Stephanie D. Couture: Dressing for Success

ortland-based apparel designer Stephanie D. Couture is a living, breathing master class in the art of balance. She arrived to our meeting exactly on time and ultra-prepared with her own detailed written notes, so as to ensure we didn’t miss a stitch of her story—no scattered artistic temperament here. When asked about her professional influences, she was quick to mention both those who inspire her designs (Monique Lhuillier) and business strategy (Jason Wu). In her apparel line and on her own petite silhouette, Stephanie manages to simultaneously exude both tailored structure and an effortlessly casual elegance. Her style and design aesthetic can be characterized as not so much reflective of Portlandia as it is the Pearl District. She was raised in PDX after relocating from Vietnam with her family at a young age, and her constitution is equal parts ambitious entrepreneur and devoted family woman.

Stephanie D. Couture’s self-titled label was launched in 2007, a new passion play after more than a decade forging a name for herself in hair design. When so many other businesses were shuttering under the weight of the national financial crisis, her fledgling label survived and thrived under her ever-watchful eye, meticulous planning and commitment to slow, smart growth—and of course, a knack for expertly detailed and beautiful clothing. Her clothing line includes an array of gorgeous frocks, blending delicate fabrics and feminine draping with bold colors and modern touches. In true Stumptown style, nearly everything is customizable by Stephanie herself so clients can truly make her looks work for bodies and events of every stripe.

Already known by many for creating couture-style wedding gowns, these days Stephanie is poised to expand and charm the West Coast with an equally well-imagined ready-to-wear line which will bring her draping expertise (inspired in part by 1920s Parisian couturier Madeleine Vionnet) to even more fashionistas. Where others wobble tentatively across the creative career tightrope, glancing behind and below, Stephanie D. Couture strides gracefully and purposefully, eyes always fixed forward.

When I met with Stephanie on a sunny, crisp morning at Via Delizia, a café just a few blocks from her Lovejoy studio in Northwest Portland, seemingly the entire staff took time to exchange warm words with one of their favorite regulars. She was quick with a smile and a willingness to engage, despite a busy day that had to be reorganized to make room for her many commitments. That is perhaps my favorite of Stephanie’s many lovely contradictions. Even in the midst of her skyrocketing business, she still makes time to enjoy and share the view.

Did you grow up here? Are you a Portland native?

I grew up here and was raised here since I was 11. I was born in Saigon, Vietnam.

What was the motivation for your family to move from Saigon to Portland?

This was back in the 1970s when I was younger, and there was a lot going on with the [Vietnam] war.

Why Portland?

Back then we were sponsored by another family, so we landed here because of that.

Did you fall in love with Portland pretty instantaneously, or was it a process?

I fell in love with it instantaneously, even though I was younger. It has changed a lot since then. I really like it here.

What about this city has changed from your first impression to now?

It’s grown quite a bit. We used to be more quiet, right? Now, everything’s fashion, entertainment—it’s growing so much. It’s a great place to be, especially for designers. We have more designers and a strong community, especially with Tito [Prasenjit Tito Chowdhury, executive director of Portland Fashion Week] helping to get all this exposure for us. It’s grown tremendously, for all kinds of artists. That all ties together because everybody can collaborate and work together.

Is your family very creatively minded, or were you the creative one in the family?

I grew up in a very creative family. My grandpa really believed in higher education, so back in Vietnam, my mom and all my aunts and uncles were going to an art school already. Art may mean they played music—piano, guitar, violin. My grandpa loved to paint, draw—he plays the violin. So I grew up coming from a family where everybody is creative in some way besides just their career.

What was your first encounter with design that you can remember? What is the first thing you remember trying to design?

When I was younger—you probably hear this from all designers—I used to design my little dolls’ clothes! I spent more time sketching, believe it or not, than sewing. Sketching, of course, the woman’s body, then the dresses and the embellishments on them. I spent a lot of time doing that. What is interesting is that I didn’t do it [design] right away when I was younger. I went to open up my first salon at a very young age—in my early twenties. I have my creative side, but I have my business side. I was always eager to come out and start a business. After 10-15 years of having my business I realized—wow—I assumed that my passion was always for owning my own business, but now I need to be more passionate in what I do. Not that I’m not passionate in doing hair—I’m comfortable and I love to create and make my clients happy. At the same time, I didn’t pull out all my passion and my dreams of what I wanted to do, so I pursued design. I transitioned back to get my design degree and now I’m here.

What led you into hair design in the first place? What made you decide that’s what you wanted to study, and that you wanted to open that type of business?

That’s a good question. When I was in high school my family started to ask me to cut their hair. My first client was my grandpa. He told me I had a natural talent. I didn’t take classes or anything like that, but I thought it would be great to start a business in hair. So I went and got my education for that and came out and opened my own salon right away.

What was that light bulb moment or process where you realized you wanted to take the leap back and try fashion design?

I said to myself, “I got here, I got the salon going, but there’s something missing.” Loving the fashion industry the way I do, I’m always watching fashion, always looking at fashion magazines. I said, “Wait a minute—my passion is design.” And when I opened up W magazine and the design school ad was full page right in front of me, I said, “Wait a minute—this is what’s missing. I need to go back and get this design degree so I can pursue my passion.” That’s when it hit me. It just woke me up. The W ad was for the Art Institute, which is nationwide, so I thought I would go online and look for the Ai here in Portland. I was forgetting that my passion was sitting inside me. I should just go ahead and do it. Two weeks later I was enrolled in design school.

Is that indicative of your personality? Once you decide to something, do you go after it 100 percent? That’s a big change!

It was a big change. I was cutting my income from full-time to part-time, and being a mom. That would be me, though. If I have to do it, I have to do it now and put 100 percent effort into it, just like my business now.

By the time you graduated, did you already have a firm plan in place and rolling or did you have to take stock and go, “Okay, now what?”

When I was in school, I always knew that when I left I would start my own business. Again, it just comes from my background. I don’t advise that for everybody, because there’s good and bad things to starting your business fresh out of school. I had already done my research: what’s going on locally, who’s out there, where I would place my business, where I would start. I always start very small and grow slowly and take baby steps.

People tend to think of clothing design as very artistic and glamorous and all about what you’re sketching out, and it is. But many probably don’t realize there’s also so much more to it behind the scenes.

Exactly. You’re being creative, you’re the financial management in your company, then it’s also marketing—those three combined. If you lack in one, for example, if you’re a great artist who executes an excellent product, but you lack in financial plan or backup or there are no marketing skills that go into it, it still doesn’t go well. The company still won’t grow without all three combined.

You’re still doing hair design part-time. What are the parallels between hair design and apparel design? Does one influence the other?

They do. I have return clients who order a dress from me, and when they come back, they want a complete head-to-toe finish—hair, makeup and dress. I have one-stop shopping set up at my shop now with hair, makeup services and dresses, and I have other stylists. They started out as separate entities: my salon business was in the Pearl, and then my first apparel office was on the waterfront. Now I’ve moved back into the Northwest. I combined the two about a year ago, and it works out really great.

What about aesthetically in terms of your approach to hair and apparel design? Does anything carry over?

It does. It’s not like hair is the same as clothing, but things like the texture and the volume—dresses have volume and texture. They’re not the same product, but you can base a style for either on someone’s profession, for example. When I look at the client, I might think, you’re a more conservative client, so you’re probably not the client that wants the dress to go really low or the hair that’s really punky.

Do you style your own models for shows now?

You know what? I don’t! Sometimes I do if I’m short, but I usually like the hairstyling and the makeup to be separate because I like to step back and let other artists show their work too.

There is seemingly an increasing amount of apparel designers here, so what are the relationships like amongst everyone in the design community?

I feel like we are working together pretty well. Some designers I may not see that often, but I’ll reach out to them—email or Facebook or write them. This includes boutique owners, too. They’re not designers, but I include them in the design and clothing industry. Even though we might not all see one another that often, we lend a helping hand to each other. Everybody is trying to stay close and to bond so that we can work together to grow the beauty here.

When you look around Portland, how would you describe Portland’s fashion, its sense of style, and is that changing overall?

I can now describe our fashion as chic, modern, and up-to-par. We are growing, and people here are aware of fashion.

So many Portland designers have now found a national platform through shows like Project Runway, often with a lot of success. Is that something you have your eye on or would ever be interested in doing?

Yes, but in the long run, not right now. For me, work is part of my life, but my daughter is really important to me. I think Project Runway is great exposure. It’s great to go and learn from great designers like Michael Kors. But at the same time, family is so important to me, too. I don’t see myself leaving my daughter (who is 13) for months to stay in New York. So yes, in the long run, but not right now.

Do you think your daughter will follow in your footsteps and become a designer?

At this point, she says she wants to go into the medical field. I won’t argue with that! But she loves fashion. She’s going to be a fashionable pharmacist (laughs).

What’s next for you?

My spring collection is ready-to-wear, day-to-night wear, and evening dresses and gowns. It’s already viewable on my website. In 2013, I’m looking to remodel my space. My space will be more custom order, custom made. You can pick existing designs or I can customize them for you.

I also want to expand the business. I want to grow to the next level and bring my ready-to-wear collections to boutiques beyond Portland—to Seattle first, and then slowly down to California. A lot of people know I do wedding gowns and couture gowns, but I’m transitioning to more ready-to-wear, too.

Is there anything else you’d like to say to your growing base of fans?

Here’s the most important thing—I really want to thank everyone for their support of Portland Fashion Week and FASHIONxt Portland, all the people who have been supporting me and Tito, for coming to our shows. I’ve been showing there for four years now. We need to keep reminding people that it’s continuous. There’s not just one show during the year. It’s great exposure for us. It’s great to promote fashion in Portland, right? It’s going nationwide now. It’s been in TIME magazine. It’s also bringing awareness that our fashion is growing here. That will help grow, not just our fashion scene, but also our whole community. It’s only going to get stronger and stronger.

About The Author: Brooke Preston