Paula Hian is getting a lot of recognition these days, and largely thanks to one little dress.
The soft-spoken fashion designer has been quietly working in a Pennsylvania warehouse for the past 15 years, creating garments for Philadelphia socialites including Governor Ed Rendell’s wife, Midge and actresses Brooke Shields, Julie Anne Emery, Hilary Swank and some that were worn by the stars of “Friends.”
“But we couldn’t get any credit,” she said, meandering about her showroom in the Philadelphia suburb of Manayunk.
That made it difficult to use celebrity status to skyrocket a career. While some big-name houses could sway the loyalties of celebrities with free dinners, gifts and clothing, Hian was just trying to get noticed.
But that changed this year with a short, cr¨me taffeta number with hand-embroidered gold chain detail, dubbed the “It” dress of the season.
“For some reason, I don’t know why, so many people asked for that dress,” said Hian.
The bubble-skirted dress struck a chord in the industry, and requests came pouring in to borrow the sample for photo shoots. Hian’s team created an extra sample so the piece could meet the demand. Songstress Carrie Underwood even sported the dress for a TV appearance and photo shoot in Entertainment Weekly.
“I couldn’t believe my eyes when I turned on the TV and, in a blink, saw Carrie Underwood wearing my dress,” said Hian.
Soon, the garment got a larger-than-life billing on actress Taylor Momsen, plastering billboards, buses and buildings in New York City in an ad for the new drama Gossip Girl.
The high-profile dress was also selected for an upcoming L’Oreal marketing campaign, and has been a hot seller in boutiques that sell Hian’s designs. “It just keeps sort of continuing,” she said. “We’ve received endless calls and e-mails.”
Each “It” dress can take up to 70 hours to create, from shaping the pattern, to cutting the fabric, stitching the seams and applying the meticulous hand-embroidered gold chain to the bodice, which can take about six hours alone.
An exclusive store in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, even purchased a few copies, but with the stipulation that their samples had to be long. “They’re very stylish, maybe more than we are,” Hian said of the famously conservative culture. “But whatever it is, it’s long.”
Chatting from her studio recently, Hian was dressed comfortably in a black and cr¨me top from the latest line, a leather jacket crisscrossed with zippers from 2001, and jeans, which could be a future endeavor.
“I love this jacket,” she says, zipping and unzipping a sleeve as she speaks. “I could practically sleep in it.”
Metallic accents have long been a favored choice for Hian’s work, as well as the soft curves and flowing geometric shapes that are present in many of her creations. For their soft fluidity, Hian favors silk and jersey above all other fabrics. Texture is also an important aspect of Hian’s designs, adding her own distinctive flair to classic silhouettes with soft, curved lines, geometric shapes and embellishing pieces with handcrafted cording, embroidery or hand-sewn gold chain.
“It’s really hard sometimes to find what you see in your head,” Hian said, but dying fabrics and hand embroidering designs helps make the finished product as close as possible to her original idea.
As a child, Hian didn’t harbor other career aspirations. The Philadelphia-born daughter of a fashion photographer and classical musician knew by the time she was five years-old that she loved thinking up outfits and sketching them on paper. Some of her earliest works, a child’s scribbling in greens and purples, still adorn a wall in her showroom.
The rest of the space is filled with racks of her latest designs, some of which can also be found in Hian’s personal closet. With each new piece, Hian strives to create an emotionally-charged garment, and a graphic depiction of Hian’s personality.
At her studio, Hian’s office is in slight disarray as she rifles through bags of small fabric squares, working on ideas for next year’s fall collection. New ideas begin life as quickly-jotted sketches on scraps of paper. They seem to pop into Hian’s head at all hours, sometimes forming while she sleeps; her career is, undoubtedly, a 24/7 job.
“I’m a working person. I love to work, â€˜cause it’s not like work,” she says.
“My French was so-so, not great,” said Hian. “They only seem to know â€˜bye-bye’ and â€˜Hollywood star,’” she joked. “It’s not easy, but I really like it.”
Hian’s next move will likely be to New York City, where she hopes to open a shop by 2008. Expanding her collection is also on Hian’s to-do list, with aspirations for active wear, accessories, jeans and a men’s line.
“Being a designer, you want to design everything,” she said.