Forty years of dressing Washington
By Abha Bhattarai,
Don’t let the drab workwear fool you, Felix Alonso says. D.C.’s fashion scene comes alive at night — but it’s almost always behind closed doors.
“In Washington, you don’t see fashion in the streets,” Alonso said. “But when you go out at night, oh my goodness, the ladies really sparkle. Privately, Washington is as high-fashion as any city in the world.”
Alonso should know. The designer in his 60s has spent the past 40 years making custom gowns, cocktail dresses and business suits for Washington’s elite. He has dressed four generations of Kennedys, as well as Hillary Clinton, Nancy Kissinger and countless ambassadors’ wives.
When Alonso arrived in Washington in the 1970s, the city wasn’t ready for high fashion, he says. Today, business is booming — so much so that Alonso is unveiling a new ready-to-wear line that will be sold throughout the United States, Europe and Australia.
His upcoming line, called Felix Alonso, will make its debut at a trade show in New York City next month. It will be sold in showrooms in Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas and Atlanta, as well as in Paris and Barcelona. Alonso is also in talks with Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman to carry his clothing.
“It’s really a start-up with 40 years behind it,” said Jill Cohen, a local entrepreneur and friend of Alonso’s.
The company already has a wholesale presence in Europe, where Vogue by Alonso clothing is sold in high-end department stores such Galeries Lafayette in Paris and El Corte Inglés in Spain, but Alonso says his new label will be priced more moderately.
Alonso is financing the new venture himself. He and his brother and son, who run the European arm of the company, have invested $4 million so far in the project.
It may be a difficult transition for a man who has spent most of his career working behind the scenes. Much of Alonso’s success lies in the close relationships he has forged with his clients. How will that translate to a mass international market? Alonso says he’s not sure.
Still, he’s optimistic. Alonso expects sales of $28 million in the collection’s first year, and says there’s a need for well-made clothing that falls somewhere in between mid-range department stores and haute couture.
“Many of my clients are finding that when they need a dress or a gown, they have to go very high-end to the $3,000 range, or down to the $300 range,” he said, adding that dresses in his new line will cost between $500 and $1,200.
Alonso’s current business has benefitted from the recession-resistant nature of the Washington economy, and from a constant rotation of well-heeled foreign visitors ranging from business executives to diplomats.
“Embassies are our bread,” he said. “An ambassador’s wife needs at least two garments a month – for dinners, teas, luncheons.”
His made-to-order clothing ranges from classic business suits and blouses to more whimsical pieces, such as a gown made entirely of purple Swarovski crystals and topped with a sable fur collar. Just the fabric cost him $14,000, Alonso says.
“I go to Felix because I want classic and elegant dresses that are smart-looking,” said Nina Pillsbury, who lives in Washington and is on the board of Alliance Française. “And when I say smart-looking, I don’t mean the gowns are intelligent but that they’re snappy. That’s my style: conservative and snappy, and Felix does it beautifully.”
An unassuming ‘atelier’
The designer works from a modest brick house on Wisconsin Avenue in Chevy Chase, where he spends most of his days in a work area behind his showroom. Shelves overflow with hundreds of spools of threads, including at least 20 shades of green. Magazine clippings are pinned to curtains, and National Public Radio plays on an old stereo system.
It is here, perched atop an old desk chair with a flowered cushion, where Alonso sketches his ideas and cuts fabrics for garments. There are three sewing machines in the room, but most of the sewing gets done downstairs, by four employees, one of whom has been working with Alonso for 22 years.
Although he creates clothing for the very rich, Alonso appears perplexed by the wealth that surrounds him. He’ll often point to a piece of clothing in his workshop or “atelier,” like a one-shouldered gown covered with gold sequins, and shake his head. “It’s too much,” he’ll say, “really, it’s crazy.”
On a recent afternoon, Harriet Singer, 75, tried on a hot pink sleeveless dress at Alonso’s atelier. She and her husband, Allan, traveled from New Jersey to find a dress for her grandson’s bar mitzvah.
“We only drove about, oh, 200 miles,” said Allan, 77.
The Singers heard about Alonso through their daughter, who heard about him from her sister-in-law. That’s how many of Alonso’s clients find him: through word-of-mouth recommendations. Alonso has never sought the spotlight. He says he wouldn’t even know where to start.
Four years ago, for another grandson’s bar mitzvah, Harriett bought an $820 black dress with a bow and long sleeves from Alonso. She’s worn it so many times that it’s become her uniform, she says.
Harriett tries on more dresses: a brown silk number and a cream one with a cowl neck, but decides on a long-sleeved black dress with ruffles.
“You look like a million dollars,” Alonso tells her. He takes her measurements and asks her to come back in a month for her first fitting. He doesn’t ask for a deposit. His clients are like his friends, Alonso says. He hugs the Singers goodbye.
“Did you ask Felix how much the dress was?” Harriet asks her husband as they’re leaving. “I completely forgot to check.”
Before success, a setback
Alonso was born in León, Spain, but grew up mostly in Annecy, France, where his family rented a summer house to the designer Pierre Balmain. At 14, Alonso’s parents sent him to Paris to work as an apprentice for Balmain. Alonso studied fashion design in Turin, Italy and Barcelona before moving to Washington at the age of 24 to help Balmain open his first American store in Georgetown.
“Between my father and Mr. Balmain, it was decided that I would go into fashion,” Alonso said. “At first, it was no good. I was too young, really. But it became okay after a few months and by 18, I liked it very much.”
A year and half into his Washington venture, Balmain decided to close the store. There was simply not enough demand for this high-end clothing in Washington.
“At the time, a $350 blazer for a man was too much,” Alonso said.
Alonso decided he wanted to buy the shop and took out an $80,000 loan from American Security Bank in Georgetown.
“I went to Europe and spent every single penny,” he said. When he returned, he opened his first store: Alonso, where he sold custom-made blazers for $125 and dresses for $300.
In the 40 years since, the shop’s name has changed to Vogue by Alonso, and has moved from its original location in Georgetown to Mazza Gallerie to its current outpost on Wisconsin Avenue.
Debbie Silver, who moved to West Palm Beach from McLean several years ago, says Alonso continues to make almost all of her evening wear.
“We give FedEx a lot of business,” Silver said, adding that she and Alonso often send gowns back and forth in between fittings.
Once, Silver, who is a jazz singer and dancer, mailed Alonso a copy of the movie “Top Hat” and asked him to make a replica of Ginger Rogers’ dress. It was a white gown covered with ostrich feathers.
“When I wore it on stage a few weeks later, you could hear the audience gasp,” Silver said. “Everything he makes is beautiful.”