Formal Complaint

In the rarefied world of women's high fashion, the little black dress can cost as much as $1,000, and an evening gown can run as high as $12,000.

The difference between a $12,000 and a $1,000 gown is rather like the difference between a Lexus LS400 and a Nissan Sentra. They look much the same in size and shape on the showroom floor. But when you slip into the Lexus--or the gown--they are suddenly worlds apart in the way they brake or break, cling to the curves, or make the heart accelerate.

Perhaps 1 percent of the female population can appreciate, much less afford, the luxury of the gown.

"It's like art," says Dick Kovacic. "It's very enjoyable to deal with because there's constant change, a different way things are supposed to look every season."

If you are a woman of a certain age and a certain income, you already know Dick, at least by his first name. Dick is arguably the preeminent salesman of haute couture in Phoenix, an expert in Armani clothing--not the off-the-rack Armanis purchased by mere mortals, mind you, but the black-label garments hand-fashioned in Italy by a select cadre of Armani associates. There are perhaps 20 stores in the nation that carry the line, and some choice garments may not be available at more than three of them.

Inadvertently, Dick Kovacic also has become a national symbol--not one he wanted to become. Nearly four years ago, a Phoenix dress shop called Lillie Rubin told Dick that because he is a man, he wasn't qualified to sell designer women's wear.

Lillie Rubin clearly didn't know Dick.
He was so incensed that he filed a sex-discrimination complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which eventually took his side.

Dick assumed the complaint was a private matter among him and EEOC and the dress shop. Little did he know that he was being derided on the U.S. Senate floor and lampooned in the national press, portrayed as panting and lecherous, just for defending his right to practice his profession. Not a word leaked back to Phoenix.

Dick Kovacic is 38, not quite handsome, but tall and willowy and wan in an elegant manner that recalls David Bowie. He pronounces his words precisely, as if speaking in italics. He sighs like a character in a Noel Coward play, a knowing frown spreading over his face. And he is always perfectly dressed in an Armani suit of course that drapes his mannequinlike frame just as Giorgio Armani himself might have intended.

Out of respect for his current employer, Dick has asked New Times not to mention the name of the store where he now works.

Nor will he even hint at what he is worth to them. That is proprietary information that Dick, as the consummate professional, would not dream of revealing. But others in the industry say that a good high-fashion salesperson can generate a half a million dollars or more in sales.

"If they're very good, some salespeople may do $700,000 to $800,000 a year," says Gustavo Tabares, who owns and operates the Gustavo boutique in the Esplanade.

And Dick, by all accounts, is very good. A friend who worked with him at I. Magnin, where he represented the Armani line until that store closed (waiting loyally until the doors were locked before taking his next job), claims that he was always among that store's top ten producers.

Dick especially will not reveal anything about his customers.
"The service is one on one," he says. "It's very personal and it's all clientele. You must keep that clientele to become a good salesperson."

What Dick Kovacic does can more accurately be described as consulting. He knows how many pieces of fabric compose each garment, how many swatches the designer fingered and eyeballed before finding the perfect fabric. He knows who is wearing what to the next social event--and will likely be attending himself. He knows what will look good on whom and will call her when it turns up in inventory. He knows how to accentuate that flattering body part while downplaying those parts a client would rather forget.

"If I sell something that doesn't look good, most women's husbands will tell them," says Dick. "Their friends will certainly tell them, or they'll hear it behind their backs that it does not look good. Guess whose fault that is? Even if they really liked it when they left, it's still my fault."

Last year, Dick Kovacic, the model gentleman, the duke of discretion, became the unwitting symbol of indiscretion and ungentlemanly behavior and the personification of that evil of the '90s: federal overregulation of business.

In August 1992, Kovacic applied for a job as manager of the Lillie Rubin store at the upscale Biltmore Fashion Square on Camelback Road in Phoenix. Lillie Rubin is a national chain of pricey dress shops headquartered in Florida. Its director of stores, one Mary L'Estrange, allegedly told Kovacic that he was unqualified for the job because he was a man, and Lillie Rubin only hired women.