Birds of paradise: Blanche's Tracee Mae Miller wears a Eugenia Paul piece with ruffles while taking tea with Detroit's couture designers Eugenia and Paul Patterson. (MT photo: Cybelle Codish)
International media and hipster crowds go bonkers over their designs. Their clothes have been displayed in national magazines and on TV. But few in Detroit know who they are.
Maybe it's time Motown wakes up to fashion design duo Eugenia Paul, comprised of wife-and-husband-team Eugenia and Paul Patterson. You may have seen their custom-made designs at Ferndale's House of Chants, or displayed by Dan and Tracee Mae Miller of alt-country band Blanche. The Millers' style romantic and Victorian with a Nashville slant is often vintage, but sometimes created by Eugenia and Paul, who design, cut and sew from their home on Detroit's west side.
Haute couture French for "high sewing" refers to the creation of exclusive custom-fitted fashion. The Pattersons fit the bill. They've have been making clothes for more than 20 years; their skill as personal designers travels by word of mouth. From jeans to pantsuits to formal dresses, they do it all.
When the Millers nabbed roles in the Oscar-winning movie Walk the Line, Eugenia Paul designed all of Tracee's clothing for press junkets, parties and red carpet appearances.
Probably their most famous showing was modeled by Jack White.
Remember those black-and-red pants White wore during his meteoric rise in London, black on one leg, red on the other, opposite on the back, mentioned in every story on the White Stripes way back when? Eugenia Paul designed them.
In those days it was all red, white and black for the rock star, a uniform of tight pants and T-shirts. Eugenia Paul mixed it up.
"We used beading for his stuff with Loretta Lynn. We cut and reassembled T-shirts. One T-shirt had black lacing. I used 'weave' thread for it, the stuff girls use to weave their hair. It was so Detroit."
Eugenia describes her style as "contemporary classic." She and Paul often collaborate with clients to make clothes individualistic and flattering with a frown toward the trendy.
"It makes me happy that our clothes make people feel of-the-moment, and you're still of-the-moment if you wear it five years later."
The couple draws from traditional styles, and then dresses things up or down. They're all about imperfect lines and rough edges.
"I have a hard time when things are too pretty," Eugenia says. "I'm a big fan of the 1950s and Christian Dior. Recently I did an evening gown with cotton voile that had a full-length train and spaghetti straps. People said it felt like pajamas. I like things to look ladylike. But I have to do something different. It has to be off-kilter a little bit."
The mark of this designer team is to leave a little something going on in the rear bustles, exposed backs, zippers.
"When you meet someone, they pay attention to your face," Eugenia says. "But when you walk away, I like for people to see something about you. So you are still leaving an impression when you walk away. "
Tracee Mae Miller, a local painter and Blanche singer, has been working with Eugenia Paul since her hubbie, musician Dan Miller, proposed nearly 11 years ago. Eugenia Paul made the couple's wedding outfit: a Victorian-inspired dress in white crepe satin with a cinched waist and layers of ruffles, and a black wool tuxedo with Western flair and velvet details. Since then, the designing duo has made clothing for the couple to wear on stages around the globe.
Tracee describes the style as feminine with a twist.
"It feels good to be a woman in her clothes. They make you feel beautiful. They really celebrate a woman's shape," Tracee says. "Her work is not too over-the-top girly. But she's made me some incredible things heartbreakingly beautiful things. And she's also great for everyday wear. She made these slim-fitting flared jeans with a matching top; it was so killer. Her work can be so modern and retro at the same time. It's the perfect mix of clean and elegant, but there's something else in there that's just, Eugenia."
She says Eugenia Paul's work truly does transcend, so you may pay a little more than you would at Macy's, but you have something you can wear "forever."
The style is Detroit, Eugenia says. Her family was settled both on the east and west sides of the city, and the women sewed.
"My grandmother was a glamour queen. I've seen pictures. Her sister made all of her dresses. They were like Christian Dior, with tons of tulle and tiny waists with gloves and hats and shoes. It was so pristine."
The rough streets and international immigrants of Motown's urban environment, mixed with that "pristine" ideal, drive the designs.
"Detroit has such a diverse culture. People who come here try to fit in, but it's their version of how Americans dress. Like Arabic kids, a lot of them try to be hip-hop, but the jacket will be really big and the pants won't be big enough. Or young Eastern European women want the Birmingham look, but they don't really know how to do it right. So the makeup will be too much or the shoes too high or the colors not quite right. I think that's cool. It's a clash of cultures, and it's good. It's very inspiring to me," she says.
Eugenia, now 37, was punk rock back in high school at Cass Tech. Iggy Pop and Motown were influences, she says. Later she designed costumes for local theaters.
Paul, 42, started making clothes when Eugenia was in high school; the couple has been married 21 years. Back then Paul was studying engineering at Wayne State. Eugenia says she couldn't believe how easily Paul took to sewing.
"He wanted to make stuff for himself. He made a pair of pants one day and they were perfect. I was so jealous. But one leg was inside out, so I guess they weren't perfect," she laughs.
They developed a system of designing separately before bringing the work together.
"Her stuff is more ready-to-wear. Mine is more couture," Paul says. "We meet in the middle."
The cutting and sewing gets done at nights and on weekends. To pay the bills, Eugenia works at Royal Oak's Haberman Fabrics and Paul does odd jobs. Currently he's delivering veterinary samples.
Eugenia says it's tough making a living as a designer in Detroit.
"Detroit has changed," Eugenia says. "It's all about name brands. You have to get famous somewhere else. Not a lot of local boutiques will take a piece here or there."
Yet the city is rich in inspiration. "If you don't have, you have to create," she says.
At a design show recently in Chicago, Eugenia sold quite a bit of work and wished she brought more. It made her wonder about Detroit.
"I could have sold five times as much. I felt like, 'OK, there's a market for me.' But do I have to leave to make money?"
Paul says he worries money will poison their art.
"We've never really tried to make money off this. We think of it as an art form. It's fun. We like it," says Paul. "I like it so much I don't want to turn it into a job. When you get into selling and making a living, you compromise what you do."
He'd like to open a boutique in a tropical place someday.
"Somewhere we could show our stuff and make just enough to keep the doors open," he says.
Before they escape to the Bahamas, check out Eugenia Paul's spring/summer collection at House of Chants in Ferndale, or at www.eugeniapaul.com.
Lisa M. Collins, a former Metro Times writer and editor, is now a New York-based freelancer. People still ask her about a chartreuse show-stopper Eugenia Paul made her for her sister’s wedding.