Thursday, October 9, 2003

Trio fit for dressmaking

Cincinnati women find creativity in a fashionable field

By Linnea Eschenlohr
Enquirer contributor

For some, it's a full-time business sparked by a lifelong interest and passion for fashion. For others, it's a part-time hobby that must be pursued to fulfill a creative urge. For three Cincinnati dressmakers, it's about providing their clients with unique, well-fitting and original garments that can't be found in any retail outlet.

The three are among today's versions of the women portrayed in the Cincinnati Art Museum's A Separate Sphere: Dressmakers in Cincinnati's Golden Age, 1877-1922, opening Sunday and running through Jan. 4.

In the 19th and early 20th century, every major city in the United States, including Cincinnati, had a group of women who designed and constructed garments for upper- and middle-class women. More than 50 fashionable women's garments are in the exhibition, as well as information on the lives of the designers - who they were, where they came from and the environment that enabled them to thrive as artists and businesswomen.

Here's a look at three modern women who are in demand for their sense of fashion and the ability to create unique articles of clothing.

Linda Love

You just know that the woman who designs clothes for Cincinnati funk master Bootsy Collins would have some interesting stories to tell.

[IMAGE] Designer Linda Love (seated), with some of her fashion creations.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
Linda Love, owner of Linda's Love Fashions, began learning her career in fashion by making doll's clothes at age 5. Inspired by her seamstress mother, Love would later follow in her footsteps by creating prom and debutante dresses for her classmates at Hughes High School.

Originally pursuing nursing as a career, Love decided to return to design after attending fashion shows on trips to Paris and London. She opened a shop, Linda's Love Boutique, on Gilbert Avenue, where she designed day wear, evening wear, dresses, gowns, suits, wedding gowns and many other items. She was also well-known as a singer, performing with the James Brown Gospel Singers on WLWT's Sunday Soul program for 14 years. Today, she works as a caregiver at Arden Courts but still designs and creates unique fashions for her clientele.

Many people still know her from her days on television, and she attracts many dress clients through word-of-mouth. "People do talk, word travels," she says.

Her work for Collins began that way, about a decade ago. "I designed costumes for Henry Bennefield (one of his backup singers), who kept telling Bootsy that he had to come meet me," she laughs. "He finally made an appointment to come to my home."

Love has been designing and creating costumes for Collins since then, including the outfit he wore at the 2002 Grammy Awards ceremony.

Although she designs and creates many different kinds of clothes, her favorite is "way-out dressy" clothes. "I love collars," she says. Also color. "Women need to wear more colors."

The reward for her work is seeing people in her creations. "I love to see people in my garments, how they respond, how they look," Love says.

She begins the relationship with an orientation to talk about what clothes look right on each person.

"Now it's what looks good on a person, not just what's in style. It depends more on what the person wants, not just about what's in or out," she explains.

Custom suits range from $150-$275; wedding gowns range from $500 to $1,200. Information: 242-6602.

Annette Wallander

As the owner of Annette Ellen Designs in Hyde Park Square, Wallander specializes in both special-occasion and day wear.

[IMAGE] Annette Wallander with two of the dresses in her shop.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
One of her biggest sellers is mother-of-the-bride or groom gowns.

"Mothers love us," she says. "They don't want the typical, boring mother-of-the-bride gown. They want to look special, sophisticated and elegant."

Many of her special-occasion clients seek her services because the items available in the stores usually look "too young or way too old" for them, she says. Having something custom-made is the solution.

Day wear pieces that Wallander creates include business suits, special outfits for luncheons and even pants and blouses.

"A lot of times, ladies will want a special blouse to go with a suit," she says. Dresses are also a sought-after item. "Dresses that fit well are really hard for ladies to find in stores."

The process of getting something custom-made can involve multiple steps. First, you have to pick out what you want. Then there are the fabrics to select. More than 20 measurements are taken and a software program is used to make a custom pattern.

"That's what our customers really love, it's one less step for them to come in because the pattern is custom-graded to their specific measurements," Wallander says.

Design and creative work is something that has been a lifelong passion for Wallander. "I started sewing when I was 10. Design is a hobby that has always come very naturally to me."

With a retail and wholesale background with Macy's, Dillard's and Liz Claiborne, Wallander has been careful about having a strong business plan to back up her creative endeavor. "We're set up more as a business that has processes and procedures that can be duplicated," she explains. "I set up that way on purpose so we could expand someday."

Custom blouses and tops start at $290; suits start at $850.

Information: 321-6200;

Ann Firestone

An adjunct instructor in the University of Cincinnati's department of fashion design, Firestone teaches design, pattern-making and construction. On the side, she's a part-time dressmaker and massage therapist.

[IMAGE] Ann Firestone with a communion dress (left), a christening gown (center) and a holiday party dress (right).
(Steven M. Herppich photo)
What started as a co-op assignment with the costume department at Playhouse in the Park while a UC student became a full-time job as costume shop manager, producing the costumes for more than 100 productions through 1998. After a two-year stint as the co-owner of a Hyde Park dress shop, Dilly's Custom Dressmakers Inc., Firestone returned to school to learn massage therapy, earned her license and now has incorporated her three hobbies into full-time work.

For her dressmaking venture, bridal, formal and special-occasion wear keeps her busiest.

"I think you can divide the dressmaking world into those who do bridal and those that don't," she says.

She equates making bridal wear with her costume-making days at the Playhouse. "I got very good at fitting costuming close to the body and doing complicated things," she says. "My training was to learn how to sew and make patterns ... people will come to me because they know I have a lot of skill in fitting a dress. I have no fear about taking a dress apart to make it fit."

According to Firestone, the trends in wedding wear have changed considerably over the past two decades. "From the mid-80s to early '90s, it was very indicative of the economy - lots of abundance, lots of everything," she says. Now, the trend is for much simpler, more classic styles. "I credit Vera Wang for making this trend popular."

The price range for dresses made by Firestone vary depending on fabric, design and other factors. "One way or another, a person's budget is involved," she says. "I've worked on wedding dresses that have ranged from $245 to $5,000."

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