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Baltimore designer fits right in with 'Modern Family' star

MusicModern Family (tv program)Toy IndustryWashington MonumentAriel WinterExtreme Makeover: Home Edition (tv program)

Natalie Graham's first meeting a year ago with "Modern Family" actress Ariel Winter could have been a disaster.

Graham, owner of The Doll House, a Mount Vernon boutique featuring Graham's Ragdolls Clothing Line, didn't recognize the waifish, chestnut-haired tween combing through the racks of Graham's vibrant, funky garments.

To make it worse, at first, Graham and Winter's mother didn't see eye to eye on outfits.

"Her mother was saying no to garments that were still on the hanger," Graham said with a laugh. "I kept telling Ariel to try them on. Once she did, the mother liked the way the clothes looked. She said she liked that I had an opinion."

The gutsy move paid off. Winter, an actress best known for portraying brainiac Alex Dunphy on ABC's "Modern Family," purchased five dresses that day. She also scheduled an appointment to meet with Graham in Los Angeles a couple of weeks later. It began Graham's relationship with her most important celebrity client since establishing a second residence in Los Angeles a few months earlier.

Graham is no stranger to dressing celebs; 50 Cent, Faith Evans, Teyana Taylor, Floetry and Vivica A. Fox have all worn her designs. But Winter, her most recent and frequent client, has given Graham plenty of exposure in the past year. The ingenue has worn Graham's designs to more than 20 red-carpet events. She's also the youngest celebrity Graham has worked with in her 12 years as a professional designer and stylist.

"My collection is known to be sexy and edgy," Graham admitted. "There are a lot of times we have to alter the dress so that it is age-appropriate. I have to pay attention to the cleavage line, snug fit, the adornment. It's tough. We're talking about red-carpet events. We want to keep it young, but we don't want her to look like the average tween."

Winter loves Graham's clothing selections.

"Natalie has been wonderful. She can have three amazing looks in a couple of days — all original. I love that her pieces are couture, and she makes the look my own," said Winter, who met Graham while in Baltimore last summer taping an episode of "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition." Winter and the other child actors from "Modern Family" donated their time to help build an 11,120-square-foot home in Northeast Baltimore.

Graham loves Winter's spirit.

"She's so cute," Graham said. "She really loves when the clothes are fun and young — but not too young. She's extremely intelligent for her age."

The pair have become close in the past year, spending time together when Graham is in L.A.

"They are like family," Graham said. "We go to the movies. She gives me boyfriend advice."

The business relationship between the two is also a success. Winter has noticed other actresses in Hollywood attempting to mimic her style, according to Graham.

"They try to copy her look but can't get it," Graham said. "She loves being an individual. She loves that I am willing to take her ideas. Even if we are doing slight alterations, she likes being a part of it."

Winter added: "I only wish she was always in Hollywood. But I have to share her with the East Coast."

For more than a decade, Graham has been growing her brand as a designer and stylist. A self-taught seamstress, the 35-year-old originally started altering clothes while in college at Hampton University in Virginia.

"I was that girl in college that loved fashion but could not afford what I wanted," she said. "I would go to the sales rack of every department store and would alter different pieces. Sewing is very easy to me. It's all about the idea of manipulating fabric. I taught myself. To this day, I haven't taken a class or had a teacher."

After college, Graham partnered with a friend to form a modeling agency, Stejana', which was based in Owings Mills. Graham soon discovered that when she sent models to assignments, they were getting more attention for their "go-see" frocks, which Graham designed.

"People wanted to know what they were wearing," Graham said. "I would tell them: 'No, it's not the clothes, it's the models.' We quickly learned that people liked the pieces."

Eventually, Graham parted ways with the modeling agency and focused on selling her designs, though she had initial success elsewhere.

"Baltimore wasn't having it," she said with a laugh. "I mostly sold my clothes to boutiques on South Street in Philadelphia."

After cultivating a following there, Graham's designs caught on in Baltimore. In 2004, she opened her current boutique, The Doll House, which is located in a second-story row house just south of the Washington Monument. The boutique has a playful, youthful feel. Graham playfully refers to her customers as "dolls."

She said: "It feels like a girlfriend's closet. It is a welcoming place that feels like girls playing dress-up and then realizing that they can wear outrageous clothing."

The boutique is brightly lit with chandeliers, and filled with eclectic, monochromatic duds, including crinoline skirts, beaded tops and leather accented dresses. The walls are covered with cutouts from high-fashion glossy magazines.

Graham expanded her empire to Los Angeles last year after several of her model clients urged her to move west, setting up styling jobs for her in L.A. upon her arrival. In addition, she worked closely with Nicki Schwan, formerly the fashion director for Vibe, now the head stylist for rapper Nicki Minaj.

In Winter, Graham has found the closest thing she has to family in Los Angeles.

"I try to keep my business and personal separate, but this relationship blossomed," Graham said of the pair going to movies and spending time at each other's homes. "They are definitely family. Baltimore is so different from California. You need that. They are my family. I love them. They are not the typical Hollywood family at all."

Winter also gushes about their relationship.

"I'm a Ragdoll, and I love her," she said.

Graham hopes to build upon the recent momentum she has with Winter. This past week, she headed up to New York City to meet with a potential celebrity client, a musician. She met with her again in D.C. before learning that she would be dressing her for the coming Soul Train Music Awards — a major event for the urban music industry.

Graham said she was excited about her newest Ragdoll.

"I can't tell you who she is right now," said Graham, who was planning shopping trips in New York, Baltimore, Washington and Philadelphia to pull together four clothing options for her celebrity client. "But you'll definitely notice her on the red carpet."

john-john.williams@baltsun.com

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