The Clothes Made the Woman

Houston is a lot of things, but a fashion mecca isn't one of them. Sure, the socialites spend thousands on ball gowns and such, but they stick to the same established designers year after year. And the rest of us, well, we buy designer knockoffs -- on sale.

It's an inhospitable environment for a young designer coming into her own, but despite us, Vanessa Riley has emerged. She's everything you'd ever want in a designer, if you realized you wanted a designer. She's brassy and fun, with a British accent, of course. She pops chocolates into her mouth as she talks and wears outrageous fashions like red suede stiletto boots, a cow-print skirt and a jacket with a black feather boa attached. Better yet, she wears them all at the same time. She shouts to a gold-toothed redneck who pops his head into her little shop on Montrose next to Marble Slab: "We're expensive in here, and we like it that way." She's Ab Fab, only younger.

And strangely enough, she's here. How did that happen? The 30-year-old Londoner began designing for manufacturing companies and other designers when she was only 18, but soon felt stifled. After all, they were taking in her trademark shoulder-to-shoulder lapels. When her marriage broke up, she decided to go into business for herself. It's the marriage that brought her to Houston, but she doesn't want to talk about it. Vanessa Riley is an accentuate-the-positive kind of person.

And there are many positives. Riley may be the only designer in Houston with her own shop; in fact, she's one of very few in the world. Most designers sell wholesale to other stores. Retail requires financial backing and business know-how, things Riley seems to have in abundance. She designs all the clothes for Vanessa Riley London, owns the factory outside of town where they're produced and plans to open another Houston store and a shop in New York City. It's not surprising, then, that American Express named her business one of the top growing of the year.

It seems that Houston has been good to her. And even though she's miffed that she has to tone down her designs for the more conservative local clientele, she admits that in London or New York her enterprise "would have taken triple the amount of money and triple the amount of time."

Her designs are catching on here. (She dressed the supermodels who came down for last spring's "DISHES on Ice" AIDS fund-raiser, and local sound designer Pud Cusack for her trip to the Oscars.) And it's no wonder. Riley's designs range from suits in sumptuous fabrics with wide lapels and calf-length jackets to pretty lace-overlay party dresses, from crazy club-kid clothes to satiny haute couture evening gowns. All are originals, of course, and they look expensive, as designer clothes should.

But despite Riley's playful warning to the innocent redneck, her designs are not as pricey as you might suspect. While expensive materials can push a few up over the $1,000 mark, the least expensive item is only $65, and there are racks of dresses and separates in the $100 range -- "cheap," in the words of Vanessa Riley, "for the type of work you're actually getting." And for an extra $45, you can have any of Riley's designs custom-cut to fit you, in nearly any fabric or color your heart desires.

The personal attention, designer clothes and Riley's rising stock in the fashion business will make you feel like a supermodel, only shorter.

Vanessa Riley London is hosting the Pink Ribbons Project's "Fashion for Life" holiday market Tuesday and Wednesday, December 14 and 15, from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tony Ruppe's provides lunch for $12.95, models strut the catwalk, and 10 percent of all sales go to breast cancer research. 3939 Montrose, (713)521-2383.

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Lauren Kern
Contact: Lauren Kern