After only two years in the business, Jill Alexander got the call for which many designers wait their whole lives.
Her Jill Alexander Designs was picked as the only American fashion house in London's "Curves in Couture," its first show for plus-sized women during London's Fashion Week, ranked as one of the big four shows, along with Paris, Milan and New York.
"It's a huge deal and it feels a little surreal," said Alexander, whose office is in the Sash Mill complex overlooking Highway 1. Her clothes break the tradition of what curvy women are told to wear. Instead of solid, dark colors, she uses a bright palette with patterns and nip and tuck sizing to flatter their natural curves.
A runway show of her spring line called "Northwest Passage," will be seen live November 17, on Dish TV, the first time she's been on live television.
"That's a little nerve-wracking. Anything can happen. Someone can trip, something can rip, but it's exciting nonetheless."
Her company has five employees and her clothes are sold in 20 states and four countries, including Mexico, Canada and Australia. Locally, they are available at Moda Bellisima at 107 Locust Ave. downtown.
She's caught a fashion wave with perfect timing. Although half the women in the country are in her larger size range, magazines, fashion shows and the fashion industry which ignored them are suddenly waking up.
"Everyone wants to design for petite runway models," said West Valley College fashion teacher Kaee Min. "But most women don't look like that. Jill has tapped into where the customers' needs are. Her garments are absolutely fabulous in any size, but to make it for this abandoned customer base makes it really successful."
Alexander's story also breaks familiar patterns, not just because she worked her way up from selling on the floor of a retail store to being a top designer, but because she did it in her 40s with no help from a bank and no loans.
She didn't go to a big-named fashion institute. She studied fashion design and merchandising at West Valley Community College, in Saratoga, while raising her daughters., now 15 and 16. She said the school was excellent and the only way a mother could get an education, while spending enough time with her family.
Working on her children's theater projects also helped launch her late-in-life career.
After graduating from San Diego State University with a degree in speech communications, she started working in visual merchandising for women's clothing retailer Ann Taylor. She always had a knack for picking clothes, inherited in part from her mother who worked at the high-end clothier, I. Magnin & Company.
Alexander's next stop was the high-end maternity store, Pea in the Pod, which gave her insight into women's changing bodies and what clothes worked through the stages of pregnancy.
She not only learned what customers liked while working on the retail floor, but more importantly, she found out what looked good on all sorts of bodies, which fabrics worked best with which sizes.
"You learn tricks of the trade of how to fit a growing body, how to give the consumer clothing that will last them for nine months."
She took time off from work to raise her kids in Santa Cruz, the place she and her husband, Ernie, decided would be great for a family. When her daughter pursued an interest in theater, Jill designed costumes for her plays at All About Theater in Santa Cruz and Spotlight Theater in Capitola and Children's Musical Theater in San Jose.
"You have to create this whole mood on stage," she said. "The kids really became the character when they put these clothes on. I find the same thing for women. When they put on something really beautiful, they feel really beautiful."
That inspired her to go back to school in 2007 and launch her business in 2009. While most of the fashion industry is far from Santa Cruz, Alexander said the Internet has helped people find her and allowed her to live in the city she loves.
In keeping with local style, she makes clothes that have the comfort of pajamas but can be worn to a business meeting. She prefers natural fibers to polyester, and she creates single items, such as her sleek Desiree Convertible Top – made of modal, a fabric created from beech trees – that that can be worn with jeans to work or with gaucho pants to a wedding.
Some of the Santa Cruz's down-to-earth style has influenced her designs.
"Women here aren't label conscious," she said. "I think they care more about getting a cool vintage bag than the latest Coach bag.
"I've always been well-received in Santa Cruz and no matter what I do, I hope I'm telling the story and making people feel beautiful."
She shares the community's respect for honoring women the way they are, not like the stick figures in fashion magazines.
"I think that once women realize it doesn't matter if they are a 2 or a 14 there are things they can buy that will fit and be beautiful.
"I hear women all the time say that the sizes stop at 12 and they won't buy something until they lose five pounds. Why should they have to lose five pounds to buy something they love?"