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Russian-born fashion designer makes her mark
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Photo: Aaron Facemire
Fashion designer Svetlana Larson received formal design training at the Institute of Textiles and Light Industry in St. Petersburg, Russia. Now she is piecing together her design career in the Quad-Cities.
ROCK ISLAND -- "Do you want my American smile?" asks Svetlana Larson as a newspaper photographer checks the lighting before taking her picture inside her studio.

American smiles, she explains, are broader and show teeth, unlike the Russian smiles of her homeland.

A fashion designer at the helm of her own growing business, Ms. Larson has learned all about looking good for the camera.

"I was like 6 years old when I first tried to sew," she said. "My foot didn't reach the pedal, so I had to stand."

Four years of sewing were required as Ms. Larson went through school. "If you're asking a Russian woman if she can sew, the answer is yes."

She went on to formal design training at the Institute of Textiles and Light Industry in St. Petersburg. Now she is piecing together her design career in the Quad-Cities.

After school, she worked as a shoe designer in Russia. She headed her own company, doing freelance design for different shoe companies, as well as producing and selling shoes on her own. Opportunities in Russia were not as good then as they are now. Opportunity was in the United States.

Even after she arrived here 15 years ago, she had to tailor her goals to the situation. Obstacles in sourcing materials and labor prevented her from pursuing shoe design here. Since she had done textile design and sewing for clients in Russia -- items such as custom leather jackets and coats -- she chose to pursue clothing design instead.

Many of her designs share a distinctive, youthful feel. "I like to do teenage stuff inspired by my daughter, using pop tops, chains -- more rock and roll. I don't like to do average clothes."

Her work is decidedly trendy -- a boutique catering to young hipsters in California has been carrying her clothes for two years, and a boutique in Bettendorf has turned away a number of her designs because they're "too young."

Ms. Larson's perspective on clothing is colored by her background. "Women here wear T-shirts and shorts or jeans. They like to be comfortable," she said. "In Russia, even if you're just going to the grocery store, you put on makeup and dress up." She gives a simple reason for dressing in her designs: "I'd like people who wear my clothes to feel confident and special -- just have enough good attention to make them happy."

About six years ago, Ms. Larson decided to expand the business by getting the word out through advertising, a professionally designed website (ClothesCreator.com) and even two appearances on "Paula Sands Live." Now she's busy enough that she's looking to hire part-time help so she can focus on design. "I'd like to produce clothes, but I can't find people who really know how to sew. I have high standards for sewing. People come back to me because of the quality."

They also come for the service, too, as evidenced by a call Ms. Larson received from a customer who wanted to know when her alteration would be done. "I already did it," she said. "I was going to call."

"You're so fast!" the customer could be heard exclaiming on the other end of the line.

She's also busy. A second caller inquired about a couple of jackets -- also already done.

Though Ms. Larson said owning her own business is sort of living an American dream, it's far from the end. "I'm doing OK, but it's just the beginning, I think," she said.

After all, she had her own business in Russia. Clothing design would not, Ms. Larson believes, be as easy or as profitable in her hometown. "In Russia, everyone is looking for labels, brands," she said. "There's some of the same here, but not as much."

Her dreams are bigger -- much bigger -- than simply owning her own design and alteration business. For now, however, she said the Quad-Cities is "kind of my home right now," though the area isn't a great market for original designs, even when they're inexpensive. Her custom-designed and -tailored dresses average $300 each. "I'm trying to keep prices down because people say they can find stuff on sale."

Ms. Larson takes on a variety of challenges in addition to her core alteration and design business. "I did a hat for one guy. ... His head was big so he probably had trouble finding his size." She also has a customer who buys a certain brand of studded belts for the studs, then has Ms. Larson remove the studs and use them in her clothes.

She also designs and makes curtains, and her latest passion is making necklaces from exotic materials.

Shortly after coming to the Quad-Cities, Ms. Larson made a connection at Celebration Bridal Shoppe in Davenport. To this day, a large part of her business is in wedding dress design and alteration, and prom season is probably her busiest time. (After Christmas is her slowest time -- except for a client with dwarfism who needs to have his gifts extensively altered.)

She's also interested in doing a fashion show locally as well as in reaching out to other boutiques. But California is likely where her big dreams will come true.

She's already tried to land a spot on the reality TV show, "Project Runway," and views her attempts as learning experiences. "I think they're looking for wacky people with crazy hair," she said. She already has assembled a team of photo and video professionals, models, makeup artists and others to mount another run at the show.

If she's successful and gets on the show, she has plans for what she'd do next.

"I'd like to have my own boutique and do high-end clothes for celebrities."

Chasing the dream

Who: Fashion designer Svetlana Larson
Quote: “I’m doing OK, but it’s just the beginning, I think.”

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