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Originally published Saturday, March 27, 2010 at 10:05 PM

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Seattle designer Luly Yang takes couture to creative new levels

In 10 years, Seattle designer Luly Yang has made an international reputation in the haute couture world, thanks to creative thinking and a lot of hard work. Her high-quality formal and bridal wear is created mostly in Seattle, though fabric, buttons and much of the rest of the unique elements in her clothes come from all over the world. Yang stays in Seattle because it's home, but she has now opened a shop in Beijing.

YOU HAVE, perhaps, seen the butterfly dress. Maybe one day, walking downtown on a gray and wet afternoon, you saw it sparkling in the shop window on Fourth and University off the Fairmont Olympic Hotel, looking as if it just perched there before flying off again. It's a monarch butterfly translated to silk; all orange and red and black and white, with tiny crystals embedded in the fabric and soft black feathers tucked in along the strapless top. Its seaming is diagonal, whirling around the body as if chasing it; its skirt is multipaneled and seems to float, like it's hovering over a blossom.

It is the trademark dress by Seattle designer Luly Yang, and it's also the first dress she designed — a symbol of a career metamorphosis, 10 years ago. Then, she was a graphic designer working with the architectural firm Callison, teaching aerobics in her spare time; now, she is an acclaimed couture designer and businesswoman specializing in custom bridal and formalwear, with an elegant downtown shop, a staff of seven and an international following.

Thinking back a decade, Yang remembered that the butterfly dress was born as a contest entry. It was a fashion-design contest aimed at graphic designers and sponsored by a paper company, so entries had to be made from paper. "I thought, oh, I always loved butterflies," said Yang, who is soft-spoken yet resolute. "I like what it represents, I like that it morphs from one thing to another, evolution and change. I decided to make a monarch butterfly."

Working from a picture 2 inches square, Yang manipulated the image on her computer, "cleaned it up, blew it up, got huge posters printed, and made a dress out of it. It took me many, many hours, in my condo — paper everywhere." And from that process came a change of direction. "I decided to switch my medium; not change my career as a designer but switch my medium, fashion instead of graphics. So that's how it started." A cocoon opened; a designer was born.

COUTURE — THE practice of designing and making custom-fitted clothing from high-quality materials, presented through annual collections — is an old art, born overseas. Its first practitioner, Charles Frederick Worth, was an Englishman who moved to Paris in the mid-1840s and established himself as something new: a specialist whose knowledge of textiles and shape allowed him to advise his clients on what they should wear, rather than take instruction from them (as dressmakers of the day typically did).

"A lady did not go to Maison Worth as she would to an ordinary dressmaker and say that she wanted a dress in green silk by Friday," writes fashion historian Diana de Marly in "The History of Haute Couture." She would make an appointment — itself an unusual necessity at the time — and she would have little to say at their meeting. "Worth would study her, note her coloring, her hair, her jewels, her style, and then he would design a gown which he thought suited her. Anyone going to Worth had to submit to his taste, while his overseas customers had to rely on his taste completely."

Though Yang is following in the Worth tradition, she makes her customers part of the design experience, meticulously observing them in initial meetings to get a sense of what would suit both their figures and their personalities. "I have to get to know (the client) a little bit and see how you communicate, whether or not you're a little more flamboyant and want to be showy or if you want to be more reserved or somewhere in between."

She sometimes finds herself gently urging longtime clients from their comfort zone. "I think, you're spending all this money, you should try something different!"she says. "I know their limits and I know how much I can push them, and I know them well enough to say, that's not good for you, let's not waste the time and money."

The birthplace of grunge and REI would seem to make for an unlikely couture town, but it's where Yang fluttered as a child, and, at 42, is the place she calls home. Born in Taiwan, she moved to Bellevue with her family at the age of 10, and would graduate from Newport High School and the University of Washington. Her mother sewed, as did her grandmother, and Yang remembers wearing the dresses they made her, and watching as the clothes they fashioned took shape. "My mom told me I was always sketching dresses, at 5 or 6," says Yang, who began to sew in middle school.

A career as a fashion designer seemed impractical, so Yang studied graphic design (on the advice of her father, an engineer) and worked in Seattle as an environmental graphics designer and branding specialist. Her career change a decade ago was both impetuous and carefully planned. After the birth of the butterfly dress, she spent time examining the pros and cons of her career change, struggling over the decision. And then one night, she had dinner at Palomino, which gives out fortunes with the check at the end of the meal. Hers was a quote from Jonathan Winters: "I couldn't wait for success, so I went ahead without it." She took it as a sign.

With a home-equity loan, Yang rented and remodeled a studio on Fourth Avenue and Pike Street in 2000, and, at first, didn't quit her day job at Callison; instead, she slowly transitioned from full time to part time to on call, then finally leaving. The studio, she recalled, had limitations — no windows, little space — but she stayed there 3 ½ years, slowly building a clientele. At first, she was a one-woman operation. Mei Li, still master seamstress for Yang, was hired after a year, then a part-time assistant to answer phones and book appointments. In 2004 came the move to the Olympic Hotel space, with an expansion in 2005.

Yang's shop is both atelier and retail store, a Champagne-colored haven of gracious, high-heeled women and lusciously hued silk. Yang herself, diminutive and needle-slender, is a perpetual presence: smiling and informal as she greets clients, frowning when a gown's finish doesn't meet her standards.

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"I'm not happy with the beading," she said on a recent afternoon, intently examining a claret-red dress with a sparkly bodice. "It makes the dress look dead." She shows the original design's sample dress side-by-side with the new one, and suddenly it's clear: The original is outlining its lace base less literally, and somehow makes the dress seem more vibrant and dimensional. (The beading on the new dress will be corrected.)

That attention to detail is part of the couture experience — and part of its price. In Yang's shop, sample dresses bear price tags ranging from the mid-$2,000s for a simple cocktail dress to perhaps $5,000 or $6,000 for an elaborate evening gown. That price is both the cost of the actual dress on which the tag dangles (customers in a hurry can buy a sample, which will be tailored to fit them) and the cost of having that garment custom-made from scratch — which can, if clients wish, include modifications. Or Yang can design a unique garment for a client, for a special occasion. The shop also offers attire from other designers in its bridal salon and a wide selection of accessories, some designed by Yang: shoes, jewelry, handbags, scarves, bridal veils and tiaras.

This isn't how Seattleites are used to shopping, and Yang understands that the cost and time are prohibitive for many. Couture "is an old art trying to survive in a new world," she says, "with lots of mass-produced goods that are $50 or $10. We can't compete with that. All we can do is celebrate individuality, because that's something mass production cannot do."

Those custom dresses, Yang explains, represent 100 to 200 hours of work from the designer and her staff — design time, sewing time, consultations, fittings, scheduling, locating fabric and trim. Though most of the sewing is done downstairs at Yang's salon, by Yi and two other seamstresses (one part-time), elaborate beading and embroidery has to be sent out, sometimes long distances. (For example, Yang points out a green dress with intricate beading done in Italy, and a gold one beaded in India.) Seattle, Yang says, is challenging for designers, because the limited availability of textiles and accessories means nearly everything has to be shipped, at costs that add up.

Were she to wholesale her gowns to bigger stores, Yang's designs would cost much more: A dress at $5,000/$6,000 would be marked up to $8,000 to $12,000. But she's deliberately keeping her business small and personal; at any given time, she says, there are probably no more than 20 to 30 dresses in various stages of construction. "We want to be very careful with stock and inventory and with buying too much fabric," she said. "I want to survive, so I can be here to service our clients forever."

Despite the economy's challenges, Yang's business has grown: A second shop in Beijing opened in 2008; Yang visits every quarter. (She was, Yang says, the first American designer to open a shop there.) Looking into the future, she says, "I don't know if I want to open more physical retail stores, but I'm very interested in designing more accessories, little treats that are not such a big purchase, that clients can enjoy more often." She's working on a signature scent ("very fresh, like you're in a spring garden") and hopes soon to produce a line that would encompass perfume, lotions and scented candles.

And Yang gives back to the community that has embraced her success: Her previous two annual runway shows have been benefits for Camp Korey, a nonprofit camp for seriously ill children in Carnation (one of the Paul Newman Hole in the Wall camps). Yang visited the camp three years ago and met Tim Rose, who founded it with his wife, Donna. The camp is named for their son, Korey, who died of osteosarcoma at 18. "I was touched by what (Tim) had done there, and by his personal story," Yang says simply.

Her shows have raised, according to Yang's public relations manager, Rose Dennis, more than $91,000 for the camp. At her last show, five young campers beamed from the runway, modeling custom-made Luly Yang gowns.

THE LIFE OF an artist/businesswoman is a frenetic and overscheduled one, and Yang expresses regret that she no longer has time to teach aerobics (which, she thinks, helped her understand the body as a designer). All her spare time now goes to her 6-year-old son. But her shop is a peaceful sanctuary, with soft music playing at a level that doesn't hinder conversation; you can imagine the dresses chatting with each other when everyone else has gone home. Three elegant rooms — two for couture, one for bridal, plus a small, dark-toned "library" for menswear — are rimmed with racks, each crowded with personality.

Dominating one rack, a black dress's vast skirt speaks volumes. It's made of multiple layers of black tulle with pearl beads attached, seemingly at random, to the lower layers — they're a little indistinct, like stars peeking through a fog. A strapless gown, of a robin's-egg blue so soft you could sleep on it, smiles demurely from its hanger, a cream bow winking from the center of the bodice. A stretchy blue/gray gown of silk jersey seems to melt in your hand, falling in delicate folds like a waterfall. Nearby, an elaborate two-piece gown of varying black-and-white squares — the signature dress from Yang's "20/20" runway collection — spills over its assigned space and trails away from the rack, as if it has wanderlust.

Yang can tell you the inspiration for each one. That black-and-white gown, with its optic pattern, was inspired by her brother, an ophthalmologist. A pert wedding mini-dress, its tulle overlayer dotted with swirls, took its pattern from the abundant curls of Michelangelo's David. Another wedding dress, named "Amélie," might well have been worn by Audrey Tautou in the movie; it's a whimsical confection of mocha-colored silk and lace.

Just as each garment has its own character, so does each wearer. Bill Funcannon and Jeff Fritz, who have commissioned elaborate costumes for a series of Venetian masquerade balls, gleefully join Yang in selecting trim and buttons. ("When you find it, it's like you've found treasure," says Yang of the pleasure in choosing just the right details.) Elegant Michele Heidt, in search of a dress to wear to a Viennese ball in New York, stands poised as Yang drapes fabric over her: a phantom dress, taking shape before our eyes.

Mi Ae Lipe, a bridal client, has worked with Yang to design her unique gown, which will have a gracefully falling one-shoulder bodice and trailing leaf appliqués. She smiles quietly into the mirror as Yang and Li fuss with pins, making infinitesimal adjustments; she's watching the formation of something that never existed before.

The butterfly dress — not the original paper one, but a fabric one made by Yang in 2004 — serenely watches over all, from a mannequin across the room. It looks weightless, but it's not: The skirt alone weighs nearly 20 pounds. It's intricately beautiful inside as well as out, with multicolored, elaborate tulle layers invisible to the outside eye. Barbara Karinska, the great ballet costume designer for George Balanchine, would answer those who wondered about the necessity of intricate detail that no one would see by saying, "It is for the soul."

Luly Yang has a different way of putting it. "Dresses are like people," she says, her eyes focused on the lining of a frothy floral skirt trimmed with topaz sequins. "They should be nice on the inside."

Moira Macdonald is The Seattle Times movie critic. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.

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