A director well-dressed for the part

WHEN Danuta Ryder first arrived in New York, she made a beeline for that chic specialty store Henri Bendel.

''They hired me on the spot,'' she recalls. ''They liked what I was wearing.'' No further explanations were necessary as Joyce Boutique's new fashion director stood in her office high above Central.

It was the perfect composition. The tub of tulips on the wide desk, a Chinese screen providing a serene backdrop - and Danuta Ryder, living work of art.

There are women who dress to impress and women who dress to exert power. Ms Ryder belongs to a different breed and possibly a different era.

In her black outfit (''Comme des Garcons; I can wear it with anything''), with its striking contrasts - pale skin, aquamarine eyes, carnelian lips, hennaed hair and a profusion of amber ornaments - she looked like a racy nun off to the Left Bank for a rap session with Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.

Arty Hongkong will adore her. But it's the ladies who lunch and party Ryder has set her sights on. Lesson one from Joyce Ma's new guru is bound to unsettle many a socialite.

''Let's just say that fashion without style has come to an end and the designer look is out.

''Today's customer has to be much more creative. Two years ago you could still get away with uniforms. Now everyone is doing separates and the art lies in putting them together in a way that is interesting and individual.

''Partly, my job will be to help clients in their choices. In this way we will create the Joyce Style - a fresh look combining the labels she already has, plus others which we will introduce - though obviously it won't be easy.'' A cynic would laugh. After all, it's not Paris - greatly humbled these days - but the recession which has inspired women to mix and match clothes with an ingenuity and economy unmatched since World War II. Surely a guiding hand defeats the very notion of individuality.

Some, observing Joyce Boutique Holding's large accumulation of high-priced ''uniforms'' and lacklustre performance on the stock market in recent times, might also conjecture that Ms Ryder has been brought to redress matters, so to speak.

A more direct explanation is that she has been hired to replace Joyce Ma's former right-hand woman - sister Bonnie Gokson who was creative head for 15 years before launching her own company late last year.

What can be said with certainty is that Danuta Ryder, nee Hudykowna - ''I married an American, but we're divorced now'' - is a true fashion original who knows the value of a buck.

She was born and raised in Poland in a town midway between Warsaw and Krakow, and is a graduate of Jagiellonski University where she majored in literature and art history.

Communism, as experienced by Ms Ryder, was a vague presence whose propaganda one could ignore while lapping up the culture.

''Intellectual life in Poland flowered under communism because everything was done under grants. Theatre, music, books - we had it all. Of course certain things had to be published abroad, but it wasn't so hard to smuggle them in.

''Nice clothes - now that was hard. I managed by designing my own things and having them made up by a dressmaker.'' She was wearing one of her Polish specials when she fronted up at Henri Bendel's in 1980.

They took in the startling vision, heard the voice that sounds like soft gravel and promptly hired her as an assistant in the visual planning department.

It was there that Danuta Ryder found her supreme influence: creative head, Geraldine Stutz.

''A grand lady in every sense. It was she who made Bendel's one of the most exquisite stores imaginable. Every corner - so chic, so perfect, so special - breathed her influence and everyone who worked there came under it.'' The protegee excelled. By 1983, Danuta Ryder was visual planning director, designing window and interior displays which captivated New York and earned her numerous entries in the US rag-trade's hard-cover glossy, Store Windows That Sell.

From 1987 to 1989, she also did the interior and window displays for Yves Saint Laurent in New York and in March last year, started her own consultancy - only to be snapped up by Joyce Ma.

First to get the Ryder treatment will be the World of Joyce in the Galleria. ''I like it, but I think it needs a little more warmth,'' says the new fashion director.

''To me an attractive shop is one with a wonderful mixture of things - things like books and art as well as clothes.

''Nothing is going to change drastically. Our aim is to improve what we have and add sparkle.'' With a 38,000-square-foot Joyce lifestyle boutique due to open in Taiwan in September, plus frequent trips abroad to assist with buying, Danuta Ryder will have her hands full.

None of it is likely to dampen that free spirit. Marriage certainly couldn't.

''John and I were a very wonderful couple,'' she smiles, ''but finally he decided he couldn't work me out.'' It wasn't for lack of expertise. Dr John Ryder is a psychiatrist.