Last Sunday at the Manhattan restaurant Benoit, models twirled through the dining room in a blur of satin and chiffon like visions from a pre-crash world of opulent elegance. The women sipping champagne at the red banquettes -- many in the edgy, thigh-high frocks and towering platform shoes inflicted on them by current fashion -- sighed longingly and applauded loudly. Here was something they hadn't seen much on New York's catwalks in, oh, about forty years: pretty, feminine dresses they could actually wear.
It was the debut collection of Laura Smalls, an African-American mother of three and long time outerwear designer for Amerex Group brands, which include Jones New York (a licensee division) and London Fog Kids. Smalls's own designs, though, are about as far from trench coats and rain slickers as the balcony is from the front row. The thirty dresses she presented on Sunday included an embroidered red satin confection that seemed made for a grand entrance at a Hollywood fête, and a white jacquard cotton sheath with embroidered daisies that everyone at my table agreed would look great on Michelle Obama. (Ikram Goldman, are you listening?)
In fact, all of Smalls's clothes would suit the First Lady -- or any lady for that matter. The sexy, romantic dresses are like few others seen on the catwalk this week, where notes of confusion (at Diane von Furstenberg), hostility (at Marc Jacobs) and heaviness (at Carolina Herrera) seemed to dominate. Though the prettiness of her dresses anticipated Zac Posen's colorful Umbrellas of Cherbourg frocks shown the next morning in Chelsea's Altman Building, Smalls has her own aesthetic -- it's sultry and wistful and recalls the very particular and poignant glamour of a Billie Holiday tune.
No surprise there, since the jazz legend was Smalls's godmother. Though Holiday died when the designer was a child, Smalls inherited her romantic sensibility, not to mention her portrait, and some of the make-up and furniture Holiday left behind in Smalls's grandmother's apartment in Flushing, Queens.
Several years before her death, Holiday lived briefly with Smalls's grandmother, an exotic beauty (her grandfather was a Cherokee Indian named Chief War Eagle), and her husband, a postal worker. Holiday had met the couple through Smalls's grandmother's sister, one of her neighbor's. The singer had recently been in jail on heroin charges, lost her money and needed a place to stay. "Billie liked the home cooked food my grandmother provided. My grandmother liked to party, too, but she didn't do drugs, and she never saw Billie do drugs. Billie always handled herself like a lady in my grandmother's house."
Holiday also was close to Smalls's mother, Dolores De Vega, a model and dancer, anointed as "Broadway's Prettiest Showgirl" by one New York newspaper in the early 1950s. De Vega gave up her career when she married Smalls's father, for many years the host of a popular radio show that featured performers at Harlem's Apollo Theater. Still beautiful at 72, De Vega is trying to revive her career, and recently appeared on "She's Got the Look," a TV Land modeling contest for women over 35.
De Vega, who on Sunday wore a red dress made by her daughter, imbued Smalls with a love of fashion. "I've wanted to be a designer since I was nine," she says. As a newly minted graduate of the Parsons School of Design in 1976, Smalls sold a collection of spring clothes to Henry Bendel and Bloomingdales. The designs included a linen bustier dress with a peplum in back and a full skirted dress in matte jersey with ruffles around the neckline and hem. This model did so well that Bloomingdales reordered it twice. Still, the buyer wasn't interested in Smalls's next collection, which had cleaner, more sophisticated lines. Meanwhile, at Bendel's, the buyer had changed, "and I couldn't even get an appointment," Smalls recalls.
The experience was crushing. Smalls already had one child, and by the time she got up her courage to pursue department stores again, she had a new husband and two more babies. "I settled into raising my kids and working. I made my own clothes, and dresses for my mom and aunts, but through all those years I wasn't thinking about trying another collection of my own," she says.
Then about a year ago, with only one child still at home, her old ambitions stirred, and she started making sketches. One evening around this time, she went to a gala event wearing a sleeveless, boat neck dress in gold gray taffeta with a bubble skirt and loads of draping, à la Madeleine Vionnet, the Parisian couturière whose work epitomized 1930s glamour. André Leon Talley, Vogue's editor-at-large happened to be there, and asked about her outfit. Smalls invited Talley to see her sketches, and afterward, he suggested that she get herself on the Fashion Week calendar.
She had only five weeks to cut and sew thirty outfits. How did she do it? "I lived on three hours of sleep, until the night before the presentation," Smalls says. "That night I didn't sleep at all."