If not for the confiscation of her childhood Barbie doll, Amy Michelson might never have become a fashion designer.
She loved that ratty old doll with bad hair that a neighbor girl had given her and was thrilled thinking of the clothes she would make for it. But Michelson was forbidden to own or associate with the busty, wasp-waisted toy by her feminist mother, Nancy, and when the verboten hunk of plastic was discovered, its days were numbered.
"I sat behind the dresser in my little room and I cried," she recalls. "I wrote on the wall: 'Mommy is a pig, mommy is a cow.' "
Michelson laughs about it now. "She's mellowed out, my mother."
But she stops for a minute and thinks. "When I look at some of the gowns I've made, they're very Barbie. In a funny way, I think, well, maybe my mother did me a favor."
The Los Angeles-based Michelson has channeled whatever frustrated creativity she had with Barbie into a collection of feminine, romantic, fluid dresses. The Amy Michelson for Holly Harp collection (priced at $1,200 to $3,500) finds its signature in bias-cut satin gowns; long dresses in cut velvet over contrasting satin; strapless duchess satin styles; layered chiffon minis with bands of satin on a matching jacket. Dresses even have names: Southern Comfort, Sleeping Beauty, Paloma; there's even a fabric called Velvet Elvis. A lower-priced line, HH by Amy Michelson, sells for $600 to $1,000. There's also a bridal line, Amy Michelson Wedding.
The celebrity roster is growing, and already includes Michelle Pfeiffer, Kim Basinger, Halle Berry, Alanis Morissette, Viveca Fox, Roseanne, Lisa Rinna and Kathy Najimy. This undoubtedly has helped Michelson garner a reputation in an extremely competitive, bottom-line obsessed business that boasts few stars outside of Europe and New York.
East Coast prejudice be damned, Michelson, in her late 30s, is happy to be known as a California designer.
"I really feel strong about that," she says. "L.A. has such a bad reputation for just being about baggy shorts and surfboards, but there's a lot going on. Because I'm not in New York, that's what makes me distinct and have a different point of view. I'm very happy here."
From Fashion to
Acting and Back
Michelson took a circuitous route to get where she is, from fashion designer to costumer-stylist to actress back to fashion designer. Arriving at this point, she already has a leg up on some of her competition.
Instead of starting the line from scratch, she inherited it from her former employer, mentor and friend, the late designer Holly Harp. The label itself--Amy Michelson for Holly Harp--is a bittersweet reminder of Harp's legacy and creative force, and of the young woman who would become her successor.
Harp died in 1995 at the age of 55 after a brief bout with cancer. Her romantic, ethereal designs evolved from flowing flower child dresses with fringe and feathers to more sophisticated styles in draped chiffon and matte jersey. She had her own boutique on Sunset Boulevard and a substantial celebrity following that included Janis Joplin, Grace Slick, Goldie Hawn, Diana Ross and Barbra Streisand, and was twice nominated for the prestigious Coty Award.
Michelson signed on as her design assistant in 1989, overseeing the sample and pattern makers, sketching and having input on designs, and acting as Harp's fit model. It was terrific training ground for Michelson, who, for a short time, produced a line of opulent ball gowns on her own during the early '80s.
"They were like soul sisters," says Jim Harp, Holly's ex-husband and the company's current sales director. "They had a lot of fun working together and enjoying the creative process and really being on the same wavelength."
Adds Michelson, "We had a similar personality and sensibility. She was very respectful and generous, and really funny and creative. I learned so much from her as far as taking risks and allowing things to just unfold. If it's not working, put it on backwards or slice it up the side. There were no rules."
She still follows that no-rules policy today in her Culver City studio, which is tucked away on a side street populated with small warehouses. The bland exterior belies the hum of energy inside. Clothes are everywhere in various evolutionary stages: in pieces on cutting tables, being buzzed through a sewing machine, pinned to dress forms, hanging on racks waiting for fittings.
Michelson is now her own fit model, along with design assistant Lisa Sweet.