Donna Baxter may be living out every woman’s childhood dream. That is, except her own. She never thought she would marry the man of her dreams, find herself living in a pretty, little pink Victorian dollhouse, or make a living creating fancy dresses for real-life dolls.
Her life appears to have walked out of a Hollywood script, but Baxter doesn’t even live in California – at least not anymore. She and her husband moved to Vashon, a small island off the coast of Washington, eight years ago.
“It’s a completely different world,” she said of their low-key life in Vashon’s rustic surroundings. “I go to a farm to pick up my milk every morning. I leave money in a jar. It’s ridiculously sweet. It’s terribly old-fashion.”
The same can be said of Baxter’s vintage-inspired line, Elsie Katz Couture, named after her maternal grandmother, who passed away when she was a young child.
“We kind of grew up with this quirky sensibility about fashion. We had couture and beautiful jewelry left over from my grandmother,” Baxter said. “She was one of those women who worked really hard all their life, but she wore a metaphorical tiara all the time.”
Baxter, who grew up sheltered in Santa Clarita, was the daughter of a couturier and the granddaughter of a milliner. She left home for the first time when she went off to college in Berkeley, where she said she saw graffiti for the first time. Intent on becoming a lawyer, she went to law school after graduation and went on to work for a legal defender in Los Angeles. However, she left the justice system before even taking her bar exam. Instead she studied at the Gemological Institute in Santa Monica and taught there for two years. By that time she was married to Gene Baxter, a popular radio host in Los Angeles. They were living the good life, but somehow the city and its effect on their friends had become too much. They needed a change of scene.
It wasn’t until she moved to Vashon with her husband that her family’s sartorial thread came poking through the seams.
She noticed her childhood penchant for party frocks was inhibited the Northwest’s fondness for wellies and cable-knit sweaters, so she decided to begin her own clothing line. She started Elsie Katz Couture and opened a boutique on the island in 2001, selling her own ready-to-wear, bridal-wear, and jewelry among other designers’ pieces. After successfully spreading the word about her line, she moved her showroom to Los Angeles in 2004.
Moving her designs to Los Angeles brought about a homecoming of sorts. Her clothes appeared on the red carpet, in magazines, and she held her first fashion show at Los Angeles Fashion Week for her spring/summer 2006 collection. She showed consistently thereafter, but fans may have noticed an unexpected absence at the fall/winter 2007 show earlier this year. Pressure, she said, forced her to take a necessary break.
When Baxter returned to Smashbox Studios last month, she was stronger and more focused than ever before. Like her older collections, there were strong influences from the flapper twenties and more feminine fifties. But this season, she was also inspired by one of her favorite stories, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s “The Little Prince.” The story about a young prince’s love for his rose parallels her own love for her line, as the flower was a central motif in her spring/summer 2008 collection.
“The loveliness of the rose, that’s what this collection was really about,” she said.
Every layer of petals and ruffle represented hours of labor. This was the first time her entire collection was crafted entirely by hand. She used a series of her favorite fabrics including silks and chiffons in a vibrant palette of jewel-tone hues. Her opening number, a strapless dress made with layers of royal violet tulle, was finished at the top by a thick ribbon of hand-sewn crystal. It took two months to complete.
She’s now working on plans to expand her brand. Although she continues to work with a small staff out of her atelier in Vashon, she is planning to expand her in-house staff and looks forward to launching her own line of handbags. She’s also considering producing her own jewelry again. Her good friend, Roxanne Assoulin of Lee Angel, supplied the pieces she used for her October show.
Having survived the pressures to conform in Los Angeles and having made a successful return to the tents, Baxter is finally getting a chance to take in everything. She just returned from an Italian getaway with her husband for her 40th birthday and she’s glad to be back home. She is the proud parent of 13 animals – four dogs, three cows, two pigs, three sheep, and a donkey – rescued from shelters or from the slaughterhouse.
“It’s the bluest sky I’ve ever seen. The sun is shining. It’s beautiful,” she said, looking forward to spending the afternoon with her bulldog, Tatertot.
“I don’t know how many people get to live in a Barbie dream house.”