"We looked at every piece of lingerie on both coasts, and there is nothing else like Andra Gabrielle's work," declares Susie DeSanto, the costume designer for the upcoming movie What Lies Beneath (to be released this summer), starring Michelle Pfeiffer. That's a testimony to the stitching and embroidery that goes into the lingerie and evening wear by designer Andra Gabrielle. (In America, the only other place you're likely to find such handwork is in the antique textiles department of a museum.) Her nightgown-and-peignoir sets, camisoles, blouses, and evening wear--deceptively simple silks and chiffons--incorporate exquisite details: minuscule silk-ribbon flowers, Lilliputian antique beads and buttons, and gossamer-thin embroidery. These pieces may evoke Victorian finery, but their simple soft shapes, subtle color variations, and clean silhouettes make them thoroughly modern.
With her wild auburn curls and alabaster skin, Gabrielle looks the part of a youthful Merchant-Ivory film heroine, though she's 50. (And like the Merchant-Ivory women, she's an independent sort.) She was born in Queens, New York, and taught herself to design and sew as a child. After graduating from New York's Fashion Institute of Technology, she worked freelance. At the suggestion of a friend, she made six white silk blouses with seed-pearl buttons to show a Bloomingdale's buyer, who ordered 40 pieces, launching Gabrielle's career.
Today, in her 1830 Chelsea townhouse, Gabrielle and her rigorously trained staff of five spend their days producing precise serpentine tucks with the tiniest of twin needles, or joining finished or folded edges through fagoting, an embroidery technique rarely used today and involving miniature stitches or microscopic beads. Each of her tiny embroidered flowers alone takes about four hours to produce. Hand-dyed silk ribbon in different widths and colors forms the tiny buds and petals, and embroidery stitches create the leaves.
For Pfeiffer, Gabrielle created a delicate, hand-stitched, triple-layered silk ballet gown with hand-dyed, hand-spun silk ribbon straps and a bodice hand-printed with spring flowers bearing glass beads. "But," notes Gabrielle, "my work is about more than stitching--it's about the delicate balance of fabric weight, color, and texture. Each garment has to have its own architecture."
Camisoles and blouses start at $800; nightgowns, about $1,000; peignoir sets, $2,500. Available at Bergdorf Goodman, Neiman Marcus, Barneys New York, and Joovay in SoHo. Or by appointment: 212-366-9624.