JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARBULLETIN.COM
Stylist Blaine Ashley started wearing Maggie Coulombe designs to events and said, "People were asking to buy the pieces off my back." Because of her busy social life, she appreciates the versatility of dresses that can be ruched and worn over jeans, and above, a Balinese pareo ($225), that can be worn five ways.
A Maui designer sets her sights on Oahu’s multi-tasking women
Inside a small shared studio in the heart of downtown's culture and arts district, Maui-based designer Maggie Coulombe seems newly energized by Oahu's urban rhythms and ideas come to her in rapid succession: of hosting yacht parties in St. Tropez, of recreating some of the glamour and magic of New York's Studio 54 heyday, of realizing how exciting it would be to see her designs paraded on the streets of Honolulu.
You get the feeling that for Coulombe, anything's possible. Her bio, for starters, has enough twists and turns to make anyone's head spin, starting with defying her parents by opting, at 18, to become a designer instead of a doctor.
Teenage rebellion isn't new, but the real surprise is that after starting Jet Star, a successful line of club wear in Toronto, working with Hollywood A-listers, musicians and on wardrobe for movie and TV productions, she threw it all away.
She still laughs when telling the story of flying to Maui in 1995, just to visit her sister. Through some friends, she met Louis Coulombe, the chef/owner of I'o Restaurant, who also happened to be from Toronto.
"I got married!" said Coulombe, who had known her beau for all of two weeks. "I had never thought of leaving Toronto. I ended up going back, closing up and selling everything but my sewing machine."
The marriage has lasted, but Maui's reality was that there was no business for the custom suits and club wear Coulombe had been creating in Toronto, so she started an alterations business, dealing with such high-end boutiques as Chanel, Gucci and Prada. Although that would seem to be laborious, Coulombe said she enjoyed it.
"I love to sew and I learned so much by taking the garments apart and putting them together. I really recommend it to anyone who wants to be a designer. You hem 2,000 pairs of pants and you get really good at it.
"I took a few classes in haute couture technique, but you never really get to see it until you open a $3,000 jacket where everything is perfectly clipped, pressed and finished. Oh my goodness, people don't realize how much work goes into those garments."
After a while, she started taking stock of her own needs. She was tired of the resort wear that filled boutiques. "I saw nothing versatile for the traveler. Nothing that would take them from the beach to a restaurant for dinner. I really started my line out of necessity, for me."
She started with the idea of a pareo that could be wrapped and worn in many ways. "The pareo is very raw. I wanted something a little more finished."
Her self-named line, started in 2000, was an instant hit with the many celebrities who vacation on Maui, including Teri Hatcher, Halle Berry, Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie. Come January, she'll be heading to Hollywood to help dress stars for awards season.
Coulombe attributes her success to combining the luxurious feel of silk with comfortable designs that can be dressy or casual, depending on wearers' needs. Dresses, tops, skirts and wraps come in one size that can be worn by women from size 2 to 8, at a cost of $250 to $400 per piece. Her designs are carried in select markets of Montecito, Calif.; Miami, Fla.; and by Searle in New York.
"I'm very picky about who I sell to because I feel you can't service a quality line any other way," said the designer, who continues to take a hands-on approach to her line.
Another advantage of distance is, "My customers are far away from each other," she said, which reduces the likelihood of seeing the same garment over and over.
Setting up shop in Honolulu allows her to keep more business at home, while reaching an entirely new, local clientele.
"In Maui, I could keep the same thing on the racks for three years because there's a different resort customer every day, and when I first came to Oahu I thought it would be more of the same thing, because the first place I looked was Waikiki," she said.
Being downtown has exposed her to a more youthful, artful vibe, closer to her own energy.
"When I was at Du Vin the other night, I saw young women going out. Something about their lives inspired me," Coulombe said. "We work so hard, and when we go out, we want to look good. It makes me want to cut for that woman, the young professional woman, who needs to look good, needs to look smart."