Vincent Licari knelt down next to an elegant black dress draped over a mannequin and gathered a swath of material.
"This is some of the finest Italian-made silk in the world," he said, holding the luxurious fabric up to the light. "Look at the edge. It looks like velvet and it doesn't fray, even when you rub it."
He walked across the room at his Fallston home to an exquisite gown with a decollete neckline and hand-sewn spangled beads.
"This material is incredible," said Licari, almost mesmerized by the fabric as he grasped it lightly.
At 24, Licari possesses an appreciation for fine material that belies his age. He also is showing that he knows what to do with it. In the six years since he graduated from Fallston High School, Licari has pursued a passion for fashion designing, largely teaching himself and developing a specialization in creating haute couture.
His work is starting to turn heads in the industry, as evidenced by his premiere runway show, "Gardens of the 16th Century Temptress," scheduled for yesterday at the Radisson Plaza Lord Baltimore Hotel.
"Most young designers are creating funky things and then saying, 'Hey look at this!' but not Vincent. His pieces are timeless, and they should last a while in this industry," said Stephen Hurst, a fashion photographer based in New York.
Licari's creations are characterized by dramatic slits, flowing trains, intricate beadwork and asymmetric cuts placed beneath transparent materials. The dresses have ranged from $800 to $10,000.
"What I like the most about his work is that, above all else, it makes a woman look glamorous," said Hurst.
Others in the business are taking notice. In July, Licari's work caught the eye of Italian photographer Alessandro Frezza, known for his work for the Italian magazine Book Moda. Frezza used one of Licari's designs for a photo shoot featuring a former Miss Universe.
Leyla Pasumi, hostess of an Italian television show called Couture, will wear some of Licari's dresses for broadcasts during Rome Fashion Week, when top Italian designers including Gattinoni, Fausto Sarli and Gianni Calignano present their haute couture collections this month.
And a search for evening wear for a subway photo shoot led New York-based fashion stylist Colleen McCann to Licari.
"I was looking for a dress that was upscale and sophisticated but still had an edge to it," said McCann.
It's been an eventful five years for Licari, who once aspired to be a photographer and shot senior portraits for his classmates at Fallston High. He developed an interest in photographing fashion in 1999 and got hooked.
He began sketching evening gowns as a hobby and attending trade shows. However, he couldn't sew at all, and he knew that to be successful, he'd have to learn. His mother and grandmother were willing to teach him.
He recalled the first time he took a crack at dressmaking.
"The sewing machine was so old it didn't even work," Licari said. "I got so frustrated because instead of sewing a straight seam, the material would get caught and bunch up in the machine."
He started sewing by hand and, in 2001, designed his first evening gown, which he sold for $800. After that, he sold pieces every month. He wanted to raise the bar by having his dresses made by fashion houses in Italy, renowned throughout the world for their craftsmanship.
Licari started researching and visiting fabric houses in Italy, critiquing their work before selecting several that worked with Italian fashion icons Valentino and Giorgio Armani.
His next goal was a show in Rome. After months of planning, Vicari has arranged to present his autumn collection during Rome Fashion Week in July.
Although he wouldn't unveil many details about the collection, he said he expects the pieces to be of such detail that each will require about 400 hours to sew.
After the Rome show, he plans to start work on a ready-to-wear collection as well as a line of jeans.
"My current customers are upper-middle-class people looking to buy an outfit or dress to stand out at an important event," he said. "The ready-to-wear collection will reach more people."
In the meantime, Licari said he is pursuing designs that will distinguish his work. McCann said the fact that he may be the only young designer in Baltimore focusing on evening wear and couture is a step in that direction.
"Vincent is in a great niche within the fashion arena because dressing has become such a casual affair," said McCann, former clothing designer for Under Armour, the Baltimore-based sports apparel maker. "Couture is becoming a lost art with all the lost customization in our industry and all of Vincent's pieces are one-of-a-kind and handmade, so his passion to keep this art form alive is very refreshing."
Licari also wants to land an apprenticeship for an established Italian designer. When he learned recently that Valentino is looking for a replacement apprentice, Licari's youthful exuberance showed through.
"Pick me! Pick me!" he said, with a laugh. "Imagine if he did. That would be so great!"