Michael Alan Stein is just fine with being called an up-and-comer. Otherwise, he might not have been invited to this February's Emerge!, an NYC Fashion Week runway show for “emerging” designers that brought in 500 guests, including Vogue writer Andre Leon Talley and designer Diane von Furstenberg. Even if they were there to write about the celebrities, they still paid attention to his Fall 2012 line, inspired by the tango and 1930s fashion, and “sexy, but not vulgar and very easily worn,” as he puts it.
But this isn't Stein's first, or second, rodeo; he's a rising star compared to Ralph Lauren, he jokes, but he's no neophyte. The Chicago-based designer did, indeed, take a long break from clothing design: A 2009 collection was his first since the mid-'80s, when he launched but, by his own admission, failed to nurture his first line. During that 20-plus year break, he worked quite successfully in costume design for theater and film. As he puts it during a phone interview, “I never really left the world of design. I was still able to satisfy that desire to create.”
But, according to Stein, “clothing design is my first, true love, because I really do want women to really feel great when they wear something I design.” He's gained plenty of ground in three years, with the singular goal in his sites being to sell clothes — and “not to have pretty fashion shows." He's already sold his fall 2012 line to two stores, and he hopes to line up 25 or more by the end of April, including a few possibilities in Indianapolis.
Michael Alan Stein
A side-by-side comparison of illustrations and runway photos of pieces from Stein's Fall 2012 collection.
The Detroit-born Stein, who says he's wanted to be a clothing designer since his earliest memory, has always had that kind of ambition. He remembers writing to Anne Klein at age 11, who was good enough to write back with encouraging words. Both his mother and grandmother had a sense of style, and the young Stein noticed. “I can remember walking with my mother through Saks Fifth Avenue, seeing what she would purchase. My grandmother had her seamstress make some of my sketches when I was a little boy, so I've always had that kind of support.”
When the time came, he headed to New York City to study at Parsons and the Fashion Institute of Technology; in one of a few name drops, Stein notes that he studied alongside Isaac Mizrahi. After completing classes, Stein's father contributed seed money for a line that had, as he puts it, “mild success,” and was carried in the Detroit department store Hudson's, as well as Bloomingdale's. “But I was too busy being at all the parties,” he says. “I didn't appreciate that opportunity, which went by the wayside.”
So Stein went into other fields, eventually finding his way to costume design. He's worked in several major regional theaters — the Guthrie in Minneapolis, Steppenwolf in Chicago, Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. — and tackled film projects of note, including a Tom Sizemore vehicle filmed last year in Terre Haute and a 3-D Civil War miniseries filmed for network 3net.
Stein approaches his costume design work with an eye towards history, both to get things right and to avoid reworking old tropes. “The difficult thing is trying to make clothing that's not cliché — not putting a whore in red,” he explains. “That said, when an audience can look at what I've designed and they know the character immediately, before the character opens her mouth, then I've created the right design.
And, for Stein, it's as much about research as sitting at a sewing machine: “If I had not gone into design, I probably would have been an anthropologist, because I love knowing about history and people — the choices people made because of the environment and situation they were in, what they wore and when they wore it.”
In the end, though, he's not sitting on sidelines studying; he feels his work has a spiritual dimension, and it's informed by uplifting gospel message, so to speak. “When women feel great, like they can conquer the world when they wear my outfit, that's where my true passion comes in.”