All dressed up, by Design
Santa Olivares Diaz pins the author. the “Ellen” style, in geranium cotton jersey, was customized further by narrowing the sleeve and creating a slightly closer fit in the torso.
photos by kc kratt
You know what I love about dresses? Put one on, and you’re dressed.
Dresses truly are one of the easiest things to wear, and they can make you feel great. But they can be hard to find. Especially well-fitted, flattering versions, in fabrics you love, with the right sleeve, neckline, waistline, hemline, and other details—and for a price that you can swallow. That difficulty is what the founders of Dress by Design had experienced for years. Then they decided to do something about it.
Since 2005, Dress by Design has been empowering their clients to customize their own dresses, choosing from eight basic dress shapes, and specifying size—either standard or custom—and fabric, plus other finishing touches. It began with three generations of the Kilroy clan. In varying capacities, matriarch Marilyn Kilroy, her two daughters, Christine McNamara and Kathleen Vacanti, and Kathleen’s daughter, Marikate Moore, founded, grew, and continue to fine-tune the business. Though they don’t have fashion training or background, they possess strong opinions and vision.
The author in Dress by Design’s “Ellen” style in stretchy jersey fabric—the impact of the slim-waisted style and straight skirt are enhanced with a bateau neckline and v-back. The soft belt with self-flower adds a sweet touch.
The main challenge at the start was getting their patterns spot-on. Enter Santa Olivares Diaz. To the store’s good fortune, the professional sample-maker and master seamstress, a veteran of the New York City fashion industry, had moved to the Buffalo area and was in the market for just this type of work. Diaz worked closely with Vacanti, McNamara, and Moore to get their styles and patterns perfect—laying the groundwork for their exactingly fit garments. The business, now with three seamstresses, nestles in a charming atelier in the heart of Allentown. To get a dress, you can go to the brick-and-mortar location—call or e-mail ahead of time for an appointment.
Of course, many people prefer ordering directly online. A major percentage of Dress by Design customers never come to the shop, placing their order online through the easy and effective website (www.dressbydesign.com), and having their completed, custom-made garment shipped to them. Using the site is like playing grown-up paper dolls. Click on the style, sleeve, and fabric you want, and see a sketch version of your dress—and its price—right on screen.
The first year, the return rate for alterations was around forty-percent—now, after tweaking and refining their designs even more, their return rate has dropped to less than two-percent. They do offer one free alteration with each dress; if you live outside the area and don’t want to ship your dress, they will reimburse $25 towards an alteration done elsewhere.
I decided to get my DbyD experience onsite instead of online. First I tried on muslin samples in my general size to see which were contenders, style-wise. Note: be honest about your true size, especially when ordering online—or your dress won’t fit. And that kind of defeats the purpose, doesn’t it? Speaking of fit, if you’re ordering online and not sure of your size, the staff suggests that you get your measurements professionally taken. (Find a tailor, or a dry-cleaner that does alterations. Ask them to take your measurements. Maybe pay them a few dollars for their time.) Another option is that Dress by Design can ship you a basic muslin dress form. Have someone help you pin it to your shape, and send it back. They’ll have a blueprint of your body from which to make any and all future dresses. This service is $40.
A few examples of the styles, named after family and friends, include “Amy,” a slim-waisted halter-style dress, with easy-fitting skirt and high waistband. “Christine” is a basic shirtwaist style with a slightly full skirt; it’s recommended for slim figures. “Kathleen” is a great idea: an easy-to-wear, two-piece dress. The back-zipped, princess-cut top goes over a pencil or A-line skirt. It’s great for women with different-sized top and bottom halves. And so on. “Grace,” “Marikate,” “Marilyn,” and “Megan,” each a different style, each suited to a wide variety of women and shapes.
The store has drawn women of all ages, and not only with dresses for special occasions, like proms, graduations, and weddings, but also for work wardrobes or cruise wear. DbyD’s fabric selections give plenty of options, and the prices are pretty reasonable. My “Ellen” came in at around $250. You can get basics starting at $220, and for the high end, with all the bells and whistles, you can spend as much as $380.
Every guide tells you to consider your body shape when choosing a dress. Think about garments that have made you look and feel good, or those that you have been complimented on. Check out what you like, what looks good—in magazines, on the street, in your closet. And then put yourself in Dress by Design’s capable hands.
Dress by Design
43 Allen St., Buffalo
Jana Eisenberg is Buffalo Spree’s style editor.