Fashion designer Danielle Pettee is making an impact on the San Francisco style scene as an expert dress maker. Since launching her whimsical collection of romantic dresses last Fall, she is quickly becoming one of the the most sought after designers for custom made evening wear and party dresses. What’s impressive is that all of her marketing is by word-of-mouth. Her fashion models will wear her dresses when they go out, getting the attention of women who want a similar custom made dress for themselves.
I found out about Danielle through word-of-mouth as well. I was at the nightclub Sloane at fashion photographer Damien Miller’s Capture event. I striked up a conversation with a woman sitting next to me about fashion and she mentioned that her friend Danielle makes amazing dresses. I didn’t think too much of it at the time, but when I checked out her website later on, I fell in love with the stunning detailing and unique style of her dress designs. I had the opportunity to meet with Danielle at Savor in Noe Valley over brunch. I was impressed by her courage to take risks and her tenacity to overcome challenges that get in the way of her dreams and ideas. Her boyfriend Alex Restrepo, the General Manager for Marc Jacobs, had the day off and joined us for the conversation about rising design star Danielle Pettee.
Michele: Tell me about how you started in fashion.
Danielle: I was able to work in a fashion showroom in New York, about two years ago. I took an immense amount of joy out of that job. That is what helped inspire me to start my own business. I learned from the owner of the showroom and from the fifteen designers in that collective. I learned everything it took to produce a collection, from conceptualizing a design, making the patterns, fitting the models, sizing the clothes and manufacturing them. I was inspired by the creative process and seeing how it all worked together.
Michele: Did you have a background education in fashion?
Danielle: No, I was fortunate that they liked me at the interview and hired me. At that point, I wanted to learn all I could. Something I always wanted to do was to work within the fashion district of New York.
Michele: When did you realize that you wanted to go more towards design?
Danielle: I have always been creative. I just used different media all through my life, whether it was painting or building, making jewelry, shoes, jackets, or purses. You name it, I made it. Now I just like to make dresses because I appreciate dressing up and looking pretty. When I was younger, the clothes I wore were plain. My mom would take me and my twin sister shopping once a year to stock up on all the necessities for the year. The clothes were boring, so I decided to make nice things on my own.
Michele: How long were you in New York before you moved to SF?
Danielle: I lived in NY for a year and I worked at the fashion company for the last three months of that time. I really learned that I loved clothes when I worked in the showroom. From NY, I moved to LA for a month and then moved to SF. When I first moved to SF, I got a job really quickly working at a restaurant that was about to open at the Piers. I worked there for four or five months and then I got fired. They let me go, but I really put a lot into that restaurant. They couldn’t give me a reason why they were going to let me go, but they let me go. I helped them do everything, from training new employees, opening the bar, to getting everything in place and staffed. Overall, I’m glad they fired me. At that point Alex told me I was being inconsistent. That’s when I was like “Whoa, I need to do something.”
Alex: I think the two interesting things with that, was with anything she does she gives 100% and tries to inject a level of creativity. She’s proud of her end product. She always focuses on the customers and what she can contribute. I thought that was interesting. After she was let go, I asked “Shouldn’t you get a job?” and she said “No, I’m not working for anybody.” I remember that being pivotal in her not working for someone else anymore. I think there’s a lot of people who focus on a safety net that provides an income, especially in a bad economy. It takes a lot of guts to realize “that’s not important for me, my own self-worth and what I’m doing.” That’s more important than the safety net that everyone is living in.
Michele: Exactly. There are a lot of people who will go to a miserable job, just to earn an income.
Alex: And it could take them five years to realize they don’t like what they’re doing and make that decision. It took her six months. It’s very inspiring in that sense. She was able to say, “This is my course, and either you’re going with me or you’re not.”
Michele: Danielle, what direction did you take at that point?
Danielle: Being productive and consistent.
Alex: Do you want to talk about everything? Hug a Tree? Let’s say there were a lot of independent things that she started and a lot ideas that she tossed around before she came to dresses.
Danielle: I tried out a lot of money making schemes.
Alex: She had a lot of ideas on how she could make money independently. When she talks about committing to one thing, every day it was some kind of scheme. I was like “Listen, why don’t you find one that really makes sense and stick with it.” There’s many “what if Danielle had done this” type scenarios. She wanted to do art bike rentals in the Haight for tourists, so they could ride beautifully decorated bikes. She made an art bike, but it ended up getting stolen.
Danielle: One day, it’s still on my mind.
Alex: She tried performing on the Pier.
Danielle: I dressed up like a tree. I made a tree costume and stood there with a sign I made that said “Are you a tree hugger?”
Michele: Did you get a lot of response from people?
Danielle: Some people didn’t get it and some people thought it was funny. And yes, people hugged me.
Alex: The key there is that in the time it takes people three months to think of an idea and toss it around, Danielle is like “I have this tree idea” and the next day she is on the Pier in a full tree outfit. It’s like, “You made a whole tree outfit in one day and had the guts and initiative to act on it? That’s unheard of.” That’s when I started seeing that ambition in her. She did that for a day and a half and said “I didn’t like that idea.” She didn’t stick with it just because she had invested a lot of time and work in it.
Danielle: I’ll try at least anything once. If it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out.
Michele: How did you come up with the idea of designing your own collection?
Danielle: I remember going to a thrift store and reconstructing a dress. I had this awesome dress that I had redone, which had peacock feathers and a little halter piece. It was simple to make and very beautiful. I wore the dress out one night and this girl, Genevieve, came up to me and said “I love your dress.” I told her, “I’ll make you one.” She contacted me afterwards, came over to my place with two of her girlfriends and had me make them all dresses for her birthday. Her birthday dress was beautiful. That’s how I started making dresses for people. That was last November. It hasn’t even been a year that I’ve been making custom pieces. Because I love doing the custom work, I started making a new dress every day. My first designs incorporated puffy paint.Michele: It’s so novel that you use puffy paint. The puffy paint detailing on your dresses are pretty impressive. They look like embroidery designs.
One of Danielle’s first designs using puffy paint.
Alex: There’s another thing to the story. Before making the dress, she did t-shirts in puffy paint for Gay Pride Week.
Danielle: Oh yeah, I forgot about that.
Alex: That was about this time last year. I invested in her business and bought a bunch of t-shirts. She did Gay Pride t-shirts, all hand done in puffy paint.
Danielle: Someone saw my shirts and said, “My friend has a booth. You should contact him and see if he’ll let you set up at his booth.” I ended up sharing a booth with that person at no cost. After the event at Civic Center, I went to every party in the Castro and walked around selling my t-shirts. I sold them from the street, I sold them from the booth, I sold them on the corner of Castro. There was even an opening of the Grand Cafe during Gay Pride where hundreds of people were lined up to get in. I decided to set up and sell out there. I had a seller’s permit with me, so when the cops questioned me, I could say “Yes, here’s my permit.” I sold so much. I just hung my shirts over railings and sold them to the club kids. I made my rent times two that weekend. I have a whole photo album of everybody who bought a t-shirt from me.
Michele: Is that when you realized you were a savvy business woman?
Danielle: Oh yeah, I realized I could do anything.
Michele: So you did the puffy paint t-shirts and what happened from there?
Danielle: I had a temporary job as a hostess on Belden lane. I hated it. They were really bad people and I saw a lot of bad things happen. I did that for a month and then took my last paycheck and went to Thrifttown. I bought a bunch of stuff and that’s when I started recreating dresses with added puffy paint detailing and selling them out on the street.
Alex: There’s another element to that story. One day you called me and said “Alex, I met these really cool girls in my building. My neighbors went to fashion school and one of them is an amazing bikini designer, Maggie Trever. I want to learn from them.” She said, “I want to make stuff. I want to learn from them. I’m going to go there every day and absorb.” She has all this initiative, ambition, creativity, vision, etc., but she didn’t know how to start. She started hanging out and learning. That’s when her evolution as a dressmaker started. She was learning and absorbing information like a child. She would sew things on her own and then go up to Maggie and say “I got this far, how do I do this?” Then Maggie would be like, “Do this, this, and this.” Danielle would go back and look it up and by the end of the day she would have a dress made. Then the next day it would be a dress with a zipper. Every day she wanted to increase and increase her skills. As she hit her limit, she would go and seek out the information to help her that day. It wasn’t like there were projects left around the house for months. If she wanted to finish it, she would finish it that day. She would get the information she needed, ask the questions, knock on doors and it was done by that day. As what she wanted to do increased, she would seek that information out. The way she does stuff is counter intuitive to what other people do, but it’s organic. That’s what makes it special and successful. It’s been organic from day one. This is what she wants to do and it grows at her pace. She finds the technique as needed. She was even like “I want to make a jacket today” and went out and bought the materials, a pattern and asked Maggie a couple questions. She then had a jacket made by the end of the day. That’s something that’s difficult without any training. She started off just altering what was already made and then when she met Maggie she was like “This girl knows how to make clothes. I’m just going to hang out and create dresses.”
Photograph of Danielle’s studio.
Danielle: It was so helpful and inspiring at the same time. We shared a lot of ideas.
Alex: Danielle has a lot more ambition than most people who have the skills. She has the desire. There are people who have the skills, but they’ll get preoccupied and make a piece a week. She’s like “I want to make a piece a day.” It’s one of those things with resources. Its so weird how some people have the resources, but they don’t have the drive to do anything with it. There’s a lot of people out there that have desire and ambition and tenacity, but they don’t have access to resources. She’s been able to find a way to get those resources any way she can.
Michele: Did you have any setbacks or challenges when you started sewing?
Danielle: Not really. I took a pattern class and a sewing class. I got halfway through the pattern class and realized that I didn’t want to spend five hours in a class learning how to make patterns, when I could figure out how to make them on my own. So I dropped the class, but I learned as much as I needed to learn. I stayed in the sewing class and that’s how I learned how to make really great zipper construction and finishing details.
Michele: When you started sewing, did you know which direction you wanted to go with your collection?
Danielle: It was more of making things that are really pretty and romantic. Putting women in my stuff and making them feel good. My ideal vision was to dress women
Alex: Her first dresses that she made herself were very romantic with ruffles and ornamentation, but not in a gaudy way. They were very feminine and made women look very pretty. She was inspired to create dresses that are breathtaking. When someone walks in the room, people will say “Wow, she’s really pretty. That’s a very pretty dress.” Even the names she was giving the dresses were all romantic.
Danielle: My first fashion show at Sugar Cafe last December featured the Leather Princess, the Cup Cake, the Snow White, the Rocker Princess, etc.
Alex: The terms she uses are reflective of a throwback to romantic, storybook pretty women. It’s not like the “CFO Chick” or “The Assertive Woman.” No, you can be assertive and feminine at the same time. In general, people have lost romanticism. Just because you’re romantic doesn’t mean you’re less of a competent, assertive person. For example, we went to a show last night. She wore a frilly dress and was wearing sneakers and rode her bike to it. When we got there, she slipped into heels. Just because you ride a bike, doesn’t mean you can’t wear a pretty dress. She’ll be riding down the street in her spray painted bike and heels, with a dress on. She should be in a fancy car. But she doesn’t care. It’s the means that she currently has.
Danielle wearing her own design, on her bike.
Danielle: Just because I ride a bike, doesn’t mean I’m going to dress down. There was a driver at the show in his Bentley and he asked me if I was going to ride my bike in my dress. I said “Yes, I can’t afford a nice driver like you.”
Alex: The dichotomy is the great thing about San Francisco. It’s about being more proactive and not being set in your stereotypical expectations. It’s fun to be romanced and chivalrous.
Danielle: You inspire me with that stuff because you are very romantic and you believe in chivalry.
Alex Restrepo and Danielle Pettee.
Michele: There are other people doing romantic dresses on the market, but what sets you apart from them?
Danielle: My vision is out of the box. It’s not mass market. I design for the individual. I think about which one person would buy this dress that I’m making. It’s not about how many girls will want to wear this dress to Prom.
Michele: What has kept you inspired and motivated?
Danielle: Going to the fabric store and finding material with lots of texture and life. It makes me want to sew with it.
Danielle hand painting a dress.
Michele: A lot of people have found out about you, but in a nontraditional sense. You have a very grass roots marketing style.
Alex: Her marketing is one of the most original things.
Danielle: I use the same girls over and over again for photo shoots and fashion shows. It’s been a tradition for them to come over to my place each week and find out what new items I have for them to wear when they go out for the evening. We’ll all go out and they will hand out my business cards to people that comment on the dresses. I like to dress them because they love to wear my stuff. I keep them in mind because they are my clients, models and friends. We all work together in that sense and I love it. If it weren’t for those girls, my PR wouldn’t be as lucrative as it is.
Alex: She’s out there herself hustling, to get into people’s faces. She has fashion shows, but every week she has a fashion show because she has four or five pieces out there at a night club or event being worn by her models. It’s a double win. These girls love to go out and dress pretty and then as people give them feedback on “Wow! Where did you get that dress?” They can direct them to Danielle. It’s zero marketing cost and everybody wins. In other business models, someone can feel burned by the end of the day. In this case, everyone feels like they’re part of something exciting.
Michele: Alex, what do you see as Danielle’s strengths?
Alex: She’s resourceful. If she doesn’t have the resource now, she’s immediately looking to find it by the end of the day. It’s not like “Well, I sat on my hands.” By the end of the day, she has something. It’s amazing the high level of people that she’s worked with
Danielle: I’ve been fortunate to work with the best of the best in SF as a collaborative partnership, without having to pay for their services.
Alex: Her passion. She has a very clear vision on what she wants to do and doesn’t want to do. She doesn’t compromise, whether it’s something on a production level or if it relates to the people that she works with. She would rather not work with people with low integrity. She has conviction. The people who help her, she’s committed to 100%. For example, she will help Maggie out for eight hours to help her finish something. She has a sincerity and genuineness.
Danielle: I always say what I do and mean what I say.
Alex: For weaknesses, I would say that’s subjective. I could say “That’s not how other people are doing it.” But why say that to somebody?
Danielle: I would respond with “I don’t care.”
Alex: If I said something, maybe that’s the thing that would prevent them from doing it. Why do they need to hear negativity? They’re obviously on a roll. And they probably know something you don’t. Maybe that’s why they’re successful. They’re doing something in a way that nobody else is doing it. It’s great that she trusts her intuition, which is the start of a lot of success stories.
Michele: That’s so important. I know of designers who have started their own collections but have given up within the first year because they couldn’t make it. They’re not resourceful in sticking to their vision.
Alex: The people who just showed their collection at the Art Academy fashion show are all going to internships and will get worked to the ground, to work for someone else’s vision. At the end of the day, they have customers and wholesale accounts that they need to please.
Danielle: That’s why I prefer to make custom pieces for clients who I meet. I source fabrics specifically for them. I never know what I’m going to make because I never know what my resources are at the moment. It’s whatever my fabric store has or what I could find off EBay.
Alex: I always wonder what Danielle’s collection would look like if she had all the resources in the world. If she could afford any material she wanted. It would be so different, because right now it’s inspired by things found. For her it’s not about the margins. She is able to produce these couture, handcrafted pieces at an affordable price. She finds inexpensive, quality resources so she can keep her price levels low and offer them for what a real woman could afford.
Danielle stepped out for a moment at this point in the interview.
Michele: What she has been able to do in a year is amazing.
Alex: Yes and she has no in crowd. She’s not from here and she didn’t go to the Academy of Art or another fashion school. She wasn’t one of those privileged kids.
Michele: How did the doors open for her?
Alex: She’s a very open person and everyone she meets knows what she’s passionate about. She has a natural charisma. So it’s like “I’m putting on a fashion show, and you’re a dress maker. Let’s work together.” It’s easy with that face to face connection. With Facebook, twittering and all that, people have forgotten how impacting that first impression is to someone when you meet them face to face. People who meet her are just wowed. She has a big personality and people want to work with her. Not because she’s a bullshitter. Not because she drops names. It’s because she’s direct and they’ll get exactly what she says. She does everything she can to make things happen. The lesson learned is that if anyone wants to be successful, they should just talk about their passions a little bit more. I’m sure even the bus driver knows about the Charity Fashion Show event she’s showing her collection at.
Danielle is back in the interview.
Michele: It’s true. I knew about Danielle’s dress making even before I met her because someone else told me about her. What stands out to me with the designs are that they’re sexy, but not a blatant sexy. The dresses are elegant, fun and colorful. They accentuate the body with how the fabric is draped. The workmanship is evident. Some designers need to expose skin to create a sexy look.
Alex: Well, she also needs to be able to ride her bike in it.
Danielle: I’m so excited that color is back on the runway. Last year seemed drab in comparison. We’re getting out of the recession and it shows because designers are using color in their collections. People were playing it safe with darker colors. This spring was amazing. So much awesome colors. It was like the rainbow exploded on the runway. That’s how my show is going to look. A metallic, neon rainbow.
Michele: What can we expect from you within the next five years?
Danielle: To have a brand and for everyone to know who I am. I want to be nationally known and to dress women up.
Michele: Making custom made dresses have happened within a short time after you moved to San Francisco. How has the city inspired you?
Danielle: The city is so vibrant. When I first moved here, the city had sunny warm temperatures for two weeks straight. I visited every neighborhood on my bike and fell in love with the colors and architecture of the city. I’ve travelled to many places, but I’ve never been more inspired than here. I’ve lived in New Orleans, Dallas, Helsinki, London, New York, and Los Angeles, prior to living here. SF is sunny, colorful and happy. People wear crazy stuff and it’s awesome. You can do what you want and be what you want and everybody accepts it.
Michele: Alex, how has her success inspired you personally.
Alex: I think it’s easy for someone to tell you advice. Everyone encounters obstacles or they’re just dissatisfied with things, their life and whatever they’re doing. People will tell you “Do this, do this and this” and it doesn’t quite sink in. With Danielle, I see her living the advice that people would give. When you see someone living it and not preaching it, it’s a reminder and it’s more impacting. It’s important to see them doing it and not talking about it.
Michele: Danielle, I’m impressed that you don’t give any excuses for your challenges. You’re resourceful in overcoming the challenges.
Danielle: The best thing I ever learned in my life was when I was in NY. I took a seminar workshop called The Landmark Forum. It’s about leadership and taking control of your own happiness and letting go of your past. Looking beyond all your excuses in life. You can do anything you want. People will say “I want to do this someday.” You know what, do it tomorrow. I’m just going to do it and not wait. You can say “The opportunity will come around one day.” It won’t! You have the create the opportunity. Just do it. If you have too many tasks at hand, break it up and tackle it section by section. Then you’ll feel less stressed. That’s what I do when I have too much on my plate. I end up finishing them up in one or two days.
Alex: I still haven’t absorbed the way that she gets things done. I wish it would rub off more on me. In the time it takes for her to go to the store to buy the materials and finish making a dress, I’ll be able to get my room half clean. There’s a level of focus that she has that other people don’t have.
Michele: Danielle, I like that your motive is not just to sell a dress. It’s to connect with that person and make them feel pretty.
Danielle: I’ve had birthday clients who I’ll dress up and also help do their hair and makeup. They’ll even bring me along to their birthday party and I’ll spend time with them and eat their cake too. I love that kind of stuff. I enjoy being a part of their experience in wearing a dress. The whole process of making a woman look good and feel pretty inspires me. I think I’ve finally found my niche.
For more information on Danielle Pettee’s designs, visit her website at www.daniellethedressmaker.com. She is launching a new collection at the Charity Fashion Show this Saturday, May 15, 2010. Details on this event can be found at www.charityfashionshow.org.
Photography in this article of Danielle and her dress designs are by Doug Birnbaum and Jon Bauer. Additional pictures and specific photo credits can be seen at our Examiner.com site.
Doug Birnbaum: www.dougbirnbaum.com
Jon Bauer: www.flickr.com/photos/jonbauer/