A bolt from the blue
• Neophyte designer was making some sales Ñ then came the Grammys
Two years ago, Lake Oswego's Michelle DeCourcy didn't know a thing about sewing.
Today she's a hot clothing designer for such A-list performers as Norah Jones, Sheryl Crow and Faith Hill.
DeCourcy will be a featured designer at the Country Music Awards in Nashville, Tenn., later this year. And she's talking with a stylist from the sizzling HBO series 'Sex and the City' about designing dresses for series stars Sarah Jessica Parker and Kim Cattrall.
Her flirtatiously elegant dresses hang on the racks of Portland's Mercantile store and at least 60 chichi boutiques across the country.
Next stop: the fashion capital, Paris.
'I never dreamed that the business I created as a way to stay home and be with my children would grow so quickly and the line would be so well-received,' says DeCourcy, 31, taking a break from her work in the cramped, 700-square-foot studio adjoining her house.
It was Jones, a singer and songwriter, who brought national attention to the neophyte designer when she wore a DeCourcy black stretch lace dress on stage at the nationally televised Grammy Awards ceremony in February.
Fashion writers from Women's Wear Daily, Vogue and In Style magazines began ringing DeCourcy's phone the next day. They were intrigued by the stay-at-home mom from Oregon who was designing clothes for celebrities.
The Grammy publicity shot DeCourcy 'into the fashion firmament,' Vogue said.
The key to her success? 'I understand female bodies and how clothes fit,' DeCourcy says. 'I understand what will sell.'
Victoria Taylor, co-owner of the Mercantile in downtown Portland, is one of 11 Oregon shops that carry DeCourcy's line. She says DeCourcy has the right combination of fashion sense, energy and 'enthusiasm for life and for her own collection' to make her mark in an industry that thrives on intense competition.
'Michelle has a great way of identifying a sexiness that women want to wear in clothing,' Taylor says. 'Her eye is attuned to proportions. There's a soft, feminine quality that they have.'
Adds Debbie Wimber, owner of Gracie's Boutique in Lake Oswego, which also carries DeCourcy's clothes: 'Her designs are very feminine and also fit real women. And she uses incredible fabrics.'
DeCourcy's (silk and taffeta) rags-to-riches story began when she quit her job as an accountant with the Oregon Anesthesiology Group a few years ago to be at home with her three young daughters.
Looking for something creative to do, she turned to sewing. She started by stitching curtains for her home because 'I like to make things pretty.'
She enjoyed it so much that her husband, Portland marketing consultant Doug Fish, gave her a sewing machine for her 30th birthday in September 2001.
DeCourcy was delighted. She sewed every day, making scarves and wraps for herself. Favoring vivid colors and soft, luxurious materials, she made scarves from velvet, chiffon, even ostrich feathers.
Friends, family, even strangers liked her work and asked her to make scarves for them. So she invited 150 people to a 'scarf party' at her home, taking orders for scarves that sold for $45 to $140.
Her business, Michelle DeCourcy Designs, was launched.
Then, because 'I got bored,' DeCourcy figured out how to put a pattern together and began making dresses and skirts. She took her designs to Portland and Seattle area boutiques that agreed to carry her items.
Within a year, she had made around $100,000.
The next step for the budding designer was to see if she could succeed in the fashion big-time of Los Angeles, where she managed to show her small but expanding line at trade shows.
That led to an invitation to show some of her clothes backstage at December's VH1 Big in 2002 Awards, where Norah Jones performed and chose DeCourcy's now-famous $202 black dress to wear to the Grammy awards. The dress fit Jones perfectly.
DeCourcy has exchanged e-mail with Jones. 'She said she had received many, many gowns and the only one she truly loved was mine,' DeCourcy said. 'It was vintage-looking, just like her.'
DeCourcy's fashions Ñ ranging from $198 to $400 and in sizes extra small to extra large Ñ are in such demand that she no longer sews them herself but contracts with a Wilsonville company. She employs three assistants in the studio and has four sales representatives on the East and West coasts to place her clothes in more stores around the country and, she hopes, in Paris.
Profitable from the start, DeCourcy says the business has earned nearly $500,000 so far and will allow her to expand. She is about to launch bridal and holiday lines.
'My goal is to continue with the success we've had so far and to keep coming out with beautiful things,' she says.
'I like the trend industry is moving to Ñ the reinvention of feminine glamour. Dresses are coming back. I love making women feel more beautiful.'
Images of DeCourcy's fall 2003 collection and a list of stores that carry her clothes are available online at www.michelledecourcy.com.