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Farewell, Princess Bride

Designer Amy Michelson's line of bridal gowns accentuates a woman's sexiness and sophistication, steering clear of fairy-tale-influenced get-ups.

May 10, 2000|JEANNINE STEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Designer Amy Michelson has found her niche--but it took losing her job to find it.

Michelson, who created glamorous, sexy evening dresses for the Los Angeles-based Holly Harp collection, now creates glamorous, sexy gowns for her own line of bridal wear.

But her journey from point A to point B is not just a tale of a designer's comeback; it's also about the complexities of the fashion world--and about listening to your intuition.

In 1989, Michelson, an evening wear designer-turned-actress ("Falcon Crest," "Wired"), went to work as the assistant to Holly Harp. At the time, Harp was a well-established L.A. designer known for sophisticated and romantic dresses that appealed to celebrities and hip socialites.

When Harp contracted breast cancer in the mid-'90s, she designated Michelson her successor. Michelson carried on the line after Harp's death in 1995, adding her own spin with body-conscious bias-cut gowns in silks and cut velvets that graced the figures of Michelle Pfeiffer, Kim Basinger, Alanis Morissette and Emmylou Harris.

Four years later, though, the family-run business would be shuttered. Harp's ex-husband Jim was sales director, and her son, Tommy, a Wharton Business School graduate, had recently come on board as CEO. But the firm "wasn't his baby," says Jim Sharp of his son. "I think one of the realities of the fashion business these days is that it's very hard on small companies. The prospects weren't so great for being able to expand quickly, and I think he made the right decision. We had a 31-year run, and that's a long time."

Michelson agrees: "I think there was a lot of pressure, and it was a smart thing to do. Evening wear was getting more and more competitive, and a lot of smaller stores were closing, so there was a shrinking market. There are more [designers] in the game, and pieces of the pie are getting smaller. Department stores have a lot of vendors to choose from."

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When the end came on June 1, 1999, Michelson was hit with sadness, but more than that, she was also relieved.

"It was a really hard schedule. It's difficult to design four to six collections a year, 40 pieces per collection. That's a lot of zippers and buttons and decisions to make. I felt really burnt out. I didn't feel bitter; I felt like it was the right thing to do."

Friends and family pushed her to accept job offers, to find something quickly, but Michelson resisted.

"All I knew was that I needed to stop completely and go somewhere and be quiet. The idea of scrambling to get something is always a bad idea, to come from desperation. I thought, 'I don't know what I want to do. Maybe it won't be fashion.' "

She and her dog, Hannah, retreated for a few months to a friend's cabin in Park City, Utah, where she thought.

And thought.

And thought.

"I kept thinking it was time to do something new, and I wanted to simplify, and bridal just kept coming to me," she recalls, sitting in the cozy, candle-lit Sherman Oaks home, which she also uses as her studio and office.

She had made some bridal gowns while at Holly Harp (inspired by her design assistant, who couldn't find a dress she liked), but a lukewarm reaction from buyers hadn't been encouraging.

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Yet the idea wouldn't go away. Michelson, in her late 30s, thought she'd give it another chance. She left Utah, hooked up with Kyle Riddle, the production manager at Holly Harp, and got a collection together in two months--just in time to show to buyers last fall.

This time the reaction was very different.

"Stores all over the country were saying, 'I don't have this, and girls are asking for this.' The buyers seemed to be getting it in a way they hadn't for my first try."

Why the change? Michelson chalks it up to an evolved bride.

"I don't think women want to be overpowered by the dress as much. The princess fantasy is great, but it's not so much what girls are about today. They're not marrying Prince Charming; they're marrying their sexy best friend, and they want to look like a sensual, feminine woman. They're also fashion-conscious, and they don't become conservative just because they're getting married."

As with her Holly Harp line, Michelson has named her creations: There is the Romanza, a slip style in silk organza or charmeuse that's highlighted with a little frill and a thigh-high front slit. The Awesome Blossom in silk chiffon has a jewel neck and delicate daisies adorning the dress. The Ivory Tower has that "Tattinger champagne poster look," and Moet is a strapless style in silk chiffon with tiny pearl details. Intuition, in silk charmeuse, has a deep-V front and back and a very '40s glamour feel. Michelson's trademark bias cut can be found in several of the gowns.

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Styles come in shades of white to ivory and are sleeveless. However, a shawl, shrug or long veil is available for any cover-up needs. Prices range from $800 to $1,800.

"Nobody else has done this look consistently," says Charlene McKay, manager and co-buyer for the Montclair Collection bridal salon in Santa Monica. "When Carolyn Bessette Kennedy wore that [Narciso Rodriguez] wedding dress, everyone was searching for it, and no one was doing it. There's been a pursuit for that ever since. Amy has hit it, and she has an intuitive knack for these bias cuts. The emphasis is on showing the bride, her figure and silhouette, and enhancing the body. These gowns are deliciously sensual."

With two 20-piece collections a year, Michelson says she's reached a happy medium of being fulfilled creatively without being overwhelmed by constant stress.

"There's something really nice about being able to make a dress for a bride and contribute to that day," she says. "It's sweet. There's an entire industry based on people falling in love, and that's pretty amazing."

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Amy Michelson's Web site is at http://www.amymichelson.com.

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