BND Magazine

August 3, 2014

Simply lovely: Edwardsville native designs line of little girls' dresses

Lyra Morgan is only 2 years old, but she's already a fashion model, melting hearts with her curly hair, blue eyes and shy smile.

She's also the inspiration behind a line of little girls' dresses designed and made by her mother, Claire Thomas-Morgan.

The 29-year-old Edwardsville native started her home business last year after earning degrees in fashion and merchandising.

"She does it all," said her mother, Deane Thomas, 68, of rural Edwardsville, a retired English teacher and college counselor.

"She hand-selects the fabric. She designs the patterns. She cuts. She sews. She writes the copy for the website. She takes the photos. She's very capable. She's full of ideas."

Claire's company, Vivi, is named after her stylish grandmother, Vivian Hillen, who died last year at 94.

Vivian passed on a love of sewing to Deane, who made theater and dance costumes for Claire and her sister, Megan.

"On our birthdays, (Grandma) would take us to Famous-Barr for lunch in the tea room, and then we'd get to go pick out an outfit," said Claire, who now lives in Shrewsbury, Mo.

"And we'd go over to her house, and she'd let us play with her makeup and jewelry and her square-dancing dresses. She was just always put together."

Claire works out of a small studio in the lower level of her home, with a sewing machine and mannequin on one side, Lyra's toy kitchen set and children's books on the other. Husband Jeremiah is a software architect.

Vivi's spring and summer collections consist of seven sleeveless dresses, some with bows, pleats, tie straps, pedal-style bodices or flared bottoms. They're made of 100-percent cotton, with solid, polka-dot or whimsical patterns.

The dresses come in five sizes: 12 months, 18 months, 2T, 3T and 4T. Most sell for $42 to $45 at vivavivi.storenvy.com.

They're also available at City Sprouts, a children's boutique in Clayton, Mo., where Claire works part time.

"People love the story about her grandmother, and the fact that (the dresses are) locally made," said owner Molly Curlee, 39. "And they like her designs. They're simple and lovely."

Claire assumes she inherited creativity from her father, Dave Thomas, an artist who owns an architectural sign company.

She has been interested in fashion since childhood.

"My mom claims she stopped taking me shopping at 3 because I wouldn't listen to her or wear what she wanted me to wear," Claire said. "I wanted to do my own thing."

Claire experimented with scarves as belts and otherwise tried to find her own style at Edwardsville High School.

After graduating in 2003, she started college as a graphics major at Bradley University.

"When I was a sophomore, I watched a 'Project Runway' marathon one weekend," she said. "And I started wondering how I would handle the challenges, and I just got excited about the idea of designing."

An intensive, month-long summer workshop at Parsons School of Design in New York City sealed the deal.

Claire transferred to Washington University, earned a bachelor's in fashion design and worked for an online women's boutique called Funky Frum, based in University City, Mo.

"It specialized in modest clothing," she said. "Everything had to cover the elbow, the knee and the collarbone. It was all dresses and skirts. It catered to a religious clientele. Many of our customers were Jewish or Mormon."

Claire later designed window and floor displays for the Galleria's J. Crew store and finished her master's in fashion merchandising online through the Academy of Art University in San Francisco.

She began sewing baby clothes after Lyra came along.

"I was getting good feedback," Claire said. "People would ask where I got the pieces I made, and they would say, 'You should sell these.'"

Today, Claire tries out her Vivi designs and checks sizing on Lyra and 3-year-old niece Rosie Dugard in Florida.

Her fall collection of dresses is due out in early August. It will include matching hair bows handmade by Dear Grace & Parker in New Hampshire.

"We're glad that the education (Claire) got is being put to good use," mom Deane said. "This has been her dream. Any fashion student wants to launch her own line."

Vivi will be represented at "Rouge Allure: A Runway and Trunk Show" Sept. 6 at the Wildey Theatre in Edwardsville.

Claire hopes her work will help instill in Lyra the importance of supporting local artists, human rights, sustainable practices and quality craftsmanship.

"I've done some research on China, and it's not pretty," she said. "I hope as she gets older, she'll be more aware of where things come from.

"I try to support local businesses and designers as much as possible because it's important to foster that sense of creativity and things being handmade instead of mass-produced. And I've found that those things tend to last longer, and they're more meaningful."

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