FashionPersonalities

Curtain Call: Designer Lily Samii Closes the Book on 50 Years in Fashion

By Catherine Bigelow

Designer Lily Samii takes a bow on the runway with one of her models.

As designer Lily Samii closes the book on a half century in fashion, she is grateful and just as intrigued by what will come next. 

When it comes to describing fashion, there are hundreds of words — including many fancy French ones — to convey the precision of technique that results in a finely crafted garment. But, after five decades in the industry, designer Lily Samii wants to set the record straight: She never characterized herself as a creator of haute couture.

“That’s not what I did,” she says modestly, during a recent phone conversation. “In the United States, the word ‘couture’ is used very loosely. The work of [Cristóbal] Balenciaga or [Christian] Dior, that’s haute couture in its rarefied, traditional definition. I was trained in those techniques. But I created high-end designer gowns and ready-to-wear. And became what my mother never wished for me: a dressmaker.”

Or to employ another $3 fashion word, “bespoke,” Samii’s sartorial talent was akin to a Savile Row tailor’s, creating “to order”ensembles designed for a client’s specific taste.

This new monograph, published in September 2020, explores the fascinating personal history of designer Lily Samii and her celebrated 50-year career in fashion.

Following an acclaimed 50-year fashion industry career, last September Samii officially laid down her pinking shears. And her coveted creations — glamorous opening-night statements for generations of San Francisco and Peninsula swans — are the subject of a new monograph.

Lily Samii: A Journey Through Life & Fashion, penned by Teresa Rodriguez with a foreword by San Francisco Opera general director emeritus David Gockley, is a substantial (weighing 6 pounds, 4 ounces) coffee-table saga tracing Samii’s fascinating journey from Iranian nobility and the catwalks of Paris to her celebrated Union Square atelier.

A Lily Samii–dressed mannequin and fabric adorn a Saks Fifth Avenue window at Union Square. (Charlie Nucci)

“Every time I sign a copy of the book, I think, How did I do all this?” marvels Samii, 75, with a laugh. “I was lucky. And very blessed.”

In 1969 — following her studies at a French design school in Tehran, Iran, and at UCLA, which led to an apprenticeship with Edith Head, the legendary Hollywood costume designer — Samii opened L.Y.Z., a Larkspur boutique where she sold A-list European fashions (Armani, Escada, Feraud) to her well-heeled clientele. In 1993, she established her own label, which was carried nationally by Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus.

Samii jokes that in 1998, when she swapped retail for her eponymous Stockton Street boutique of soigne, hand-tailored designs, she became “an overnight success” — after 30 years.

An illustration by Mimi Jeong of one of Samii’s gowns.

“Considering her depth of skill, Lily is surprisingly humble,” notes Rodriguez, who’s also editor-in-chief of Haute Living. “Researching the book, I’d be amazed by aspects of her life: ‘Wait, you hung out in Paris with (James) Galanos?’”

Actually, Samii interned with Galanos, the American designer beloved by Nancy Reagan, who excelled in precisely cut, luxurious apparel.

“Galanos taught me the interior of a garment must be as beautiful as the exterior, with hand-finished couture details: zipper, pockets and silk lining,” recalls Samii. “No one else will notice those details. But when a client lays out her dress on a bed, she will notice.”

Her client roster is impressive, awash in bold-face names spanning the universe of blue bloods, philanthropists, jet-setters and tech titans, including Charlotte Shultz, Marissa Mayer, Mary Poland, Gretchen Kimball and Denise Hale, who treasures a silk organza and tulle Samii gown created for the 100th anniversary soiree of Perrier-Jouet Belle Epoque Champagne. Embellished with hand-sewn flowers, the gown evokes the bubbly’s legendary blooming label.

For years, at Bay Area galas, Samii was like an excited schoolgirl discreetly scanning the crowd to see who was wearing one of her gowns.

“The chairwomen booked me months in advance. The real thrill was the unknown — spotting a dress I designed four years ago for the wedding of a gala patron’s daughter,” she recalls. “Those moments were the icing on my cake.”

Samii embraces the experimental fashion style of San Francisco, but she’s noticed a disconcerting trend she feels is inappropriate for gala night.

“Some younger generations wear headpieces so elaborate that, if seated behind them during a performance, you can’t see the stage. Or trains so voluminous, they can’t navigate crowded aisles,” she shares. “I wonder if they actually appreciate the opera or symphony’s onstage artistry?”

San Francisco Opera Ball 2017 co-chairs Courtney Labe (left) and Maryam Muduroglu are shown with Kate Shilvock, all wearing Samii. (Drew Altizer Photography)

Samii claims that she doesn’t know the cost of her creations (though some of her most intricate designs go for around $18,000), because her devoted sister, Laleh Zohadi, handled the atelier’s business side. Yet, Samii also designed bridal gowns for weddings in the ballpark of $10 million. And when a bride requested that her gown’s fabric match the color of the sand on the beach where she would be married, it wasn’t for the light of wallet.

“We actually lugged a bag of sand to the atelier,” Samii recalls. “I never looked at prices. I bought what I liked. Once in Paris, I purchased exquisite fabric. When the bill arrived, my assistant assumed the vendor added an extra zero. Well, it turned out, this fabric I loved was $1,000 a yard!”

Samii is not one to look in her rearview mirror. She’s currently building a second home with a work studio on her property in Novato and designing its decorative elements, including a chandelier in a perfect shade of red glass that took Samii five years to settle on.

Declaring it an incredible career, Samii insists her fashion life is finis. She now wears casual clothes to oversee her project construction, and donated all her fabrics, trims and shimmering paillettes to the San Francisco Opera.

“I don’t even own a sewing machine anymore,” she says. “I kept a few gowns for my own collection; after the pandemic, there may be an exhibition. But sometimes I visit the gowns to just say hello. I do miss touching the fabrics: That was the thing for me.”

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