Shopping for clothes isn't just about finding something to wear. It's an experience in itself.
That's what designer Kiya Tomlin, who specializes in custom looks for women and children, hopes to share with clients when they visit her new design space at 11 Penn Circle West, inside Meadeworth Interiors in East Liberty.
"I would like them to experience all the steps and take part in the process and feel like they have some input," Ms. Tomlin says.
Until now, the mother of three and wife of Steelers coach Mike Tomlin created clothes and met with clients at her home. But with Kiya Tomlin Pittsburgh, which is now open, women interested in, or just curious about, having a custom dress made can consult with Ms. Tomlin Monday through Friday between 9:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. and by appointment on the weekend. A grand opening celebration is being planned for October.
The move has been a goal for some time, but Ms. Tomlin couldn't find a place she considered to be a perfect fit. Meadeworth Interiors owner Sue Anderson, who has helped Ms. Tomlin with interior design projects in her home, mentioned the empty display area at the top of a few steps near the back of her showroom.
"It's isolated enough and contained enough that it certainly could be a salon or studio," Ms. Anderson says. "I believe that we're very complementary products -- specialized, customized, upper-end kind of things. And our process is very similar. I think that's why she and I connected so well."
Ms. Tomlin was also attracted to the space because of its location in Pittsburgh's East End.
"The neighborhood is really going through a revival," she says. "I thought it would be really neat to be kind of a part of that."
When customers stop by, they'll discover an intimate studio complete with a seating area, changing screen, sewing machines, works in progress and a rainbow of fabrics in various colors, textures and prints. Ms. Tomlin typically offers three categories of clothes. One is the Signature Sheath collection, which is the equivalent of the little black dress, a perfect option for everything from cabaret to cocktails. Women can personalize the basic dress by working with Ms. Tomlin to choose features such as fabric, neckline and hemline that reflect their style wants and body shape needs. She also carries her Runway Collection, a line of limited-edition pieces that will be available in standard sizes or can be made to order. Complete custom design is another option, in which the client works with Ms. Tomlin to create something unique. The clothing for children is well suited for special occasions, such as a bat mitzvah.
Prices vary based on the fabric and details, but on average, a simple sleeveless sheath from the Signature line starts at about $650. Gift certificates also are available.
Ms. Tomlin hopes that clients will walk away with a custom dress but also with an education in how it was made and what makes it so flattering for their figure. She completes a figure analysis for her clients, informing them of whether their body type is an apple, pear, petite or some other proportion. She also teaches them about the Fit Fashion Formula and how they can use it to wear clothes that make them look taller, leaner and more balanced.
"It takes a series of 12 vertical measurements, and it uses a mathematical formula that's based on the golden rule, like 'everything beautiful is built in thirds,' " Ms. Tomlin says. "It actually tells you how to create the illusion of being perfectly proportioned," through specifying for each woman's body what length her hemline should be, where her jacket should hit and which neckline is most becoming.
"When you have something that fits well, it's something that never goes out of style," she says. "When I buy stuff, and I may love it on the rack, and there's always some reason that it never makes it out of the closet. Usually, it's not the right fit. It's not the right body type."
A dress's longevity is also a reflection of its style. While Ms. Tomlin keeps up on what colors and silhouettes are popular, she believes in designing ensembles that are timeless rather than trendy.
"I like clean lines," she says. "Yes, you can show something, ... but you can't show it all. If I want to do a plunging neckline down to the belly button, then everything else needs to be completely conservative" to achieve a classy, elegant aura.
New clients are encouraged to bring ideas for what they're seeking and an open mind toward trying something new. This sense of experimentation and artistry is what has long attracted Ms. Tomlin to fashion.
"The creativity of not looking like everybody else or having something the way you want it, and for me it's the craft of it," she says.
She also enjoys assisting women with selecting something that complements their bodies. "I understand how important fit is," says Ms. Tomlin, who has had to learn how to build looks that visually elongate her petite frame. "I love to draft patterns, and I love to do fittings."
It's a love that stems back to when she was 10 or 11 years old, when she started designing and sewing. She attended the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va., on a gymnastics scholarship and studied pre-med. After graduating and getting married, she opted not to go to medical school, but fashion design remained a hobby and a strong interest. When football transplanted the Tomlins to the University of Cincinnati, she enrolled in the fashion design program at its College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning.
She keeps her knowledge fresh by researching fashion websites, reading industry magazines and attending trunk shows. She is also inspired by other designers, including Hollywood costume designer Edith Head, Carolina Herrera, Marchesa and Dior. Her designs are largely "fabric-driven," so she travels to New York to find quality materials that are interesting and unique.
"I buy fabrics in very small cuts," she says. "You don't need 50 dresses like that running around Pittsburgh."
In the future, Ms. Tomlin hopes to have some of her clothes available as ready-to-wear. She also would like to carry accessories and shapewear to complement her creations.
"I think people are thirsty for fashion here," she says. "I think there are people who are thinking outside of the box and looking for things that are different."
Sara Bauknecht: email@example.com. First Published September 11, 2012 4:00 AM