April 24, 2014

Little black dress blues

T.O.’s custom-made dress kings design the perfect LBD

‘I’M FEELING, WELL, a little petulant when I’m told I can’t have the fantastic red dress I’ve spied on a counter in Chris Tyrell and Jim Searle’s studio. I feel like stamping my feet. “But it’s the perfect dress,” I moan. “I can tell it will fit. I love the design, the detailing, the fabric. I love the colour. I want it!”

I'm told for a second time I can’t have it. Sigh. The red dress has been custom made and designed for another woman. (A high-profile “blogger.” Whatever.) That means, unlike at a department store or boutique, that red dress is the only one in the world. I have to get over it. And give the designers credit. Searle and Tyrell won’t budge on this.

Chris Tyrell, a former lawyer, and Jim Searle, a former architect, are the founders of Hoax Couture. Two decades ago, the partners in work and in life started hawking Tshirts on Queen Street. Within a few years, their collections were garnering international acclaim. Ten years ago, Searle and Tyrell opened their first boutique in Yorkville before moving to their current location near Queen and Spadina.

At Couture Studios, the dynamic duo’s aim is to be the “ultimate stop for custom-made fashion.” Today, I’m on a mission. I want a little black dress (an LBD) something every woman should own, especially this time of year when holiday parties are in full swing.

Though Searle and Tyrell make house calls, I’d suggested visiting them at their studio/home. One can’t help but dig their vibe. I have to walk down an alley decorated with colourful graffiti, enter through a back door, walk up four flights of stairs, then across a large rooftop garden, to get to their live-work space. It’s a hidden gem. A tray of mini-desserts is on hand, along with the offer of tea or coffee. (Yes, they do this for all their clients.) For designers, they’re neither pushy nor diva-ish. They’re mature, friendly and laid-back.

“It is hard to find good custom-made designers,” Searle told me when I phoned to make my appointment. “A lot of them are more seamstresses than actual designers. And their clothes are a little too ‘mother of the bride,’ if you know what I mean.” I own at least a half dozen LBDs. “Not one of them is perfect,” I explain. “For some reason, I always think I’ve found the perfect LBD, but then, when I go pull them out a second time, they don’t seem so perfect.” Searle and Tyrell nod sympathetically.

“We hear that a lot from women,” says Tyrell. “Most women do own a little black dress, and they’ll say,‘If only the neck were deeper,’or ‘If only it were a little shorter,’ it would be perfect.’” If only. If only. If only. Today, I hope that I’ll never have to say, “If only this dress …” again.

Tyrell and Searle have a large celebrity following. Their designs have been seen on every major awards show, including the Oscars, and worn by such personalities as Molly Johnson, Diana Krall, Alanis Morrisette, Jada Pinkett and Will Smith. I tell the duo I have the perfect LBD in my head, and that’s where the benefit in getting something custom made comes to the fore. Even if it doesn’t exist, it can! Searle pulls out his computer, and we look at images together, discussing dresses and who looks good and who doesn’t.

All clients meet with Tyrell and Searle at least three times. The first meeting is to discuss what they’re looking for. (And, yes, if you’ve seen a high-end designer dress and want them to copy it, they can do that, too. We looked at the Prada collection). “Any information you bring us is good information,” says Searle. The second meeting is where measurements are taken. The third is to make sure everything fits perfectly.

Though they do like working with colour, they maintain that every woman, no matter what shape, size or colour, looks good in an LBD. “You can still go to a party in a little black dress and stand out,” says Tyrell. “And little black dresses are timeless.” Are they honest with clients about what will look good on them or not?

“For sure,” says Searle. “That’s part of why you get a custom-made dress.” They have hundreds of patterns on hand. And there are a number of fabric stores in the vicinity, which makes it easy to run out to check fabrics. I’ve decided I want two dresses. (This pampered princess can’t help herself.) I want the red one that I can’t have, but we’ve decided (ha-ha blogger girl!) to alter the design … slightly.

They are also going to design the perfect little black dress for me, with a low-cut neck, short but simple. A custom-made dress costs $350 to $800. At the end of our first meeting, I’m on cloud nine. “This is the part I love,” says Tyrell. “When we know we’ve all come up with something perfect, it feels euphoric.”

At my second fitting, I feel like I’m visiting a plastic surgeon. Except Searle isn’t taking a marker to my face. I’ve put on a muslin fabric — a thin potato bag fabric — and he marks it up, showing me how the dress will fit and where he’ll cut away fabric. In one week, I’ll not only have a little red dress but a perfect LBD. Searle says it usually never takes them more than three weeks, from start to finish.

I can’t wait for people to say, “I want your dress.” They won’t be able to have it. It is one of a kind and all mine.