Dressed to the Nines

Designer Kiya Tomlin always dreamed of creating custom apparel. Now, armed with scissors, fabric and creativity, she brings her one-of-a-kind pieces to Pittsburgh.




Photo by Becky Thurner Braddock
 

Let’s face it: We Pittsburghers don’t always rise to the fashion challenge. A Steeler jersey paired with sweatpants is not, in fact, “business casual.”

But designer Kiya Tomlin thinks the city’s sartorial future is bright. There’s a growing interest in high style here, she says, and a new generation of clothing designers who might just make fashion a viable local industry.

New Jersey native Tomlin, 38, arrived in 2007 as the quietly beautiful wife of new Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin. These days, she’s creating apparel for women and children. Through her meticulous work process, Tomlin produces clothes that flatter any figure; her designs meld current fashion trends with the timeless and traditional elements she finds most appealing, with creations ranging from everyday chic to red-carpet glamour.

Having a growing client list, Tomlin recently moved her workspace from the Shadyside home she shares with Mike and their three kids to a studio in East Liberty. Currently, her company, Kiya Tomlin Pittsburgh, is a one-woman operation — but has significant expansion plans in the works.

You’ve been in your studio for a few months. How has it impacted your work?
It’s more comfortable! Working from home, I was contained. And I was always multitasking. I’m more productive now.

How do your clients come to you?
Mostly word of mouth or referral. It takes a certain kind of client to appreciate what I do — I don’t just have clothes here to try on, which is the way we’re used to shopping. It has to be someone who’s open-minded about the process and collaborating. I set up an initial consultation. Then I listen to what their needs are — and what they’re looking to get from the process.

Your method is similar to that of old-fashioned couture houses, where designers worked closely with clients to create highly individualized pieces. So is there an education process involved with some of your clients?
Yes. Custom clothing design is quite rare now, so not everyone understands the mix of creativity, skill and technical knowledge required. Some might not want to pay the cost of custom work. Clothing that’s mass-produced can be inexpensive, but mass-production yields “fast fashion,” similar to fast food. And my designs are based on an individual’s figure. If they’re willing to rely on my expertise, [it’s] an awesome project!

What is your design aesthetic?
I love textures — and [also] mixing them. I want to create unique yet traditionally elegant looks, and I want my clothes to feel comfortable. Fashion’s cyclical, so I do follow trends — I just adapt them or make them a little more timeless so [they can be worn for more than one] season.

You began making clothes at a very young age.
I was 10 when I asked my mom for my first sewing machine. I think I made one stuffed duck, and the next thing I made was a jumpsuit — and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since. It was partly out of necessity; I was very small and couldn’t buy the styles I wanted because I was shopping in the children’s section even as I got older. I never stopped making clothes. Even in college, I was making dresses while studying for exams.

There seems to be a growing energy and creativity in Pittsburgh regarding fashion.
If we could manufacture locally, Pittsburgh could really take off as a fashion city. A lot of designers think they can’t do it here, so they go elsewhere. And there’s not a lot of fabric selection here, so my work involves traveling to New York for that. But if you look at how the movie industry is building up here — if we could do that with fashion, Pittsburgh could really see some growth.

What are your future plans?
Moving into a studio was only the first step of my vision. My next [goal] is to create designs that are more readily available. I’m in the process of creating a collection of ready-to-wear designs for fall, which will be debuted in a runway show and sold in local boutiques. So, my dream is developing — and I’m loving every minute of it!

Given the ubiquity of Steeler gear in Pittsburgh, have you ever been asked to make a black-and-gold ensemble?
Yeah. *laughs* One woman worked on Sundays and wasn’t allowed to wear a Steeler jersey to show her support. She said to me, “Wouldn’t it be great if you designed dresses that were black-and-gold and ‘Steeler-esque’?” But I don’t want to be known as the wife who designs Steeler gowns — besides, there are probably all sorts of trademark issues with the NFL!  
 

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