Give Yolanda Voss a swatch of fabric and her imagination will run wild.
"Most of my creative juices come when I see a piece of fabric.I can sit down one whole afternoon and design up a storm," said the 52-year-old owner of the Yolanda Voss Studio International Inc. in Columbia.
Voss started the business in 1979 and last month opened a new division, the Fashion Gallery, in Historic Savage Mill.
"I wanted to draw clients from the Washington and Annapolis area, and Savage Mill is a bit closer," she said. "It also provides a stimulating environment with other creative people who are under the same roof."
With the help of 10 employees and several part-time seamstresses, the Columbia resident designs and manufactures about 600 garments a year, three times the number she produced her first year. Prices for the daytime wear, suits and gowns, which range from classics for conservative women to more elaborate special-occasion gowns, start at $300 and go as high as $3,000.
Voss, who was born in Ecuador and studied tailoring and design there, chuckles when recalling her first efforts at clothing design in the late '60s, when she peddled samples of her work at Garfinckel's and Lord and Taylor department stores in Washington, suitcase in hand. She sold some of the garments to Lord and Taylor, and several others to small boutiques in Washington.
For the past three years, she has distributed her clothing wholesale to exclusive shops in Palm Beach, Fla., and she still conducts business with some specialty dress shops in Georgetown and elsewhere in Washington.
But, she notes, "I've been designing clothes my whole life."
Voss says she has been fascinated with fabrics since she was a young girl living in Ecuador with her parents and eight brothers and sisters.
"I liked playing with remnants. At the age of 12, my parents allowed me to take weaving lessons. I learned about cutting wool from the lamband how to do the dyeing, spinning and weaving. It was my favorite pastime."
Voss' childhood pastime led her to take courses in sewingand homemaking for three years at the Institute of Tailors and Home Economics, and more dressmaking courses at the Institute of Quito-Luzde America.
Because Voss had been exposed to U.S. culture throughAmerican acquaintances of her parents, she dreamed of eventually living in the United States. She came to this country on Sept. 17, 1962,and four years later to the day married her husband, Bill, who owns a county-based construction company.
In 1971, Voss began designingand making clothes out of a small studio in her Columbia home. Her clients were friends of friends who heard about her talents, or women who saw others wearing Voss designs at social gatherings. Eight yearslater Yolanda Voss Studio International was incorporated and she opened a studio with four employees in the Wilde Lake Village Shopping Center. Besides designing and making clothes, Voss conducted fashion and makeup seminars and offered modeling courses.
She still conducts the seminars, although the modeling courses have been discontinued.The main thrust is creating and producing clothing.
Some clients approach Voss about a design idea and she works from there.
"We want to help her make the right decision and to help her learn to deal with any figure problems," she said.
More often, Voss -- who is ready with a sketch pad at all times -- will choose about 30 or 40 designs for the new lines she introduces four times a year. An illustrator refines her black and white sketches, filling in details and colors.
Next, a muslin reproduction of the garment is made and fitted toa model, and corrections to the design are made. Cardboard or paper patterns are used to cut the design from the fabric. During the production phase, Voss hires seamstresses -- mostly housewives who live inthe county and enjoy the flexibility of seasonal work -- who work out of her Columbia warehouse.
The entire process involves 10 employees, all Howard County residents. A sample maker interprets the designs; an illustrator refines the sketches; a finisher sews intricate stitchery; an embroiderer sews details such as beading on various garments; an administrative assistant files patterns, does inventory and works with the designing department; an accountant and her assistant take care of the books; a fashion coordinator promotes and schedules three annual fashion shows in the Baltimore/Washington area; a generalmanager oversees the entire operation.
"We hire more people when we need more," Voss said.
She aims to please and can make a garment in as little as 1 1/2 days. An elaborate gown takes a week.
In spite of the recession, which Voss says contributed to a 50 percent cut in production over the last few seasons compared to the previous year, she is constantly working to improve business.