My dear, it was such a delightful party!
Poppy was there in her new spring hat. So was Hollyhock, in a pretty print dress . . . and Grandpa in his smartly tailored vest . . . and Bodelia, who looked lovely in lace.They sat around an elegant table set with blue and white dishes and bouquets of spring flowers. There were sinfully fattening strawberry tarts from Brumby's and gooey goodies galore. No wonder brown button eyes were sparkling and little yarn mouths were embroidered with smiles.
The hostess? Well, it wasn't Beatrix Potter, even though the guests resembled characters in her animal stories. Anita Louise Crane was the lady pouring tea - an attractive, vivacious grandmother of eight who, just like MissPotter, has designed a wonderful world of her own brimming with imagination, wit and fantasy.
Anita Louise lives in Park City in an enchanting Victorian house that dates from 1890 and is on the historical register. The decor in the house tells of its owner's love for nostalgia and anything and everything romantic.
Exquisite pieces of lace curtain the windows. Flowers blossom in antique china teapots and dented iron teakettles. A bevy of baskets wears signs of advancing age - and wears them proudly. Straw hats - the kind your sweet, old auntie used to don to garden - hang on the walls. Wicker furniture adds to the ambiance. So do bunches of herbs drying in the kitchen, a colorful garland over the front door, a turn-of-the-century baby buggy, a rusty bird cage, a huge collection of china cups, African violets blooming profusely and a plethora of plump toss pillows.
The decor is quaint and charming. But it's the menagerie of stuffed animals sharing this forest of antiques and collectibles that provides the real magic.
You can usually find a bear seated at the tea table in the parlor. Or, if the parlor's empty, there's bound to be a cuddly bunny on the love seat in the living room watching that modern invention in the Victorian house - TV. Even when sales have been high and the number of animals is low, Grandpa, with his whimsical face and wire spectacles, always is "in residence" - a permanent fixture by the stove in the kitchen.
"I made Grandpa Bear for my husband," Anita Louise explains. "A special present. We even pack him along on our ski trips." (Her husband, Bruce, is national alpine skiing director with the U. S. Ski Team, which is headquartered in Park City.)
Most of the time, though, the brown bruin guards Bearlace Cottage, the name the designer has given her Park City residence where she operates a business that's most unique. She calls it "Bearlace Designs." And her specialties are bridal gowns, antique lace blouses, cummerbunds, skirts - and, of course, bears and rabbits that are absolutely stuffed with personality.
Goldilocks could claim only three bears. Anita Louise estimates there have been at least 300 in her life - and the number she has sewed from scratch, then dressed most attractively, continues to grow.
Famous people have found out about the bruins from ads in such publications as Good Housekeeping's Victoria magazine - people like actor Bruce Willis. (Willis is the proud "father" of Ethel, a bruin Anita Louise dressed in laces from the Cape Cod area where the Kennedys spend a great deal of time. Thus, the name "Ethel" - after Bobby's wife!)
But bears don't just enliven the households of the rich and famous. Peaches, for example, now lives in a retirement residence in New Hampshire.
"I made Peaches for my husband's 93-year-old grandmother," the designer says. "I can't tell you how much pleasure and laughter that bear in her pretty dress has provided for the residents. My animals are collectibles, not toys, but they're still meant to cheer things up, inspire make-believe and give grownups a chance to feel young again."
Just when did the Park City resident start making her animal collectibles?
Well, the stylishly dressed animals were an outgrowth of a bridal and special occasion dress business, she says - a business that started with her own wedding gown.
She'd reared four children alone and had worked long hours as a medical records librarian. Then Bruce Crane came into her life - and suddenly the joy and romance she'd missed over the years blossomed. She got as excited as a teenager about marriage and, although she'd had no formal fashion training, decided to make her own wedding gown - a lacy fantasy that could be a treasure forever. The gown, sewn with so much love and happiness, turned out beautifully. A photographer in Squaw Valley blew up the wedding portrait and hung it on the wall. Other brides-to-be were enchanted by the dress and began knocking on her door. A new career was born.
The Cranes moved to Park City. And Anita Louise continued to hone her craft, perfecting her skill as a seamstress and designer.
Then it was on to Colorado Springs, where she opened a small shop featuring bridal and special occasion clothes. Then back to Park City, where the Cranes found a charming house on Marsac - a cottage that was an ideal retreat from their busy skiing life as well as a perfect setting for the bridal business. That's when the first bear lumbered into their life.
"I've always been just crazy about antiques," she says. "I saw an antique teddy bear - and, of course, was just dying to have it. But, my goodness, that bear cost a fortune! So, I got to thinking, why not try to make one?"
Well, she did. And another. And another.
The early creations were fashioned of calico. (Today, Tina, a calico bear from that early period, sits smiling on a needlepoint stool in the parlor - greeting brides who come in for fittings.) Eventually, the Park City designer discovered wholesale places in San Francisco to purchase fuzzy materials that resembled a bear's real fur coat.
Recalling a cute picture she'd once seen in a magazine of a teddy in an antique lace gown, Anita Louise began dressing her animals. Early gowns were purchased - old christening dresses. Soon her creative bent took over and she was designing teddy bear togs of her own.
No two bears ever turn out exactly the same, and no two outfits do, either. That's part of the magic - each has its own distinct personality.
"I begin with the head," explains the designer. "Once that's done, it sets the tone for the entire animal and what the animal will wear. When one's completed, I always give it a kiss. These animals are very real to me and each one has a name."
Some of the names you've learned already. Bodelia, Poppy, Grandpa, Peaches. But there are many more such as Ophelia, Anastasia, Amy, Rosie, Webster, Emily. And now there are the rabbits, too. And little creatures that Crane, in typical Beatrix Potter style, has made up delightful tales about called "Cottage Folk." In the future, she says, other critters may join the forest family - foxes maybe (she has made one, and he turned out quite well), dogs, cats, mice. There's also the possibility that she may seek out helpers to assist with the numerous orders that now are coming in . . . or perhaps a company to manufacture her designs.
Problem is, she admits, once you start mass producing, you lose much of the charm and originality.
"I would never want to give up the one-of-a-kind, custom-made idea completely," she emphasizes. "I think that's what really makes these animals stand apart. I could possibly do both someday. I don't know. Anyway, for now, I'm keeping very busy and haven't had too much time to think about it."
The animals Anita Louise keeps busy creating and adopting out are available at Stein Eriksen's Lodge in Deer Valley and also through mail order or by contacting the designer directly. If a customer has a special kind of bear or rabbit in mind - one, say, clad in a wedding gown just like her own - she will try to fill such requests. Prices differ depending on the amount of handwork and the clothes, but most fully dressed bears cost $185 and go up to about $250. Bears in the buff are around $150. Rabbits are comparable.
Not every moment, of course, is devoted to embroidering animal faces and making dresses of Brussels lace for bears and bunnies. Anita Louise spends a great deal of time, too, with her bridal clientele creating elegant gowns that look like they've stepped out of a storybook. The lacy, custom-made dresses - many handbeaded with pearls and Austrian crystals or trimmed with romantic bunches of flowers - remind you of such contemporary fashion designers as Jessica McClintock and Nancy Johnson. Yet, although the style the Park City dressmaker espouses is similar to the designs of these women, it remains refreshingly original.
Same thing applies to the blouses, skirts and special occasion dresses she creates. They may hark back to the clothes Granny kept carefully packed away in her trunk in the attic. But they're never copies. Each garment the designer turns out at her sewing machine in the 19th century house in Park City is replete with fashionable innovation. The way she combines laces and fabrics; the way she uses beads to play up the cut of a neckline, the curve of a bodice, the puff of a sleeve - all these touches are hers and hers alone.
Often, when a blouse or a bridal gown is completed, the designer will telephone one of her young friends in Park City and ask her to serve as a model. They'll head for a scenic spot in the rustic old mining town that's now such a popular skiing mecca, and Crane will snap dozens of pictures.
"I love photography," she says. "I've done my own press kit for Bearlace Designs showing some of the bridal styles and also the animals. I think the photography can go hand in hand with my fashion work and will complement the bridal business."
A portrait of a beautiful young bride hangs in the living room of Anita Louise's home. Standing in the soft afternoon light in a gossamer gown, the bride's the essence of romance; the embodiment of what the designer's philosophy is all about.
True, her ultraromantic approach might not appeal to some. Bearlace Designs are for the girl who enjoys being a girl; the woman who's unabashedly in love with love and drawn to the gentle nostalgia of yesterday. Yet, even the modern sophisticate who goes for fast cars and sleek styles might be drawn to the beaded antique lace blouses.
They work with lace skirts, according to the designer. But sophisticated types can put them with satin or velvet pants. Maybe even with leather.
What's more, they're versatile. Equally appropriate for a delightful afternoon tea party - or a spectacular night on the town!