The Little Dress that Could

Dress to thrill: Amanda Owen in her creation (Photo by Edon Photography)

I first met Amanda Owen while she was styling background performers for the Gorillaz’ appearance with Madonna at this year’s Grammy Awards. She had dressed two very differently shaped girls — one slightly zaftig, one veering toward scrawny — in the same exact dress. Both girls looked great; the frock seemed to flatter both figures equally, and I asked who designed it. “I did,” she said.

Back then she was sewing the dresses out of her house. But in just three months, the tattoo-sleeved, raven-haired Owen went from bedroom seamstress to fledgling designer. A few weeks ago, her universal-fit dresses, called “Lolita,” went on the racks at the Ron Herman Fred Segal on Melrose under her NoLola label.

Owen, 29, came to fashion as a hairdresser who got burnt out. “It’s exhausting listening to people’s problems all day long,” she says. So she ran away and hid up in Mammoth for a while, where she admits she “snowboarded and . . . well, that’s pretty much it.”

But those days on the mountain gave her time to put her life in perspective. She realized that there was one thing she always wanted to do: design clothing. As a kid she’d create entire looks for herself. She remembers becoming obsessed in fourth grade with business suits. “I finally found one that fit my 10-year-old frame,” she says, laughing, “pink pinstripe skirt with matching jacket, and pink pearls. It didn’t go over well.” She says she was an outcast in her native Santa Cruz. “It’s more casual there, and kids just made fun of me. And my mom would get pissed because she’d spend all this money on school clothes and I’d take them apart and revise them.”

She’d sew by hand, or use safety pins or ties. “My mom sews and my grandmother [did too],” Owen says. “But I didn’t want to learn.” Her grandmother, Lola, after whom the company is named, never fully supported Owen’s creative and free-spirited lifestyle, and especially the tattoos that began inking their way up her arm and down her back. “NoLola reminds me to stay my course,” she explains. “That I am on the right path.”

Owen did learn how to sew, about two and a half years ago. She went to San Francisco’s Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising and also learned pattern making and how to put a line together. Eventually, she patched things up with her grandmother, who was so proud of Owen she gave her a few antique sewing machines and yards and yards of thread and ribbons from the 1950s. “I just went nuts with that stuff,” Owen says wide-eyed.

She takes her inspiration from the female form. “Women’s bodies are so beautiful, and with all these sweatsuits women are running around in, we’re losing structure. I love things that define and enhance a woman’s body, like tucked waists, cigarette pants, high necks. And I still love the business suits.”

She also finds herself inspired by her time on the mountain — those days filter into her color choices. One time while snowboarding, she was caught in a blinding storm. “All the colors washed out,” she says. “The fog and the snow shifted colors; greens became a weird violet, like a lilac gray; browns became pewters.”

She’s already hard at work expanding her line — about six or seven new pieces — filled with structured items like stovepipe pants, vests, bustiers and bubble skirts. “But I don’t want to get into mass production,” she says. “I don’t want it to get away from me. This is my love and I want it to stay close.”

Which is another way of saying that Owen won’t be running away to the mountains again anytime soon.?

NoLola “Lolita” dress (around $300) available at Fred Segal, 8100 Melrose Ave., L.A., (323) 655-3734.


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