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Fashion designer rides celebrity wave

Mass. native gets boost from singer

By Christopher Muther
Globe Staff / February 17, 2011

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NEW YORK — On the third floor of a sparse art gallery, a dozen stylists frantically straightened and slicked the hair of a small army of porcelain-skinned models. A dozen makeup artists painted faces with foundation and smoky eye shadow. Amid the bustle, the woman who should have been the most anxious calmly took it all in.

Marblehead native and designer Sally LaPointe, 26, showed her fall/winter 2011 collection at New York Fashion Week on Friday night. But unlike her first show here last fall, this time the eyes of the fashion elite watched closely. After pop superstar Lady Gaga plucked a LaPointe-designed black jersey dress to wear at last month’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, the designer has found herself on the brink of the big time.

The audience for LaPointe’s show included her downtown art-school pals, but also featured tastemaking editors from Italian Vogue, Women’s Wear Daily, Elle magazine, and the influential website Style.com. Retail buyers, who will decide whether to pick up LaPointe’s line for their stores, were also in the house.

“I should probably be a lot more nervous,’’ LaPointe said shortly before the runway show, her black hair tucked under a ski hat. “But I feel good about the line. I feel good about how things are going. It’s all kind of exciting.’’

LaPointe, a Rhode Island School of Design graduate now based in New York, launched her line just two years ago and was quickly named one of New York Magazine’s “Nine Designers to Watch.’’ Her first collection also caught the eye of stylist Nicola Formichetti, who chose the black dress for Gaga to wear at a much buzzed about Polaroid event in Las Vegas.

“It definitely put her on the map,’’ says Harper’s Bazaar contributing editor and celebrity stylist Mary Alice Stephenson. “That press is worth probably a million dollars.’’

The fact that Gaga wore a LaPointe creation made perfect sense. The designer’s spring collection was based on the idea of going mad, and the dresses and jumpsuits were over-the-top, fanciful, and not exactly something the average woman would wear for a night on the town.

For her new fall collection, LaPointe scaled back on the craziness. While she showed some flashy pieces, the designer made huge strides toward wearability, or, as LaPointe prefers to say, “desirability.’’ Modern and feminine, the silhouettes were body conscious and well-tailored, whether it was a curve-hugging red gown or a full-sleeved silver minidress with matching leggings.

The reaction to her new line has been swift and positive. Women’s Wear Daily raved: “Futuristic can sometimes look dated but Sally LaPointe’s printed silk shirts in white and fiery orange over pants and a cropped red leather jacket were right on for the here and now.’’ Style.com noted: “They’re just the sort of thing Gaga would slip on to pick up the paper.’’

When LaPointe and her best friend and business partner Sarah Adelson launched the line, they were working day jobs at other fashion companies and never anticipated LaPointe’s work would get noticed so quickly. They now focus on the designs full time.

“Once you get a press jump like that, it creates more buzz, which is huge for us,’’ LaPointe says. “This is a pretty exciting time. It’s funny, because when my friends heard that Gaga wore one of my dresses, they just said, ‘It’s about time,’ because it just makes perfect sense that she would.’’

Celebrities have become a key vehicle for fashion designers who want to get their clothes noticed. During red carpet season, top designers pay celebrities thousands of dollars to wear their gowns to award shows and high-profile events.

But it doesn’t have to be a star-studded gathering. Paparazzi photos of a celeb wearing an eye-catching look to a restaurant, boutique, or even a court date can have a huge impact on the fate of a fashion label. The body-hugging white dress that Lindsay Lohan wore to face felony grand theft charges last week immediately sold out thanks to the publicity.

“Look at what happened with [fashion designer] Kimberly Ovitz,’’ says Joanna Coles, editor-in-chief of Marie Claire magazine. “Despite the fact that it was Lindsay Lohan, and despite the fact that it was a court date, it was still felt like an incredibly helpful moment for Kimberly. There are so many young designers out there, and the challenge for them is to get their name out there.’’

Designer Adam Lippes, who showed his collection in New York on Saturday, can speak to the power of celebrity. He’s seen his outfits worn on reality TV, but his star rose tremendously after Oprah Winfrey featured his clothes on her show.

“You can’t imagine how important something like this is,’’ Lippes said. “People are constantly looking at celebrities in magazines and blogs. It shouldn’t be that important, but it is. The bigger the celebrity, the bigger the exposure, and right now there isn’t much bigger than Lady Gaga.’’

Still, most shoppers aren’t looking for costumes; they want clothing they can wear and feel good in. LaPointe said that she had a slightly different approach in mind as she designed the new collection. She knew the fashion world would be watching, and she wants to keep it that way.

“I think that the meat and potatoes of the collection is that I wanted to make the clothes really wearable,’’ LaPointe says. “I do have a few show pieces, but I made a stronger push to make clothes that a women would really want.’’

It’s too early to tell whether the good reviews will lead retail buyers to stock shelves with LaPointe’s pieces. But no matter what happens, her two biggest fans were enthralled during last week’s show. LaPointe’s parents, who traveled from Marblehead, sat in the front row watching models strut the runway in shades of red, black, and turquoise. Their shy daughter is now the center of attention.

“It’s her outlet,’’ said her mother, Jodi LaPointe. “We all need an outlet to express ourselves, and she’s found a beautiful one. I just can’t believe I’m sitting here. Wow. I’m at my daughter’s fashion show. It doesn’t get better than that.’’

Christopher Muther can be reached at muther@globe.com.