Fashion fanatics pride themselves on finding hidden gems before the masses descend. One of my best-kept secrets is Elizabeth Dye, clothing designer and co-owner of The English Department, a Portland-based boutique. Remember when Fraulein Maria invents an entire wardrobe from curtains in The Sound of Music? Elizabeth’s sweet, playful designs are even more charming.
Reworking simple, vintage-y silhouettes in luxurious fabrics like chiffon, silk, and merino wool, Elizabeth wants to create clothes for all time. She also produces custom bridal gowns so beautiful, I’d get engaged just to buy one. Since producing her first collection in 2001, Elizabeth has been featured in Elle Decor, Lucky, and the holiest of fashion bibles, Vogue. Ultimately, Elizabeth seeks to create an intimate relationship between a woman and the garments she wears. Since our clothes are the closest thing to our bodies, why shouldn’t we have an emotional connection to them?
BM: Describe a typical day in your life.
ED: The light in my studio is best in the morning, so I am an early riser. I always sew first thing. If it’s a day when I’m in my shop, I’m there by 11 a.m. If not, I design and construct dresses most of the day, taking breaks to source fabrics and trims, correspond with clients, photograph new pieces, and hopefully eat lunch. It’s not unusual to work ten to twelve hours a day in the spring and summer. But I try to keep evenings free. Mondays are my set-in-stone day off.
BM: How would you describe your personal style?
ED: I spend so much time in the studio that I have to dress for comfort, but it weirdly works out that I’m pretty much always in layers of ivory and grey. I love vintage pieces, and I try to wear my own designs as much as possible.
BM: When and how was your passion for fashion born?
ED: It was always there—I was a little girl who drew elaborate dresses, and then only halfheartedly sketched in faces and bodies. I didn’t consider fashion as a career at first—I was headed in a literary or legal direction. At some point, I discovered how passionate I was about making things. Creating something beautiful and wearable is, for me, a nice blend of fantasy and practicality.
BM: What advice do you have for aspiring designers?
ED: Work with an experienced designer to see what the day-to-day is really like. Like all jobs, it has its ups and downs, and it’s good to see if you are suited to handle them. There’s a lot of mystique surrounding fashion.
BM: If any celebrity could wear your clothes, who would you choose?
ED: I’m not very starstruck, but I do love Tina Fey. I would drop everything to make her a dress.
BM: If you were not a designer, what would you be and why?
ED: Landscape architect. It’s still very creative, but with built-in fresh air and exercise.
BM: Where do you shop?
ED: Making clothes for a living makes me less of a shopper, but when the impulse strikes, I try to shop at independent boutiques. Fashion has become dominated by cheap chains and knockoff designs, and I cherish so much the perspective and passion of boutique owners. They are keeping art alive in fashion, and nurturing the true creativity that is out there. Shopping that way is more expensive, but so much more meaningful.
BM: Can you describe how a design goes from your head to your hands?
ED: If I only knew! I collect inspiration all the time (I have dozens of half-filled notebooks, torn apart magazines, Web bookmarks), and usually my designs are the mysterious result of being awake to that inspiration and then experimenting. I am an improvisational designer—I have to tinker with an idea many times to perfect it. I long to be a Karl Lagerfeld type who can conjure a dress with the flick of a pencil, but in reality, I try, try, and try again.
She may not be Karl Lagerfeld yet, but Elizabeth has enough imagination and a growing fan base to give established designers a run for their money. The next time I feel the urge to indulge into whimsical, well-crafted garments, I’ll be making a trip to The English Department.
Behind the Seams is a series focusing on designers who are breaking the mold with their unique perspective on women’s fashion. If you would like to suggest a worthy designer, please send it to firstname.lastname@example.org for consideration.