Eva Franco: Beyond The Hemline

“Fashion requires you to multi-task,” says designer Eva Franco amidst the vibrant hum of her downtown L.A. studio. “We’re in production on the Fall 2011 Collection while simultaneously designing Spring 2012.”

Franco’s five thousand square-foot loft on Spring Street oversees the production of garments that are shipped to over 1000 stores throughout the world.  After ten years of hard work, the brand is gaining serious momentum.

Courtney Coxx invited Eva to her home in the Hollywood Hills to fit her for a few custom dresses.  Carmen Electra is also a fan, as are a myriad of other familiar faces that grace the photo gallery at www.evafranco.com.

“Celebrity clientele are great, and it’s validating, but I’m not one of those designers who wants to make a $30,000 red-carpet ball gown,” says a confident Franco.  “I’m more interested in dresses that suit a variety of occasions.  Clothes you can wear to work that look professional, but also translate afterwards when you meet friends for dinner, and still want look and feel feminine and versatile.”

Her Indefatigable creative motivation is two-fold: the first is to elevate her wearer’s profile. “If someone crosses the room to compliment a dress that I’ve designed, even if it’s unconscious, and a connection between two people is made, then I’ve succeeded,” she claims.

The second is to do so without putting a major dent in the pocket book.  A reasonable price point for a well-crafted dress is $150 to $300, and conscientious shoppers can take pride in knowing they aren’t wearing something mass-produced in a foreign country. With an Eva Franco garment, odds are slim you’ll see another girl in the same piece you’ve just bought.

What makes Eva’s collections so novel is the variation of fabrics she chooses. The worldliness of her designs originates from consistent trips around the globe in search of distinctive textiles: hand-died fabric from Tokyo, delicately woven lace from a Paris flea market and vintage embroideries from India.

“Beauty can be found in the most unlikely places,” muses Franco.  “It’s my job to seek it out.”  Maybe this is why her collection garners a surfeit of compliments for the women who wear her.

“Fabrics are my canvass. I consider it an art to design the canvass itself.”

She started printing photographs on her dresses four years ago.  The trend finally made it to mass retailers this year.  But Eva’s brand maintains the cultural capital it has accumulated by staying as intimate and personal as when it first began.

“What excites me most is looking forward to what my brand will look in five to ten years. There’s no greater joy than seeing an evolution in the creative process.”

Franco’s path to success was anything but conventional. Fans of Twilight and True Blood will be happy to learn that she was born in Transylvania, to Hungarian parents.  But life in communist Romania was constricting to say the least.  In 1983, her family escaped to Greece where they were granted political asylum.  When the American Embassy asked which of the 50 states they’d like to relocate to, Eva’s father chose Connecticut.

“It was close enough to Manhattan, but far enough away to raise my sister and me in a dependably safe setting,” recalls Franco.

She perfected her now accent-less English in the Wethersfield school system (Betsy Johnson was also a graduate), but her personal wardrobe as an outsider left much to be desired.

“It didn’t take long to for me to learn that in America, kids judge you by what you’re wearing,” she says.  Her opinion became; since I’m going to be judged, it might as well be of my own making. “Even before I made my own prom dress senior year, I already knew I wanted to be a designer.”

After graduation, Franco went to The Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan. F.I.T. offered her a foundation in design, and she offered F.I.T. an impressive new talent.  So much so that after graduating, her former professor recruited her for a business opportunity.

He had found backers for a line of clothing to be manufactured in the Philippines.  He would design the men’s line and Eva would handle the women’s.  That meant moving to Manilla to organize the production team, which she promptly did.  Her professor would join three months later after school let out.  It was a solid plan– but not the way things happened.

A letter arrived (pre-email…) informing Eva that the professor’s backing had fallen out and to come home.  While most people would have chalked up the loss to a learning experience, Franco saw her overflowing portfolio and a sewing shop full of workers and thought, why leave now?  She networked her way to a new investor who offered to fund the line and work began.  A year passed before another setback derailed her plans. Her investor suffered a major heart attack and pulled out.

“It was a hard way to learn the most fundamental lesson of entrepreneurship,” recounts Franco. “Investors can be volatile.”

Franco returned home and set her sights on Los Angeles because of its strong community of crafts people: skilled sewers, patter makers, fabric vendors, and affordable spaces to work in.

She began displaying her inimitable dress designs at the Fairfax flea market and customers started lining up. “The flea market was like a laboratory for me,” says Franco.  “I learned an immense amount about the range of women’s bodies and how to compliment them with fabrics and silhouettes.”

One Sunday morning, an independent rep started browsing through a rack: she loved Franco’s style and was curious if she could produce in quantity. Having tested the production waters in the Philippines, Franco was confident she could deliver.  She quickly learned how demanding it would be to keep that promise.

“When you’re a one-woman-show, it’s you that has to go to the cutting service, pick up the bundles, haul them to the contractors,” she says of her humble beginnings.  “It was sweat equity in its purest form and it gives me a tremendous respect for my staff today.  I have fifteen craftsmen and women in various departments whose hard work makes all these collections possible.”

Franco knew approaching the major showrooms as an unknown designer was futile. So she packed a suitcase full of samples and set out to do it herself in markets like Chicago, Miami, Atlanta, and Dallas.

“I’d get off the plane and into a rental car, drive to the hippest neighborhood I could find and look for stores that had a strong design sense. When I found one, I walked in without an appointment, asked who was in charge, and presented my collection,” she recalls with a laugh.

Selling store-to-store in so many different markets gave her invaluable feedback on just how variegated tastes can run from area to area. “A woman in Miami dresses vey differently than a woman in Chicago… Dallas, for example, is a really big event town. Lots of formal affairs and weddings.”

Those early hustle-n-flow trips helped Franco cultivate her collection into one that would suit a limitless number of climates and lifestyles.  In short, one that was more viable for a larger market.  When it was time to approach the big league Manhattan showrooms, Franco came to the table with 40 accounts she’d opened herself.  Not a bad way to start a meeting.

A dream came true when Anthropologie asked to carry one of her lines.  Since then, Eva Franco dresses have graced the covers of two Anthropologie catalogues and she continues to ship them thousands of garments. “I found their creativity to be whimsical and vintage inspired,” she says of the retail operation. They clearly feel the same.

Frabco’s next goal is establish a retail presence in Los Angeles and New York. “It’s vital for the brand to have its identity translated into a brick and mortar store.”

It’s also a physical manifestation of the very dream her parents risked their lives for in bringing Franco here so many years ago.  This is still a country where talent, determination and generosity can pay-off, and in rare cases like Eva Franco, give back even more.

 

 

 

 

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