firm when she got out of school, and for a now-defunct Tampa manufacturer when she moved to the bay area with her husband, Richard. In recent years, crafting costumes for her daughters Berry, 21, and Brooke, 19, was all the sewing she had done.

Still, instinct told her that creating well-made dresses for real women was something she could make a success of.

"I knew from thinking about what I wanted and what my friends wanted that there was a need for dresses . . . and I was just shocked when I went to New York and everyone treated the dresses like they were the most unusual things. And they're just simple, very wearable dresses. But no one is doing that, because to make dresses you have to be a technician. It may be a loose-fitting dress, but if it's going to hang right and move right, it's more of a precision process than making pants or a jacket.

"A professional in the business told me that the younger designers don't know technique. They can't sketch, they can't sew, they can't make patterns."

Blankinship is a friend of Kenny Thomas, who designs for Ralph Lauren, and says that many up-and-comers like him are more focused on concept and mood than on technique. Some travel the world in search of vintage clothing and interpret from what they find.

Restoring the connection between flesh-and-blood women and the craft of clothing design is one of Blankinship's obsessions. She says she can do this by "knowing scale, and knowing women's bodies. Most women will tell you, "My shoulders are too narrow, I hate my arms, and my hips are too wide.' So you design to flatter."

Knowing how real women live and dress has influenced Blankinship's design in other ways. The "Cynthia" group of her collection, which includes the green seamed-waist dress, is named for Cynthia Gandee, director of the H.B. Plant Museum. With her blond Louise Brooks bob and elegant jackets and dresses, Gandee has long been a Tampa fashion icon.

"She is someone who is not a model who always looks so wonderful," Blankinship says.

Women's ideas also are shaping Blankinship's business plan _ she has signed up longtime friends Carlyle Jones, a Harvard graduate with a master's degree in business from Stanford, and K.K. Cooper, a facilitator-in-training known for her negotiating skills. The women say they have a number of "missions" to achieve with Sue Blankinship Inc., and not all of them have to do with fashion.

"We want to employ women to sew in their homes as a way to give them income and self-esteem," says Jones, who now lives in France and works with her husband on a plan to restructure several French companies. Jones was visiting Tampa last week, but she and Blankinship have mostly spoken by phone for the past six months.

The company's major investment so far has been for fabric. Jones and Blankinship went to New York last October and bought $6,000 worth of Italian-made fabrics that averaged about $25 a yard. Most are combinations of viscose and wool in neutral colors such as khaki, navy and black.

After Blankinship got the samples home, she found herself changing her initial design concepts.

"When I got the fabric, I pared down and I pared down, because that's what the fabric wanted. Every time I jazzed them up, it just cheapened them. The fabric has a soul and a personality, and if you make it do what it doesn't want to do, it gets ruined."

The khaki and navy dresses in the Brooke group, for example, lost pockets and decorative stitching. A brown group she had planned was dropped because the fabric didn't move as well as Blankinship had expected.

Six successful groups did emerge from the process. Besides "Cynthia," "Herringbone," and "Brooke," there are "Oh! Felina" "Pavlova" and "Galileo." All have simple A-line shapes with a minimum of decoration.

"A woman is going to understand these, or not," Blankinship says. "Sophisticated women will know how to wear them."

Final orders aren't expected until April, but several major department stores, including Saks and Neiman Marcus, are considering carrying the clothes, and Bendel's and Bergdorf Goodman are scheduled to look at the collection, which averages about $200 wholesale for each piece. A trunk show will be scheduled in a Tampa boutique sometime in the spring, but as yet there is no local outlet for the clothes.

Blankinship says the scariest time for the business is still to come, because orders have to be filled with precision and on time. Still, she can stand in her workroom, in the midst of piles of fabric and sketches pinned up on the wall, and smile.

After all, she has made her Perfect Dress.

"If all else fails, at least I have something to wear!"

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