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Stylish Karen Caldwell gets own line rolling.
By Carolyne Zinko

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Karen Caldwell often makes the list of San Francisco's best-dressed women, tastefully but elegantly turned out on gala nights in column gowns that are simply designed and usually monochromatic. With her blond hair swept into an updo, the effect is dramatic but always soft - like a sweet silver-screen starlet from the 1940s. And that is no accident. Caldwell was influenced at a young age by film fashion, thanks to her grandmother Carla Wiese, a dancer who worked as a choreographer for MGM studios. Wiese's stage name was Iris Nielsen, and she was a good friend of famous Hollywood costume designer Edith Head.

When Caldwell, now 44, was growing up in the San Fernando Valley, her fashion sense was shaped by visits to her grandmother's house in the Hollywood hills. There, she played with her grandmother's costumes, dresses, tutus, castoff pieces of tulle and accessories from Hollywood studios. Her grandmother told her stories about Head's eye for design, inspired by things she'd seen in her travels. As a result, Caldwell's wardrobe today leans toward the Hollywood look of the 1940s, '50s and '60s, which she defines as clean, simple lines "with not too much fuss, and then layering after that, adding accessories to make it more dynamic."

Others may soon be able to capitalize on her signature style, thanks to the forthcoming launch of her own line of clothing, Karen Caldwell Design, scheduled for spring. Caldwell, who works with her husband, Oliver, at their Caldwell Snyder galleries in San Francisco and St. Helena, has used her time in the art world to hone her own sense of color. She favors dramatic shades and adorns herself with an accent piece in another color, whether a shoe, a bracelet, earrings or a scarf. Yellow is set against gray, bright jade green against orange, and purples accented with orange or red.

It's Caldwell's first foray into clothing design, although she has long collected vintage pieces by Christian DiorCristobal Balenciaga and Oleg Cassini. By deconstructing the pieces and reworking them, she said, she developed hands-on knowledge of design, construction and materials.

The line features about a dozen pieces, including blouses, knee-length and full-length gowns, four swing coats, a couple of skirt suits and accessories such as gloves and an obi sash.

"My grandmother collected geisha robes and loved the obis to tie them with," Caldwell said. She pairs them with dresses, in a contrasting color, for stylish effect.

"I also love gloves," she said. "I love the look of it, a finished look. You can wear a black suit, but pairing it with magenta gloves makes people remember you."

Colors range from soft turquoise, grays, pinks and purples to custom-dyed colors. Materials include hemp, silk, wool, cashmere and knit jersey, but not fur. "I'm anti-fur," she said. "I love animals. I'm on the quest for the perfect vinyl shoe."

With the help of representatives at Mood Fabrics and Preview Textile Group in New York, she obtains fabrics from Italy, Korea and France that run anywhere from $50 to $200 a yard. Her husband designed her logo, her name in black capital letters on a cream ribbon. Sizes range from 4 to 12, and prices run from $250 for an obi to $600 for a dress and $3,000 for an evening gown. The line is available online, and she is working with a consultant to place the line in upscale stores.

Caldwell works her new business around duties as a mother of two boys, ages 10 and 12, and as a patron of arts and medical causes. At home, she drapes and pins the fabric on a dummy and then takes her designs to seamstress Ana Morales, owner of Vianett Bridal in Yountville, who sews them up in a matter of weeks. Ideally, Caldwell said, she would create a local manufacturing business to keep the work in the Napa Valley.

For now, the garments are made the old-fashioned way, something her grandmother, and perhaps even Head, would have appreciated.

"I like the strong silhouettes of the '40s, '50s and '60s," Caldwell said. "Women were strong in those days."

Strong today, too, with plenty of moxie to start their own businesses.

Carolyne Zinko, a native of Wisconsin, joined The San Francisco Chronicle in 1993 as a news reporter covering Peninsula crime, city government and political races. She worked as the paper’s society columnist from 2000 to 2004, when she wrote about the lifestyles of the rich but not necessarily famous. Since then, she has worked for the Sunday Style and Datebook sections, covering gala night openings and writing trend pieces. Her profiles of personalities have included fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg, Twitter co-founder Biz Stone and Emanuel Ungaro fashion house owner Asim Abdullah, to name a few. In a six-month project with The Chronicle’s investigative team, she recently revealed the misleading practices of a San Francisco fashion charity that took donations from wealthy philanthropists but donated little to the stated cause of helping the developmentally disabled. On the lifestyle front, her duties also including writing about cannabis culture for The Chronicle and its cannabis website, www.GreenState.comwebsite.

Top Women of Style 2010: Karen Caldwell

Fashion designer Karen Caldwell lives in the Napa Valley, though her style is vintage Hollywood. Browsing her namesake collection and personal archives of clothing and accessories from designers such as Oleg Cassini, Christian Dior, Chanel, and Cristobal Balenciaga is like stepping into the Golden Age. However, Hollywood is not Caldwell’s only style influence. Her husband, Oliver Caldwell, is a winemaker and fine art dealer, and she has worked alongside him in their New York and San Francisco art galleries since the 1990s.

Karen Caldwell is a businesswoman who embraces her glamorous side.  In 2009 she launched her own clothing line, Karen Caldwell Design, which so far includes evening gowns, dresses and suits in bold colors and retro silhouettes. She describes her clientele as “Women who have confidence in their strength and beauty.”

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The Wardrobe: Karen Caldwell

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Karen Caldwell is a celebrated Bay Area fashion designer known for her Old Hollywood-style, ultra-glamorous red-carpet standouts. Sophisticated, feminine and flattering, with the seductively nostalgic allure of vintage, her custom-made creations won the hearts of Jessica Chastain, Viola Davis, Helena Bonham Carter, Annie Lennox and Diana Ross. Caldwell’s virtuoso creations and unparalleled vintage costume jewelry collection are featured in numerous TV shows and movies, including Oscar nominee The Help.

She’s also the go-to designer for San Francisco society stars who want to look fabulous—whether at a gala ball or garden party. Her designs are undoubtedly some of the most noticeable and photographed at the city’s biggest social events. Tall, elegant and statuesque, Caldwell herself is one of the best models for her designs and always graces the Best Dressed pages of the Gazette. So, what’s the secret behind her magic? I traveled to her beautiful wine country home to find out.

What I discovered: She is a genuinely happy person. Immediately, I was charmed by her vibrant personality and felt a jolt of positive energy—all of a sudden the colors in the room become brighter, the air becomes lighter and life seems easier. And I think this boost of positivity charges each and every one of her ensembles. She wants you to look like a leading lady in the film of your life.

“My style—visually it’s like a movie,” she says. “I was really influenced watching old movies with my grandparents and parents.”

She admires legendary costume designer Edith Head: “She always kept the leading lady in mind. Her designs for Grace Kelly and Tippi Hedren were just so beautifully crafted. … Whenever I have to go somewhere I try to create a character in the movie. Sometimes when you are wearing something a little bit different and eye-catching people will come up to you and say, ‘I like what you are wearing. It’s interesting. Tell me about it. Who are you?’ And it’s really nice to meet people that way. I think people are drawn to things that are classic but with that special little twist. That’s how I dress—I’d like it to be something that I would want to see in film or on-screen.”

Caldwell’s glam grandmother Carla, inspired her career. “She worked in Hollywood as a choreographer and an animation model for Walt Disney Studios in the ’30s on many projects including Fantasia and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. She also did background dances for some MGM films. Her stage name was Iris Nelson. She always dressed to the nines, even going to the garden to pull weeds. She’d always wear clip-on earrings, scarves around her neck, it was just that tiny extra touch. When I would go and visit her I would get shy around her, just studying her. She was so theatrical, always had a perfect posture and wore Chanel N°5. She was so ahead of her time —collected Asian antiques, travelled and did yoga. She always would have something glistening. So I think a lot of my style comes from her.”

An expert on fashion spanning the Art Deco to midcentury periods, Caldwell got bit by the design bug 30 years ago when she began “upcycling” vintage clothes and jewelry she had inherited from Carla with mixing the old with something modern.

People quickly took notice, the compliments started pouring in and upcycling turned into creating one-of-a-kind pieces that often combine contemporary textiles and skillfully executed vintage silhouettes, with details including hand-beading and hand-embroidery.

“I’ve met so many incredible women through doing this,“ she enthuses. “We end up becoming friends because we appreciate each other.”

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