Whether it's because of the flattering, comfy-sexy fit, the great colors and patterns, or just the outright wow-that's-not-from-the-mall factor, Kelly Lane dresses turn heads -- in Boston, New York, Chicago and all over the country. They even merited a mention in a recent New York Times article about newly stylin' Butler Street in Lawrenceville, home to one of two locations for SUGAR, the sole Pittsburgh boutique that carries the line. Wearing one virtually guarantees one of those glow-inducing moments when a stranger stops you on the street and demands to know where your outfit came from.
And the answer couldn't be better: It came from the Stanton Heights home of Kelly Lane Simpson-Scupelli. The dresses hold their own in any market, but are the products of a fashionable Pittsburgher who has taken first-place honors in the City Paper readers' poll just two years after dusting off her sewing machine. (Sharing the honors with Lane is designer Nick Alan, who did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.)
"It's still strange to be considered a fashion designer," Simpson-Scupelli says, sipping green tea in front of her studio's crackling fireplace, cozy in a dress she made worn over jeans and boots. "I had always said I wanted to sew, and my husband took me literally and bought me a sewing machine. For six months, it sat."
With a master's degree in design from Carnegie Mellon University and more than a decade of graphic-design experience, Lane began teaching herself how to sew. "I started working and it unleashed this creative energy -- I was like, 'This is awesome!'"
Her first real contact with the fashion world came through SUGAR, working occasional shifts in the store and talking with customers. Simpson-Scupelli learned by "really listening to women, looking at different body types and catering my designs to their needs." People appreciate the simplicity of her pieces: They're wash-and-wear, and move easily from work to, say, a gallery opening after. The dresses tend to be comfortable and forgiving, but miles from mom-ish.
They also mix solid-color knits, which make up most of the body of the dress, with woven print accents with a vintage look -- occasionally calling to mind Pucci prints or something that vixen Jane Jetson might be rocking in the future. Actually, the print accents are usually vintage-inspired or reproductions: Genuine vintage fabric is prohibitively expensive. "It's primarily about the color, but there's also a density to it," Simpson-Scupelli says of her fabric selection. "I tend not to go with monochromatic prints. There's a playfulness and sophistication -- always that duality."
The outfits are often constructed with versatile parts -- shoulder pieces that can be worn several ways, for example -- and tend to be appropriate for several seasons. A summer-wool wrap dress with exposed seams and long sleeves, which breathes beautifully through mucky August, moves effortlessly into a brutal Pittsburgh winter with some wooly tights and tall boots.
Kelly Lane designs aren't bargain-basement cheap -- they start at $156 -- but each dress is handmade and features organic fabrics and local craftsmanship. "I want to keep everything locally made," says Simpson-Scupelli. "I do all the pattern-making and cutting; I have a seamstress down the street in Friendship. She stresses "the process of making a garment -- the appreciation for local versus made-in-China."
There's also an emphasis on being sustainable, both economically and environmentally. Simpson-Scupelli has had offers from big names -- like an "out-of-body experience" with Macy's reps at a Las Vegas trade show -- but wants to keep her operation lean. "I don't want to be in 200 boutiques; it lessens the exclusivity. For spring, I'm in about 30 boutiques nationwide," she says. Her new emphasis on organic and sustainable fabrics -- like silky and quick-growing bamboo or refashioned waste from the T-shirt industry -- is part of a growing eco-consciousness, as is her reuse of boxes and packing materials. "I try to reduce my impact."
But what's a stunning line like Kelly Lane doing in Pittsburgh? We're Philistines in unironic trucker caps and Steelers gear, right?
"People here are hungry for something new," she says. "Pittsburgh has been very supportive -- it got me excited about my own work."
And, apparently, City Paper readers, too.