NEW YORK-- --When you meet fashion designer Vincent Licari, you might ask: What does a 25-year-old man know about lace and curves?
What does a man from Fallston, no less, know about wild, feminine flourishes?
Last week, Licari staged a show that put those questions to rest.
In the dramatically pillared lobby of an off-Broadway theater, just a few blocks from where the country's biggest designers presented their fall collections, Licari pulled off what so many fledgling designers only dream about: a real New York runway show, complete with lithe models and flashing bulbs, discerning fashion editors and fizzing champagne.
There were only 13 looks, all fantastical evening gowns; Licari is working to make the evening gown his signature item. And there was no actual "runway," as it were; the models had to make their way down a grand staircase to seductively pace the lobby's painted floor.
But the presentation, in New York -- during Fashion Week -- was a signal to those who have seen his work that the Harford County novice is on his way to bigger and better things.
"I think he's America's new hope for haute couture," says Marc Anthony, a New York-based fashion photographer who has shot fashion spreads for such names as Kate Spade, Burberry and Lacoste. "He's a talented young man who really has a vision."
That vision is one of fantasy, drama, luxury, romance and mystery. His gowns are one-of-a-kind, painstakingly embellished with imported laces and crystals and glittering paillettes.
They are theatrical, with multiple layers of fabric, sweeping trains and shockingly sheer bodices. A neckline of one white gown is trussed up with leather that Licari hand-looped and sewed. Another black gown has a tremendous hem of sultry strips -- 50 yards of fabric on the bottom alone.
"I favor the European art of couture," says Licari, who never took a design class, and whose mother and grandmother taught him to sew. "The world is already saturated with mass-produced gowns. I prefer things to be a little more unique."
As do his clients in his suburban hometown -- wealthy, well-traveled women who want to wear dresses no one has ever seen.
Eleanor Tydings Schapiro, 74, commissioned Licari to make a gown for last year's Hunt Ball, after being blown away by some of his creations at a fall fashion show at the Radisson Plaza Lord Baltimore.
"He made me this magnificent, aqua taffeta dress for the ball. It was one-shoulder. It was just magnificent," says Schapiro. "I had a date with a gentleman that night, and he's since asked me to marry him, and we're getting married in May. I feel that his dress sealed the idea for him."
Schapiro loves Licari's spectacular dresses so much, she has asked him to make two more: one for her wedding and one for her 75th birthday in June. She's also introduced him to friends, who've introduced him to their friends.
"So he's become famous around here," Schapiro says.
Which is quite a feat considering that Licari's handmade gowns are far from cheap. Not too long out of Fallston High School, in 2001, Licari sold his first dress -- a sequined and beaded black number -- to a friend of a friend for $800.
Since then, Licari's prices have increased as dramatically as the trains on one of his gowns. Today, his lowest-priced gown is $5,000. His most expensive: $18,000.
Still, though, fashion experts hesitate to call even such expensive and elaborate, one-of-a-kind craftsmanship "couture."
The French word has become synonymous with "one-of-a-kind," says Tim Gunn, chair of the department of fashion design at Parsons The New School for Design, and most recently of Project Runway fame.
But true couturiers must be licensed as such, and most of the scores of couture houses from the 1960s now are gone, Gunn says, leaving only seven -- such as Dior, Chanel and Givenchy.
But Gunn, who hadn't heard of Licari or seen his work, still gives the local designer credit for doing couturelike work.
"It's rare," Gunn says, for young designers to attempt this kind of painstaking work. "And it's even rarer to do it well."
It does appear that Licari is doing something right.
Locally, his gowns have been featured in photo spreads in Baltimore's Style magazine, as well as the magazines The Flywire and High Tea. They also have appeared in New York's Gotham magazine, as well as the most recent issue of Grace Ormonde Wedding STYLE magazine.
"The thing I find admirable about him and his clothing is that he has a strong sense of fantasy and whimsy," says Brian Lawrence, editor of Baltimore's Style magazine. "He's creating a very grand dramatic vision. He's not the everyday typical 'I-want-to-design-something-that-is-run-of-the-mill.' He's not designing for the everyday woman; he's really committed to creating some things that are part of a grand vision."
His creations also have gotten a nod internationally. In September, Collezioni, an Italian fashion trade magazine, featured some of his more fantastical gowns, and an accompanying article had this to say about Licari: "This is ... the genuine triumph of new luxury for evening gowns. ... Vincent Licari's fashion, is, in turn, always chic and moves with supreme skill in a territory as difficult as high target fashion."
But the praise hasn't meant instant success.
Licari's fashion house -- his parent's split-level rancher in Fallston -- is about as far from Milan, or even Seventh Avenue, as one can get. His workspace -- the bar in the basement -- is covered in sketched designs, but not littered, yet, with orders for more dresses.
Each intricate gown Licari dreams up costs a tremendous amount of money to make, not to mention the cost of traveling to Italy for fabrics, hiring a New York publicist and staging a professional runway show, with all the myriad shipments, customs forms and set-up fees involved.
"If you think something is going to cost 10 bucks," Licari says he's learned, "it's really going to cost 10 times more."
Licari's family has helped him financially more than he cares to admit. And "a credit card helps," he says.
But he is not yet Givenchy. Or even, for that matter, Carmen Marc Valvo -- one of the country's premier dressmakers.
Licari, talented as he is, has a long way to go.
Which is why he is particularly optimistic about the future, now that he has completed one New York show -- something he only dreamed of doing when he was working full-time as manager of a photo lab in Bel Air.
"There's a sense of progression," he says softly, hands tucked into the pockets of his black jeans. "It feels good."
And then, after the New York runway show was through, after Licari was done being congratulated and the models were packing to go home, he says:
"And now I have to start all over again."
Graduated from Fallston High School in 2000
$5,000-$18,000 for evening gowns