Marchesa is a glamorous, movie-star fashion house: Its specialty is the show-stopping red carpet dresses you re likely to see on Kate Hudson, Sienna Miller or Annie, known to the rest of us as Anne Hathaway.
The gowns seem a perfect complement to the label s co-founders, Georgina Chapman and Keren Craig, two Brits-turned-New Yorkers who fit nicely into the glitzy fabric of the fashion world, clinking champagne glasses with the A-list of editors, stylists and models who ll attend the Marchesa preview at New York Fashion Week, which starts Thursday. Creative director Chapman is even married to film producer-mogul Harvey Weinstein.
So it would seem that Marchesa had potential to become a vanity project like some other celebrity-socialite collections, most of which have come and gone. Marchesa has more going for it, though, not the least of which is the passion and skill of Chapman and Craig.
The duo had known each other when they were students at Chelsea College of Art and Design in London and talked about having their own collection, probably loungewear.
But as Chapman earned her degree in costume design and Craig in textiles, they and their plan drifted.
However, after working as a both a model and behind-the-scenes costumer, Chapman decided she wanted to be her own boss. They rekindled their friendship and – just like that – Marchesa was born in 2004, except they had nothing really to sell and definitely no business model.
They did have an invitation to a smart party, though, Chapman says, and they decided to wear their own designs. Chapman wore a backless sari dress that caught the eye of the late influential fashion editor Isabella Blow, who had a reputation for finding young talent.
Blow asked if she could borrow the dress to wear to the Paris runway shows. Blow also was the one who recommended they stick with eveningwear.
Once we started, we had so much fun, says Chapman.
And, with Marchesa Luisa Casati, the eccentric European style chameleon, as their muse, a vision of a unique brand was emerging.
It was good, if coincidental, timing that their gowns, all one-of-a-kind, started making the rounds to Hollywood stylists just as the weekly celebrity magazines exploded into a huge force in fashion. We saw the red carpets and saw them as an amazing marketing tool, Chapman says, and they d carry big suitcases back and forth to Los Angeles.
The buzz started when Renee Zellweger wore a red Marchesa dress to a high-wattage premiere, and it s been one star after another, including Rihanna in a laser-cut leather number and Cameron Diaz in a micro-mini modern tuxedo style.
Celebrities are drawn to Marchesa because the dresses are ultra-feminine and beautifully made. They truly make one feel like a modern princess, says Cindy Weber Cleary, InStyle magazine s fashion director.
But, says Craig, while the red carpet got them noticed, it was an order from Neiman Marcus to do both a top-tier collection and a secondary label called Notte that made the difference in their business.
What caught Neiman s eye, says fashion director Ken Downing, is the high-impact glamour of the collection. They create for a women who has a feminine and romantic spirit while wanting to look modern and of the moment, says Downing.
Marchesa went from making a dozen dresses to hundreds essentially overnight. There was not a single moment that we knew we would make it, says Chapman, but there was never a moment when we thought this wouldn t work.
Moved out of a small London office, the new studio overlooking the Hudson River is bustling with dozens of seamstresses and patternmakers. Chapman and Craig s dogs run around; it s one of the perks of being your own bosses.
There are racks with the new bridal collection – a logical step for them, Chapman says – as well as shelves for their new handbags. Chapman also is the guest designer for jeweler Garrard.
Her office hosts a permanent crowd of mannequins on which she drapes many of the garments.
On this day, less than two weeks before the preview of the fall collection, she came in like a whirlwind with some new ideas, picked up bolts of tulle and satin and moved the fabric this way and that on her inanimate models.
I never stop thinking about this. … I get home from the office and I m unsatisfied. Even if I m not sketching, I m drawing in my head, says Chapman.
The women can t decide if it s their Greek goddess silhouette or the rose-front dress they ve done in every color that is their calling-card look. It might be the strapless rose one, they reason, because so many women have bought it, which is even more gratifying than seeing something on the red carpet.
Chapman s own wardrobe includes a lot of graphic and sleek black-and-white combinations and high heels – as high as possible. At the show, she ll teeter in the same skyscraper heels as the models, but with age – all of her 33 years – has come wisdom, so she stashes ballet flats in her bag.
Now that she s a new mother with six-month-old Delilah, Craig says she s toned down her style – although still quite stylish in a black dress and riding boots.
For them, with Marchesa a part of everyday life, they re either dressed up, or in pajamas – without a lot of middle ground, says Chapman.
And, adds Craig, we re usually overdressed.