Uchenna Ibezue has been designing clothes ever since she can remember. As a child, she cut scraps of cloth and paper to make new dresses for her dolls.
"I even used a leaf," Ibezue says with a laugh.
Today, the 38-year-old designer with a new boutique at Historic Savage Mill favors matte jersey and silks, chiffon and lace.
"I like fabrics that drape -- they flatter everyone's body," she says.
It's 3 p.m. on a Saturday, but Ibezue (who often goes by simply Uche) is sitting down for the first time since she opened the doors of her boutique, O'mak Designs. Her first customer actually followed her in from the parking lot.
The reason the Nigerian-born designer has such a devoted following is that she offers a unique line and personable service.
"Number one, everything is comfortable," says Susan Peterkin-Bishop, a loyal customer who owns a natural hair salon in Silver Spring. "But they're also very stylish. The store is warm and welcoming. And I love working with Uche."
In many ways, Ibezue is following in the footsteps of her mother, a talented seamstress. "She would buy clothes and transform them," says Ibezue. "I would think, 'This is magic.'
"I wasn't interested in playing with other children. I followed her everywhere," Ibezue says. "I knew then, 'This is what I want to do.' "
But as with many dreams, success was not instantaneous. Ibezue studied fashion in college, then spent time in London. "I'd go to the fashion houses in London and just ask questions," she says.
Like her mother, Ibezue frequently would buy clothes and transform them into her own creations.
In London, she also met her husband, an engineer whose job brought them to the United States in 2002.
"In America, though, the people I met weren't as excited by fashion."
Still, she continued traveling to Milan, London and other cities to buy clothes. "I wanted to do fashion," she says.
But, Ibezue says, "I was losing money."
So she enrolled in a nursing program. While she did well, Ibezue says, "the passion was still burning."
During a final exam, she says she heard a "big voice" telling her to pursue fashion. "I asked the guy next to me if he just said something," says Ibezue.
She freshened up her skills by taking online classes and starting going to fashion events again.
"When God calls, he sends help," Ibezue says. "I knew I was on the right path."
In June 2010, Ibezue unveiled her label at a show in Rockville. She chose the name "O'mak Designs," which is an acronym using letters from her husband's first name (Okechukwu), her daughters' names (Chisom and Nneoma), and her father's nickname for her, "Ajuka." The blending of the names symbolizes the journey they've taken together and acknowledges their support, says Ibezue.
Initially, the line -- which includes ready-to-wear and exclusive collections -- was available online only at omakdesigns.com.
But she felt she needed to open a store two years later. "It's one of the most scary, thrilling things I've done," says Ibezue. "It was time to make a personal connection."
One minute, she might be styling a client for a dinner. The next, she's helping a teenager try on a rhinestone necklace for prom.
"I love seeing the smiles on these women's faces," she says later.
Nkechi Enwerem, an assistant professor and registered nurse, likes that Ibezue is available to clients. "You go to the shop, and she is there. She helps you select your bag, your shoes," says Enwerem. "Her designs are so unique."
Ibezue's eclectic taste is noticeable on every rack in her boutique. There's the three-tier vintage black lace cocktail dress, the Nigerian handmade mesh dress, an animal print silk overlay and -- another favorite -- a silk taffeta cinched skirt.
Ready-to-wear items start at $29.99 and run up to $200. She has about 50 pieces in sizes from small to extra-large. The exclusive line starts at about $250.
"It's very good quality, but it's affordable," says Ibezue.
Both the ready-to-wear and custom collections are made at a Virginia factory. Luxury Quotient, an Indian company, is O'mak Designs' exclusive distributor.
Ibezue draws her designs by hand and sends them to the seamstress. She likes to incorporate details from the '60s and '70s.
"You don't see them too much anymore, but they speak to me," says Ibezue, who is one of six designers nominated in the High Fashion category of Fashion Awards MD's 2013 contest, which wraps up in mid-June.
Ibezue, who ends e-mails with a quote by Coco Chanel, is also very particular about fabric.
"The fabric is quality," she says. "I've never had a customer return anything."
She also continues to show her designs at shows. Later this year, her work is scheduled to appear at shows in London and Paris. "I still want to show on the runway, but I limit it because it's so much work," she says.
Besides, Ibezue also doesn't like to be away from her daughters, ages 11 and 10, and husband for long.
At customers' requests, Ibezue is currently working on a children's line called "Precious in His Sight by O'mak" and a plus-size line called "Just Curvy by O'mak."
Ibezue favors vibrant colors, and does not like to be restricted by what's considered traditional for seasons. "You can wear pink in the winter," she says.
She unveils new pieces in the spring and fall. But, she says, "there are some pieces I always have."
One of them is a taffeta blue dress embellished with circles of African print.
"I want you to stand out," Ibezue says. "You won't go to an event and see 10 people wearing the dress you have on."