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London fashion: a season for courtly romance; Designing Lady Diana's dress

It may be minuscule in comparison with the giants of international couture. But as of now, the little house of Emanuel is the biggest fashion name in town -- one that will presently be of world importance.

The label belongs to Elizabeth and David Emanuel, a rather Edwardian-looking young married couple who describe themselves as "two designers working as one." They are perfectionists at making frothy custom-order wedding dresses that can double as ball gowns later. For the moment, they have gone into temporary retirement and are not accepting new orders.

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"We've been inundated with requests to do everything from dolls to dishes, but we're doing nothing at all until after the wedding," says David.

The window shades of their tiny second-floor showroom here at 26A Brook Street, W.1., have, in fact, been lowered for weeks. The shades will stay down until July 29, when 19-year-old Lady Diana Spencer walks down the aisle of St. Paul's Cathedral. The Emanuels are the soul of caution. They know that long lenses of enterprising photographers have managed to penetrate workrooms and salons before.

Immediately after the announcement that Prince Charles's fiancee had chosen the design couple to make her bridal gown, crowds began gathering on the street below.

"There were hundreds of people peering up, waiting, hoping she'd come, and some had field glasses," David says. "She's been here twice since," he adds, momentarily dropping his guard.

Both designers are keenly aware of the need for the sealed lip and otherwise superdiscreet conduct. David flashes his engaging smile and replies, "One knows how to behave," when he is asked whether they have been requested by Buckingham Palace to keep mum on matters of a personal nature regarding the future Princess of Wales.

Prodded for specifics, David blushes, then answers, "That's a million-dollar question. . . . She's, well, elegant, very smart, very slim, and, well, er, 5 feet, 10 inches, and she wears clothes well. She is very sweet, relaxed, and extremely happy."

Although Lady Diana was already a client, the Emanuels were as surprised as anyone else when she chose them to create the wedding dress of the decade. She had liked an Emanuel chiffon blouse she wore when posing in a photography session with Lord Snowdon last December. The pictures appeared in an issue of British Vogue.

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"She rang up, made an appointment, and came in," David recalls. That occurred shortly after Prince Charles had slipped the engagement ring (an 18 -carat sapphire surrounded by 14 diamonds, bought at Garrards for about $62,000) on her finger.

David and Elizabeth call their one-of-a-kind evening dresses, sold for upwards of $1,000, "Emanuel Specials." David says the designers did "two or three" such special evening dresses for Lady Diana -- including the black silk taffeta strapless dress she wore for her first public appearance with the Prince.

What will the wedding gown be like? Spectacular, certainly. Modern, too. "The occasion is so romantic," David muses. "A girl has an image of how she'd like to look on The Day. We try to capture that image," he notes, in a deft shift from the particular to the general. Useless, obviously, to probe into what he knows about Lady Diana's image.

Still, there are indications as to what is in store for the ceremony that some 500 million people will be watching on television. A spun-sugar fairy-tale dress, no doubt. Something on the order of the diaphanous, delicately embroidered cream silk confection trimmed with pink ribbon that is on a mannequin in a corner of their showroom.

"This is the length we like now -- the short ballerina," David says, indicating an ankle-clearing hemline Americans would call waltz length.

Dresses may have enormous underskirts composed of as much as 50 yards of layered fine silk tulle. The dresses always look soft as clouds, and are never hooped.

"We are not the oldm couture. We are the newm couture," David says firmly.

He worked at Hardy Amies's London couture house as a student when he and Elizabeth were attending the Royal College of Art. The couple met earlier, in 1974, when both were studying at Harrow School of Art.

The Emanuels' business is only three years old. For a time, they did a wholesale line sold in America at Henri Bendel and Neiman-Marcus, but later abandoned that.

Few young fashionables of British nobility have been getting married lately in anything other than an Emanuel. For example, one report of a wedding read that "the bride looked a dream in a gigantic wedding cake of a dress by Emanuel, embroidered all over in tiny sequins."

There in essence is what we may reasonably expect -- in the nth degree -- when the wedding bells ring on Britain's big day in July

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