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LOS ANGELES — Whether paired with boots in the fall or sandals in the spring, the dress has become a fashion staple that transcends the seasons — and rings up cash registers. According to market research firm The NPD Group, dress sales surged more than 40 percent across the country to $5.85 billion in the 12 months ended in September from the previous year.

The trend is no more evident than in the land of denim, where casual Californians have switched from jeans and T-shirts to dresses as everyday uniforms, thus inspiring a plethora of designers to capitalize on the boom. Next spring, two emerging labels from the Golden State hope to be constants in many one-piece wardrobes: contemporary startup Nela and law school grad-turned-dressmaker Ani Lee.

This story first appeared in the January 2, 2008 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Fully aware she won’t be able to reinvent the wheel in the saturated dress market, Hellen Yuan instead has concocted original graphics like a foulard print and a blooming floral pattern to move her seven-month-old label, Nela, down the road to success.

Yuan, who previously worked at Rozae Nichols, Parallel and Linda Loudermilk, offers only dresses in her debut Nela collection, which retails from $220 to $800. The majority of the 25 styles are printed on natural fabrics such as silk chiffon, cotton silk voile, crepe de chine and cotton silk sateen. Each print is unique to a particular style. For instance, the lotus bloom graphic printed on crinkled chiffon would be available on a long strapless dress with a bubble hem, whereas a checkered ombré charmeuse fabric mixed with chiffon has been crafted into a style that layers a multicolored brown tier over a cream slip.

Yuan said women are flocking to frocks because they want to dress up more. “Dresses make women feel feminine and sexy,” she said.

But even in this boom, fashion is more than just dresses and Yuan plans on offering a full collection eventually. In the meantime, inspiration for spring comes from Brazil’s Carnaval. “I felt that spring was really fresh and bright — lots of oversize floral, color injections and some new shapes,” Yuan said.

One such shape entailed elongating last season’s bubble form to the knee for a modern twist on the loosely billowing silhouette pioneered by Paul Poiret in the early 20th century.

Though spring generally brings warmer temperatures, Yuan chose to keep the gams mostly covered, albeit in soft, flowing fabrics. “It is a little bit more sophisticated and flirty,” she said.
— Diana Ryu

Ani Lee is a modern woman with a traditional mind-set.

Armed with a degree from New York Law School, the 26-year-old jettisoned a legal future to follow her grandmother’s footsteps and become a dressmaker. Using only vintage fabrics, such as a thick, Eighties-era knit resembling gold scales, the self-taught designer aims to bring back, in her words, a “ladylike vibe.” While her collection launching this fall includes everything from a fitted shift with a giant zipper in the front to a silky, boatneck tunic, next year’s lineup will move away from Empire waists, veering toward the Seventies with flowing dresses eased by lower waists.

“They’re sexy dresses but with a modern twist on an old-fashioned vibe,” Lee said.

In November, Lee added the title of retailer to her résumé by opening her first boutique, Jane Doe, in Los Angeles, where she sells her designs as well as dresses from the likes of Robert Rodriguez, Mara Hoffman and Meghan. As the anonymity of the name implies, the shop gives Los Angeles women the opportunity to take on any role by dressing the part. Retail prices for Lee’s dresses range from $200 to $800.

The dress trend is hot for now, and Lee said she hopes the style will continue to be embraced by women of all ages.

“There is nothing like putting on an amazing dress and feeling like a new woman,” she said.
— Rachel Rees

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