From Brooklyn kitchen table to first lady's outfits

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The old wooden kitchen table in Sophie Theallet's Brooklyn apartment sees some rich pickings -- not least designs for dressing the likes of Michelle Obama.

(AFP) -

The old wooden kitchen table in Sophie Theallet's Brooklyn apartment sees some rich pickings - not least designs for dressing the likes of Michelle Obama.

The down-to-earth setting in New York is where French-born Theallet runs an increasingly high-flying fashion business.

Earlier this year two of her dresses were worn by the US first lady and last month she was named winner of the annual Council of Fashion Designers of America award.

The prestigious prize is worth 200,000 dollars, which will let her "pay off a few debts," she says, and perhaps more importantly open the doors to financial backers.

Vogue magazine's influential editor Anna Wintour was one of the prize judges and the powerful fashion world figure Diane von Furstenberg heads the designers' council.

A graduate of the Studio Bercot fashion school in Paris, Theallet moved to New York 12 years ago and is by most measurements a veteran, even if she only launched her own pret-a-porter collection three years ago.

She was a prize winner in France in the 1980s and worked for years with Jean-Paul Gaultier and Azzedine Alaia.

"Gaultier taught me to stop at nothing and Alaia gave a taste for rigor," she said.

"I came to the United States a dozen years ago because I'd fallen in love and I never left, though at the start I was a consultant and I often returned to Paris where I kept working with Alaia," she said.

Her third floor apartment that she shares with husband and partner Steven Francoeur in an Art Deco building near Brooklyn Bridge is also her workshop.

At the heart of the operation is a simple kitchen-style table, which she complains is "not quite at the right height." It was made for sitting at and eating, rather than the meticulous business of sewing and drawing.

Yet this is the nerve center of an operation that stretches around the world.

Helped by just one full-time hired worker, Theallet draws the patterns for her cotton, silk and muslin clothes, which are then printed in South Korea, Vietnam and India, before being sent back.

Then she makes a prototype and this is produced in US factories, before a final check at the Brooklyn apartment for wrapping, labelling and quality control.

"I make about 40 items per collection, so 80 a year," Theallet said.

She's currently working on the autumn-winter 2010 collection for New York Fashion Week in February.

She says her inspirations are far-flung.

"I am originally from south-west France, but consider myself a world citizen, multi-cultural, and I am inspired by Africa, but also by Canada, Mexico. It's more the sweetness of life in certain countries that inspires me," she said.

Her style is often qualified as "Bohemian Chic," sometimes evoking northern Africa's kaftans and sometimes the bright cottons of sub-Saharan Africa. She is not shy about clashing coulors, whether orange and green or bronze and royal blue.

"The beginning of the end of fear is when you dare to do what causes fear," she said, quoting from an Indian poem.

In the end, though, "there's nothing more chic than a simple cotton dress," she says.

Michelle Obama apparently agrees - it was her wearing of one of Theallet's cotton dresses that put the French New Yorker on the road to success.

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