*Down a busy avenue of store fronts in West Hollywood, lies a quiet workshop fronted by green trees, and a still white fence. Behind the open door, the sound of falling water calms the soul. Entering the courtyard, intertwining vines provide the shade above, while benches offer a reprise from the busy commercialized industry street-side.
Up a set of steps the door sits closed but through the window, armless manikins pose draped in fashions, flanked by computer screens and a wall similar to a vision board sits filled with colored fashions and swabs of clothing.
Moving feverishly like elves on Christmas Eve, the workshop owner Kai Milla, with assistants in tow, gives soft spoken commands that are immediately translated and materialized through a combination of scissors, thread and fabric.
Kai Milla works in that comfortable workshop similar to a modern day Geppetto, if he made high fashion women’s wear. This stylish maven works day and night and like Geppetto, who turned a lifeless chunk of wood into a living boy, Milla turns plain rolls of material into colorful creations of style and elegance.
“We moved to West Hollywood, which I love,” said Milla, “and we’ve been here for about three years or so. This is where I create. This is my space where everything happens from draping to sketches to patterns, everything happens in this studio.”
Milla is a true designer from education to practice.
“I started off as an artist,” continued Milla, “I went to Corcoran School of the Arts [in Washington, DC] and majored in Fine Arts. I’ve always had that fashion thing for as long as I can remember. Before leaving Corcoran, I got hired as an Art Director in New York. I started building my contacts and it sort of exploded from there.”
Inspired by artist of all walks of life such as fashion photographer Richard Avedon and designer Paul Poriet, Milla’s fashions have many contemporary contexts and range from solid dresses to exotic prints atop folded silks.
“Richard Avedon in one of my favorites” explained Milla, “the way he captured light. Think about an art background. I see it as a canvas. There’s a balance that has to happen when you are creating. That falls over into draping, in terms of figuring your balance, and creating.”
Milla’s years spent in the fashion industry has taught her how to hone in on her target market like a puppet maker selects a fine piece of wood to carve. Unlike the puppet maker who subtracts from the wood, carving it into perfection, Milla adds and combines her fabrics until she reaches a point where she is satisfied that her works will set her apart in a crowded field full of hopeful designers.
“There are no guarantees,” said Milla, “I can’t sit here and say, ‘Do formula ‘A’ and it’s going to work.’ You need everything in fashion. You need supporters, backers, just everything, to make a line work. There are many talented artists out there that we have not even seen or tapped the surface on. It’s just that they are not able to get their work out, so they tend to work for other designers. I say, ‘However you can do it, do it.’”
“[The industry today is] a freelancer’s dream,” added Milla. “The doors have been opened in various ways now. It’s not going through this rout, or going through that rout, you can really get creative on how you get into the market place. It’s more open thanks to the e-commerce and the websites where you can go on and you can purchase stuff. So [now] you can set up your own shop online. So that is very helpful. Before, you had to get those buyers to come in and trying to sell your line with not that much space on the floor. It’s a much better format, I’m much happier about the way it is now. You see more creativity now.”
Milla has worked with many notable celebrities such as the first lady, Michelle Obama as well as celebrities Halle Berry, Oprah Winfrey, Eva Mendes and Salma Hayek.
“I got a call one day,” explained Milla on how she got the assignment to design and style dresses for the First Lady, “and it was someone that the First Lady worked with, it was her fashion consultant, and I don’t know where they got the number, but I’m happy that they got it. They said, ‘Mrs. O is interested in looking at some of your designs,’ and it sort of took over from there.”
“She’s a wonderful lady,” said Milla about the First Lady, “she’s classic and she’s down to earth. It was a highlight for me. She requested a green V-neck chiffon dress. It was emerald green and she wore a black sash. She wore my first dress in 2009.”
Asking Milla why she does fashion is like asking someone why they get up every day. “It’s a part of me,” explains Milla. “I started off designing, and word started to spread and things started to happen.”
Kai Milla Clear is Milla’s newest line, set to be released soon.
“Everyone’s going to love it,” said Milla, “It’s a casual line. I know that I’m known for doing these intricate details, pleating and gowns, which I love, but for the market, you want to see some growth, and clearly we need to tap into that market. That woman, she gets up, she has to go shopping, she has to take her kids to school, and she has to go to work. How are you going to do that? It’s ready to wear, couture. We had to figure it out. So my casual line is Clear V-101, which is a clear vision starting it from the basics. Maybe about 24 related items that function as a collection, but you will be able to pull the pieces out for select looks.”
Kai Milla’s Clear V-101 is due out next June.
By the way, with LA/Style Fashion Week coming up, October 15 – 17, Milla’s schedule has gotten as long as Pinocchio’s nose. Here are a few of the events that she is planning on attending.
Sue Wong – October 15
Just For Tee – October 15
Altaf Maaneshia – October 17
A’Qua Swim – October 17
Vintage Fashion Expo – October 18 – 19
LA Emerging Designers – October 24
LACMA Art + Film Gala – November 1; honoring Quentin Tarantino and Barbara Kruger.
For more information on Kai Milla, go to wwwkaimilla.com.
Photos: Troy Tieuel