THE COMEBACK KID DALLAS--After a four-year hiatus, Michael Ballas is back on the retail scene with an exclusive dress collection for the Gazebo. The designer had a brief but hot career from 1986 to 1988, when he styled a whimsical sportswear collection that sold to top specialty stores and reached an annual volume of $1.8 million. Ballas was in his early 20s at the time, and the pressures of the business became overwhelming. "After five seasons, I was in 42 specialty stores, and it was a lot for me at that age," he said. So he took a break, did a sales stint at the Barneys New York store at NorthPark Center here, and then began doing some custom design for private clients. Earlier this year, Ballas decided it was time to get back into wholesaling. "I missed it from the time I stopped," Ballas said. "There is something rewarding about not only creating a product, but seeing people buying that product." Shelle Bagot, owner of the Gazebo, came upon Ballas's latest works by accident when she saw him last fall at a local car wash. He happened to have photographs with him of a few custom styles and some ideas for ready-to-wear, and Bagot was impressed. "We looked at the slides and thought that it was for our customer and it could be exclusive, which means a lot to our customer," Bagot recalled. The collection, appropriately dubbed Back to Life, bowed in January at the Gazebo for spring with day and evening dresses and suits retailing from $800 to $1,000. Coordinating jackets for some of the dresses were $900 to $1,000. "It's really colorful, which is different for me because I've always stuck to black and navy," Ballas said. The first styles included a wool boucle suit with a cropped jacket and short A-line skirt in chartreuse, coral and rose. Ballas also did a silk organza bustier dress with a shirred skirt that can be worn with the boucle jacket. "We had a 75 percent sell-through in three weeks," said Bagot. "People have loved the color and the shape." Ballas thinks the strongest sellers are yet to come--double-breasted coatdresses in a pinstriped black and gold worsted wool that are due to ship this month. He planned to offer 30 styles for spring and summer. "This collection takes what I did in the past, which was fun, fitted flirty clothes, and combines that with my retail experience at Barneys and the client base I developed there of women professionals," Ballas explained. "I do very sexy, feminine clothing that's a cross between hip young people and professional women who like fashion and want to be a little forward but can't go to extremes." He plans to do the collection for the Gazebo for a year. Business with the Gazebo, plus his 20 regular clients for custom clothing, should add up to more than $500,000 in sales this year. Ballas plans to begin offering a separate line to the national wholesale market for spring 1996 and is thinking about pursuing selling to a few stores in other cities for fall. Backed by a private investor, Ballas moved in February to a headquarters and factory on 1512 Edison St. in the interior design district. For fall, he's thinking about "dresses, dresses, dresses," especially fitted dresses with long jackets over them. "I try to do dresses that are transitional from day to evening," he said. "In the daytime, they can be worn underneath jackets. But the dress is a piece in itself that is very flattering and stands on its own."--HOLLY HABER
A Stella McCartney sketch of a custom dress made from protein-based silk in partnership with biotech lab Bolt Threads. The dress will be displayed at The Museum of Modern Art's upcoming design exhibition, "Items: Is Fashion Modern?"