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A PERFECT FIT

The 17-year-old girl looks like Cinderella being readied for the ball. Her fairy godmother is adjusting a ruffle on her dazzling gown. And a squadron of helpful, little bluebirds must have just left.

But for Belinda Lagasi, the Countryside High School Cinderella gazing in the mirror, there's nothing magical about her romantic reflection; it came about with hard work _ her own.

And the fairy godmother with dressmaker pins between her teeth could just as easily spin Cinderella around and tell her, "Rip them out. That's right, all those seams!"

So what has drawn the teenage Belinda and Jo Terranova, her sewing mentor and master, into a relationship that seems closer than blood and built on a mutual admiration that spans the decades between them?

Clothes.

Not the clothes you can buy in a store, but the clothes you make; the ones you design; the ones that spring from your imagination and are put together as carefully as a cantilevered bridge.

This is how Terranova is teaching Belinda to approach the craft of design and dressmaking. Like any great construction, it has to be perfect from the first shovel of dirt or that initial clip of a dressmaker's shears. And no, Belinda doesn't mind ripping out seams. She has sought out this relationship, master and apprentice. Belinda believes Terranova will help her become a world-famous dress designer.

But on a recent after-school Friday in the backroom of Hancock Fabrics, her Kenmore sewing machine punching little holes into Shantung polyester, Belinda is more the laboring journeyman than a darling of haute couture.

With a smile at Terranova, she says, "I've probably sewn each dress together three or four times. If she doesn't like my line of stitching, out it comes."

Terranova, in glove-fitted tan slacks she has (naturally) made herself, nods approvingly, "I always expect more from Belinda."

Belinda always rises to the occasion, she says.

This is how it has been since the disciple found her guru three years ago, a guru who had begun to wonder if what she had to offer was what anybody still wanted to learn.

Terranova, a native New Yorker, had always loved fashion. In the 1950s, she attended the prestigious Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. She worked in that city's garment district for 10 years as a blouse and sportswear designer. She created designs, developed patterns and readied her ideas for the mass market.

"My approach was never just about sewing," Terranova says. "It's about how to translate an idea into a well-made garment that's intelligently conceived and that will last, and that's not easy."

Terranova eventually moved to Florida where she taught sewing in the home economics programs in the public schools. "But now, young girls don't need to know how to make clothes, do they?" It's too easy to toss out what's old and buy something new. "Just throw on a pair of sweats. Nothing really needs to fit these days." Sacrilege, as far as she's concerned.

In the late '80s, Terranova taught patternmaking and sewing in then-St. Petersburg Junior College's adult education program. When that program phased out, she moved to local fabric stores where customers could go to learn to sew _ but her way, the right way. Today she also teaches in private homes and helps clothes-lovers re-create beloved items that were so well made that Terranova says it would be "a crime not to bring them back into the 21st century."

But despite her experience, despite the design and craft talent she has seen both here and in America's fashion hub, Terranova says Belinda is extraordinary.

"I'll never forget the first day I laid eyes on her. Here I was with a class full of middle-aged women all bent over their sewing machines, when this Gothic-looking teenager with waist-length dreadlocks shows up. She was carrying an oil painting of a nude and a Vogue pattern of an enormous poodle skirt.

" "I want to learn to sew,' she said, and I thought, Oh, my god!."

Belinda says she had just come by taxi from a life painting class, thus the nude. Belinda had a sheaf of designs, an eye for splashing unexpected colors together and absolute fearlessness about combining textures such as black vinyl and red satin in the same outfit.

"I think a lot of my feel for design is directly related to my painting background," Belinda says, "and maybe my parents' willingness to just let me wear whatever I wanted _ although my style is modifying.

"I'm more rocker now than Goth."

Studying twice a week with a private "art mentor" since sixth grade, Belinda went on to be the only Countryside High student in six years to be an AP art student, she says.

But as much as art was her passion, she and her parents acknowledged that the fine arts don't always lead to fine living for the artist. The need to find something "that would pay the bills" led Belinda to consider something else creative. With a room filled with Barbie dolls all dressed in her original designs, everything "sort of fell into place. Now I just needed to learn how to make what was in my head."

Today, Belinda can make a "sloper," a detailed, 14-measurement pattern of the human body. "Once you've drafted a good sloper, you're guaranteed a good fit," she says with authority. She can put boning in a strapless gown; line a tailored jacket; hoist a vinyl bustier; and flounce a red satin number with peplums fit for a runway.

She's willing to do the drudge work, too. In her Cinderella dress of unusual "turtle-soup" color, Belinda has sewn 45 yards of hemmed ruffles into a pyramid-shaped inset of sea-green Shantung.

She thinks she'll debut it at her prom. "I know I could have bought a dress for less, but even at about $145 and with maybe 60 hours of work in it, for what I've learned, it's still a bargain."

Belinda, now completing her senior year at Countryside, has already been accepted at the Parsons School of Design and is awaiting word from the Fashion Institute of Technology _ Terranova's alma mater. But as much as she looks toward the future, Belinda seems to cling to the present and her intensely devoted relationship with her sewing teacher.

"She's like an older version of me," the teenager says. "We're both stylish, driven, originally New Yorkers, and pretty opinionated."

Outside in the fabric showroom, women wander among the 1,000-plus bolts of fabrics, picking up a spool of thread or fingering and imagining the cloth into clothes as women have done from time immemorial.

While Terranova watches Belinda pack her green ball gown for its ride home, they laugh and chat as peers, "apprentice and master" laid aside, pride and affection flowing back and forth.

What famous designer would each wear to a New Year's Eve party? The former Goth and the elegant traditionalist eye each other, thinking this over. Then Terranova says, Halston _ a classic choice. Belinda chooses Dior, another classic. These two must be cut from the same cloth.

Then Belinda adds, "Or Alexander McQueen, yeah, he's way out there, but very cool, very cool."

Marina Brown is a frequent Floridian contributor.

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