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Princess Di’s gowns may dress up U.

Area charities are negotiating to bring a dozen frocks to museum

SHARE Princess Di’s gowns may dress up U.

The style-conscious Princess Diana of England, who died in a car accident in 1997, may yet "dress up" the University of Utah's Museum of Fine Arts.

Negotiations are under way that could bring about a dozen of the late princess' gowns to the U., possibly in October, for an eight-week exhibit.

Among the dresses to be displayed is the "Travolta Dress," a stunning ink-blue silk/velvet creation that Diana wore to a White House dinner in 1985. It was dubbed the Travolta Dress because the princess danced on that occasion with actor John Travolta. The frock has been valued at $750,000.

Earnings from the exhibit, which could draw as many as 100,000 visitors to the U. art museum, would benefit the People's Princess Charitable Foundation, which owns the gowns, and Utah charities supported by the Wells Fargo Women's Financial Services, Utah Junior League and the George S. and Dolores Dore Eccles Foundation, which have worked together to bring the gowns to Utah. The charitable effect also could be extended as local groups sponsor visits to the exhibit.

"We feel very confident," Kathy Hillis, vice president and manager of women's financial services at Wells Fargo, said of the possibility of the exhibit coming to the U. "We haven't signed a contract yet, and until all the I's are dotted and the T's crossed . . . It's a very complicated and expensive project."

She fell into the project somewhat by "serendipity," she said. While trying to find a speaker to address her group, she heard the head of the People's Princess Charitable Foundation on the Today show. She contacted the show to see if it would be possible to schedule the foundation's founder, Maureen Rorech Dunkle, a Tampa, Fla., businesswoman, as a speaker.

Dunkle bought 14 of Diana's gowns in an auction just weeks before the crash that killed the popular princess. She has sponsored exhibits in England, Canada, New Zealand and the United States and has raised more than $1.5 million for charities of the sort Diana supported, most of them to benefit women and children.

That was more than a year ago. One thing led to another, and soon the focus had shifted to a display of the gowns themselves. "I had no idea what that would involve," said Hillis.

Soon, the Junior League, the Eccles Foundation and the art museum's administrators were all involved in the complex negotiations. Patty Biedermann of the Junior League has spearheaded the project for her organization.

"Just to be included is very exciting. The funds we hope to raise will allow us to continue our projects well into the future." Some 300 League members will be involved in staffing the exhibit, providing hundreds of hours of volunteer service.

Hillis said the Diana gowns have been on exhibit in several U.S. locations and have stirred significant interest, even though Americans don't always have the same fascination with things royal as people in the United Kingdom. Based on those experiences, the museum expects some 100,000 people to visit their handsome new quarters on the U. campus to see the gowns.

"It will be an opportunity to see something we normally wouldn't get to see," said Hillis. After the Utah showing, the gowns will be put on display in Kensington Palace in London. The Diana exhibits will be sandwiched between the current Rodin exhibit and a special exhibit featuring Olympic art that will coincide with the 2002 Winter Games, set for February in Utah.

The Utah sponsors of the Diana gown showing will pay a fee up front and cover the (enormous) costs of bringing the gowns to Utah. The display cases in which the dresses are shown "do not break down," Hillis said, and require four semi-trailers to transport them.

Although final details are still being hammered out, advance ticket sales for either groups or individuals can be arranged by calling the Junior League at 328-1019, or SmithTix, 467-8499 or 1-800-888-8499.

E-mail: tvanleer@desnews.com