At New York’s fall fashion week this past February, I was waiting for a show to start in Chelsea’s Metropolitan Pavilion while the rep for a Canadian underwear company was giving me a rundown of the shows she’d attended over the weekend, listing them off laundry-list style. But when she got to Monday morning, her eyes widened and expression intensified, “Were you at the Sofada show this morning?” Yes, I had been. After mutual and profusive gushing about the line, she told me she had a business trip on the west coast later in the month, and she’d already thought through two ways to reroute the trip—either through Santa Monica or Seattle—so that she could shop at a boutique that carries Sofada. She was that determined to nab an item from the label (whose namesake is derived from the Portuguese word for “naughty”), and apparently couldn’t wait for the release of the fall collection.
Who is the designer who creates such a sense of urgency and need for her clothing—to have it, to live in it? Alice Dobson, the owner and creator of Sofada, who sits down with Papierdoll this month to take us through the whirlwind of being a first-time designer showing in New York, explain how owning a boutique has informed her design perspective, and tell us about what the future has in store for Sofada.
Fashion Week First Timer
Having never been to New York City before showing at fashion week, Alice Dobson was not sure what to expect. “I was very nervous… I didn’t know how New York would respond to Sofada. I am much more west coast, I am much more about fabrications and the use of color,” Dobson acknowledged her contrast to New York’s inherently muted style, a distinction that was more pronounced this fall season—other runway shows during the week were dominated by minimalism in both construction and color.
Despite these reservations, a show in New York had been in her long-term business plan since she’d launched Sofada, and she took a pragmatic approach: “I didn’t expect much, because that way only good things can happen.”
She also didn’t know at the time that when fashion week would roll around, she’d be over four months pregnant. “I did my best not to get stressed out,” she said, “I wanted to come out on the runway wearing one of my designs, something really cute, but instead I came out in a black wrap shirt and jeans.” She was radiant, however, and it was unclear which baby (the clothing line, or her rounded belly) was making her glow at that triumphant moment when she waved to the audience after all the models had made their final procession down the runway.
But how would tough, no-nonsense Manhattan respond to this upstart of a vivacious line? The critics were laudatory, if not effusive, and picked up on Alice’s intent: to present a cohesive line that tells a story (for fall, it was 1940’s pinup girls meet the 21st century). In fact, Dobson said the worst critique she read about the collection was a derogatory statement about her use of denim, which, if you look at the way Dobson transformed the traditional working-clothes fabric into a delicious little dress with golden tulle peeking from its edges (pictured here), you’d know that critic was grasping at straws.
But Alice didn’t need to wait for the reviews to be published to know that her playful line had made its colorful splash on the New York scene—just an hour after the show, Vogue called. “I still have no idea how it all went down, but an hour after the show a PR rep from Vogue called and asked if I would show my line at their offices.” Thus while Alice may not have gotten to see the Statue of Liberty or Empire State Building (she stayed in her hotel room for model fittings and alterations while her husband and sales rep went about town), she was able to tour the most exclusive landmark in the fashion world: Vogue’s editorial offices. “It made the trip to New York really special. And it was a bit nerve racking… It was so flattering just to be there.”
While Dobson may not know how they got her number, it is clear that whoever’s eye she had caught at Vogue saw one clear thing: Sofada is a line that is both editorial and wearable at the same time—a dream to both fashion editors and the youthful, hip crowd who compose both Vogue and Dobson’s target audiences.
Boutique Ownership and Inspiration
Besides the editorial attention, Dobson expanded her scope and name recognition by being picked up by several boutiques to carry her fall collection. “I am well established on the west coast, and I am working my way over to the east coast.” Boutiques are especially important to Dobson, as she is the owner of a boutique herself—the namesake Sofada boutique in Portland, Oregon, where she gathers most of her design inspiration.
“I am really affected when I meet a customer who cannot find what she is looking for [at other places],” Alice relates, having grown up a self-described 5’11 “skinny girl” in a beach town, Dobson began sewing to make clothes for herself, as she couldn’t find anything to wear in the local shops. “I have a lot of west coast flavor, because I grew up at the beach, in a surf community, I was influenced by that, by the laid back lifestyle, the clothing we wear is different,” she cites cruiser bikes, bustier pencil dresses and Bette Page style as fixtures of her childhood. “I design for myself a lot, what I want to wear, what I want to buy.”
Designing for “herself”—her style, tastes and needs, is what enables Dobson to meet the needs of her boutique clientele, “I’ve come to understand what women really want… when I design, I think about what I want to wear—what I couldn’t find someplace else.” She says that she aims to make “sexy, attractive clothing,” that uses the trends of the moment, but is also timeless in its style. She wants a classic look that is “not quite Jackie O., but something a young woman could wear to the office.” Many of Dobson’s customers are young moms, and Dobson sees that they respond to her aesthetic—women who want to remain youthful and flirtatious, but are also striving for a mature sophistication.
Dobson even makes custom clothing, though her burgeoning business and its related demands are limiting its scope. “If someone brings in a picture, or an idea, I will work with them on a custom piece… as my business has grown I’ve had to focus on other things, but if someone comes into the boutique and loves a dress, but wants it in another fabric, we have books of fabric for them to look through.” Dobson explains that customizations are mainly limited to color or fabric preference because they are usually not necessary, Sofada is meant to fit well on a woman’s body. “I understand the female form very well and fit is one of the most important things I work on, so that my clothes will fit in the dressing room.”
Looking to the Future
With a six-week old baby on her hands, Dobson is taking a break from the New York fashion week scene for a season, but promises to be back for Fall ’07 or Spring ‘08. “[The baby’s] my biggest influence right now, I want to take care of him, and ultimately that means working even harder.”
She has dabbled in maternity clothing, but between fashion week and her own boutique, she didn’t have time to make any items for herself
. She’s also played with the idea of a men’s line, bringing to it the same concept as for her women’s: “fun fabrics with bright colors and have character.”
Of course, continuing to expand Sofada’s women’s line is Dobson’s central priority: she is actively searching for an east coast sales rep as well as an investor. “I want the label to grow. I want it to be available to the set of young women with disposable incomes who cannot afford luxury everything, but want a special item—I strive to make things that are well-made and special.”