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Custom-fit careers of two clothing designers

STITCH in Southampton, owned by Rose Dios, left,

STITCH in Southampton, owned by Rose Dios, left, produces custom-made clothing. (Jun. 28, 2013) Credit: Heather Walsh

Rose Dios was set for life. She had a successful career with a global investment firm, earned nice bonuses and was asked to make another 10-year commitment to stay with the company.

But instead of resting on her job security, she doubled her workload, keeping her day job while starting a business three years ago that feeds her passion to work with her hands and use the dressmaking skills she learned as a girl.

In contrast, Robin Agnew, who at 54 is the same age as Dios, has been in the designer- dressmaker business full time for 32 years. But, like Dios, she finds fulfillment in a field that allows her to combine creative urges with fine sewing skills.

Dios and Agnew are strangers who have carved out similar businesses and shared an ultimate goal of finding the lifestyle of their dreams. Their paths have led to the creation of custom workplaces that perfectly fit their personalities, just as the garments they custom sew are perfect fits for their clients' measurements.

For Dios, who lives in Southampton with her husband, John Dios, a certified financial planner, and their four children, that place is a chic fashion boutique called STITCH, a name that describes the inner workings at her dressmaking establishment. Her business fills an entire building in tony Southampton Village and is easy to spot with its bright blue portal.


Clothes for both sexes

STITCH is part studio/workshop, where Dios designs and constructs custom clothes for both sexes; part showroom, where the vibes lean toward classic Hamptons-style ready-to-wear; part fashion consultant space. You have nothing to wear to that upcoming cocktail party? You probably can find it at Dios' place. Embarrassed by a bit of upper arm flab? Dios has camouflaging tricks up her sleeve. Armed with needle, thread, a few pins and a lot of savvy, she becomes a problem solver for figures that are not quite perfect.

Nancy Grady, a Southampton real estate agent who gives her age as "50-ish," characterizes two knit dresses she had made at STITCH as a boon to her lifestyle. "The fabric is fabulous, I can roll it up and stuff it in a suitcase, and it won't wrinkle. And it's even washable. We started with a simple shape and adjusted the neckline and sleeves to fit me. I had one made in gray and another in black, and it's become my LBD -- you know, the 'Little Black Dress' that goes everywhere."

In the newly renovated building, STITCH's spacious main floor is a maze of movable racks with creations in an array of prints, starting at $125, that are produced on the premises in upstairs workrooms or in a small, New York City factory.

From a rack of skirts, capes and accessories all made of lace, she pulls out a filmy overblouse and slips it on over her dress like a jacket. "Lace is in right now," she says. "It's so flattering, and fashion is all about feeling good."

Clients stand on a low platform in front of floor-to-ceiling mirrors for consultations with Dios, or her assistants, for alterations or the design of custom-made clothes. Custom prices start at $200, depending on fabric and the project's complexity.


Working in an ex-greenhouse

Agnew's business, Designs On You, has been housed in the same unusual structure, complete with aviary, for 32 years (see box). Her spiffy Port Jefferson Station studio next to her home is a converted greenhouse, originally built by her father, Clark Agnew Sr., and redesigned by her brother, Clark Agnew Jr.

The 100-by-50-foot white-tiled interior, with a 16-foot ceiling, is more than roomy enough for four 9-by-4-foot work tables. Sewing machines and 15 mannequins that are scattered around -- some clothed in Agnew's "wearable art."


A calming influence

"It's ideal for my use," she says. "There's plenty of light and quiet and space for my customers to walk around while they try out their new duds. Sometimes, like right now, when I have several wedding jobs with all the hysteria that comes with the mothers and the brides, it's nice to have a place like this that has a calming influence." She especially appreciates her aviary, also a favorite with customers. "It's my happy place," she says.

Agnew, whose husband, Ken Bauman, is a computer technician, explains how she achieves the fit and look of the garments that have brought faithful customers back for new clothes for years. "For the fit, I use the customer's measurements that I transfer onto plain muslin. I drape that directly on the body, making adjustments as I go."

The critical procedure of analyzing a client's overall silhouette is essential to making clothes that flatter. "It's a question of balance," she says, "By adjusting the bulk to the upper body or to the below-the-waist area, according to the individual's requirements -- a process that can mean as little as an inch more or less of width or length in the right place -- a figure can look svelte because her or his proportions are in synch."

Even the types of fabric can control the illusion when they're used to correct imbalances, she says. Shiny surfaces make a figure look larger; matte finishes tend to hide flaws. "There are all kinds of optical tricks, like calling attention to a pretty face by creating a flattering neckline." Her wedding gowns cost from $600 to $6,000, and everyday garments start at $300.

Unlike Dios, who is fairly new to the business but has a crew of four full-time employees, Agnew works alone and is looking forward to downsizing her business eventually. "I can only work these 80-hour weeks for so long," she says, and she also would like the chance to redirect her talents. "I would like to put more time into exploring my own creativity by designing one-of-a-kind art wearables -- garments that I can develop with my own ideas instead of following those of my customers."

She enjoys working with male clients, especially for "drag" clothes, Agnew says. "They're so over-the-top, with all kinds of flamboyant flourishes, it's such fun."

She finds satisfaction in making party costumes or stage ensembles like the ones she creates for singer Amber Ferrari, 41, of East Patchogue. "They're phenomenal," says Ferrari. "I start with an idea, and Robin embellishes it. My favorite is a three-layer outfit made in sections that can easily be stripped off, piece by piece, for quick changes during a performance."

Although Agnew's direction may change down the road, she's content with the career she's carved out during the past three decades. "I consider myself very lucky to have found my niche; a vocation I look forward to every single day," she says. "I can't imagine ever wanting to retire."

Dios echoes the sentiment. "I found a way to balance a career [in finance] and a lifelong passion. I can't believe I'm living in both worlds."

A studio for the birds, too

Visiting Robin Agnew's Designs on You studio and aviary is a bonus for her customers.

The building is partially below ground and is surrounded by immaculately tended flower and vegetable beds that allow it to blend into the family's three-acre spread.

Originally built as a greenhouse by Agnew's father, the structure was redesigned by Agnew's brother, Clark Agnew Jr. 59, a builder with an architecture degree who now lives in an earth-sheltered house he built in Orange, Vt.

In 1980, he was awarded a $50,000 grant by the federal Department of Energy for a program that was seeking to explore experimental energy-related projects. His design called for a roof made of pre-stressed concrete slabs, covered with a waterproof matrix under a rubberized skin and topped with a foot of soil. The south-facing building has banks of insulated tempered glass panels that catch the sun's rays and heat the space.

Clark Agnew also built an aviary for his sister, separated from her work space by a glass wall. Its tropical atmosphere nurtures a koi pond, a menagerie of turtles, lizards, uncaged doves and finches.

The star tenant is Wish, a gregarious lovebird that needs no prompting to perch on a visitor's hand. His beautiful plumage is a close match to the array of fabrics in the neighboring workspace.

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