Alison Kelly: Beyond The Runway
In Alison Kelly's world, not everything is as it seems. Her dress designs, fit for a tea party or an after-hours jam session, exude a punk vibe with a proper Victorian twist. In the fashion business, where well-known designers can still be scraping by after ten years, this 26-year-old just made a small profit on her first collection for her company, Dahl. She walked away from Heidi Klum's reality show, Project Runway, with rock-star status and a growing set of groupies--and she didn't even win. In a cutthroat industry where it takes money and connections to survive, Alison, who had neither, is a breakout exception.
"I feel really, really lucky because I know that a year ago I was in a completely different situation," she says, "and not many people knew who I was or what my work was about."
Her piece de résistance, however, isn't silk or spandex. It's a mix of eclectic experiences Alison has collected on her way to the top--her customized passport to the fashion world. This isn't a one-size-fits-all success story. Where she's been and what she's accomplished so far could be the most jaw-dropping collection she's designed yet...
Alison grew up in New England wearing dresses handmade by her mother. In Cape Cod--a one mall, seaside town--she was inspired to make her own using her mom's Singer sewing machine. With the needle pulsing and her imagination racing, she altered thrift store finds, tearing them apart to figure out how they fit together. Today, sitting beside her own Singer and antique dress form, she says that the best thing about being a fashion designer is whipping up her own outfits in under an hour. She's stayed true to the DIY style that makes her stand out in a crowd.
After high school, Alison looked abroad for something unconventional, hoping to customize her education just as she refashioned her clothing. She found it in a tiny Mexican town studying fine arts at the Institute de San Miguel de Allende. She soon became enchanted with silver smithing, a passion of hers that turns up today as intricate buttons, clasps and hooks. The eye-catching hardware adds an unexpected strength to her fanciful designs.
As Alison entered her twenties, it was her handmade clothing that was turning everyone's head. "People were really interested," she says, "and I loved that me wearing something could strike up a conversation with someone that I maybe wouldn't have spoken to before, and that they were positively affected by what I was wearing." Alison made a fitting choice to study fashion intensively for a year at an international school in Italy--a country where fashion is practically a national priority.
With an international feel for fashion under her belt, Alison returned to familiar ground to finish her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. She skirted big bills by attending MassArt for in-state tuition. There, she found a program that allowed her access to academic classes at the private Emerson College, as well as jewelry classes at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. Alison also tapped into music, one of her biggest inspirations, to help her sell clothes at special events. Her friends' bands provided the soundtrack for her rebellious designs as people picked clean racks of her clothing.
Alison arrived in Los Angeles looking for inspiration and sunshine. She explored the legendary garment district, and discovered she could make one-of-a-kind pieces from bolts of beautiful, now inexpensive, vintage fabrics. She dubbed them "mini-collections," that would "run riot" against mass-produced, cookie-cutter clothing. Run R1ot, her first company, was born.
Independent shop owners literally bought the clothes off her back when Alison explained she was the designer. She constantly sewed to replenish stores and generate income, but the real payoff was seeing people wearing her designs. She started receiving calls when celebrities or their stylists bought pieces--a list that today includes Anne Heche and Hilary Duff. To compensate for her decision not to work for a large corporation, she apprenticed and freelanced for established designers.
While customers appreciated Alison's avant-garde effort, her one-of-a-kind pieces left them wanting more. Shop owners sold out of everything in a week. She needed to find a way to produce more without sacrificing the quality or spirit of her distinctive designs.
New York City is the urban epicenter of the undeniably vogue. It's also the scene where small-time sewing successes become global trendsetting empires, and where Alison moved to start a more prolific company. She developed the concept for Dahl Clothes (pronounced "doll") as a play on words that reflected her playful style. Think Alice in Wonderland meets 2007...at an indie-rock show. Before she had a chance to become familiar with her new city, New York and the rest of America were about to become very familiar with her. Alison, who barely watched TV herself, auditioned for the reality show Project Runway, knowing the potential exposure would be priceless. A two-minute audition tape and months of screening later, she earned a spot in the heated competition between new designers. By episode six her angelic attitude and whimsical creations won over the hearts of viewers and brought her an explosion of attention.
Today, months after the show's end, she's still recognized around town. Unread fan mail sits in her inbox in overwhelming volumes. Despite the photo shoots and press, a lot is going on that's less than glamorous. She's packing boxes for a big order. She's working with a seamstress, a patternmaker, and their teams to meet increasing orders. And she's been too busy to admire the success of her pretty frocks for very long--she's already working on next season's look.
When her new looks start gracing the girls in glossy celebrity magazines, all anyone will want to know is where they can get one. It's less exclusive than you'd think. Alison, who broke into the fashion world through the back door, is now smuggling out unique designer clothing for the rest of us. Not just in trendy stores in expensive cities, her coveted creations will be appearing online, on shelves and on everyone else sooner than later.
This spring she debuted an exclusive collection during Fashion Week for shopbop.com. Her MySpace profile links to her own online store, where shadows of butterflies brush by to a stream of chic symphonic sound. The website's pleasing aesthetic reminds customers why her prices are higher than mainstream chain stores: Alison is selling an experience--a piece of her singular style with a piece of her soul.
"The pieces are loved and a lot of parts are sewn by hand," Alison says. "And I think what's important to me is that it feels like it has a soul, a personality."
Thanks to her hard work and dedication, Alison's clothing and career have taken on a life of their own. There's no telling where her imaginative designs will take her next, but she's more than willing to follow.