In a studio set on top of a mountain in Woodside, the arched window in front of Ellen Wise’s sewing station looks out onto a garden with bay, oak, fir and redwood trees. Nearby, a dress form is clad in an early iteration of an evening gown, a version made of muslin called a toile. On a large table, pattern pieces rest atop a fashion fabric and a layer of silk organza, waiting to be cut, marked and transformed into a spring coat. A “client room” allows for fittings of in-progress garments, and acts as a staging area for impending collections such as her spring-summer 2020 range debuting at Vancouver Fashion Week in October. Along a wall hang myriad textiles – silks, wools, cashmeres; solids, florals, geometrics – that she’s “been collecting forever,” says Wise. “They often inspire a client to start a new project.”
In recent years, couturier and designer Wise has emerged as a godsend for professionals requiring ensembles that effortlessly transition from day to evening, as well as those desiring exquisite gowns for social affairs such as San Francisco’s ballet and symphony opening night galas. While the bucolic setting for her studio may seem an unlikely locus for couture – the French word for dressmaking more likely calls to mind a lofty venue on a chic city street – it’s apt for a woman whose background doesn’t conform to the typical fashion résumé.
As Wise was growing up in Los Altos Hills, her twin passions were music and science. She began taking violin lessons in the third grade and in high school harbored dreams of becoming a doctor. She attended Smith College, where she was the beneficiary of a scholarship endowed by Julia Child and Child’s father. Wise believes she got the scholarship on the back of a home economics award she had earned. While she took sewing and tailoring classes at Palo Alto’s Gunn High School, her mother, who was a home economics teacher, had introduced her to sewing at a young age. “When I was about 6,” says Wise, “I remember asking her for a sheet. I sketched a blouse, drew these pieces on the sheet and cut them out.I constructed this thing that didn’t fit very well, but I did it.”
At Smith, Wise was the concert master for the Smith-Amherst Orchestra. During school breaks, she worked at the biomedical firm ALZA, doing research initially in the lab and then eventually in the library. The latter assignment gave her entrée to patent law, which served her well, as she later opted for law instead of medical school. After graduating from Santa Clara University School of Law in 1979, she married and moved to Switzerland for her husband’s job with the World Health Organization. Then tragedy struck: He was diagnosed with cancer and passed away in 1981.
Returning to the States with her six-month-old son, Wise practiced as an attorney for the next 14 years or so. (Understandably, she had less time to practice the violin.) She remarried in 1986. Wise and her second husband, Michael, have two daughters together; she took a step back from law while raising them. Around 2008, as she contemplated a formal resumption of legal work, a trip to Monterey for a bar association conference proved fateful.
With her slender, 5-foot-9-inch-tall frame, Wise had trouble buying professional clothes, so she often sewed her own — including a jacket she was wearing during a visit to a boutique in the Monterey area. When the shopkeeper inquired about carrying it, Wise explained that that wasn’t possible since she was a lawyer, not a designer. “As I was driving home, this light bulb went off in my head,” she recalls. “Is there some way to turn this into an actual business that I would enjoy?”
To hone her skills, Wise studied with couturier, educator and author Susan Khalje, and Parisian master draper and pattern maker Julien Cristofoli. She participated in charity fashion shows and held trunk shows at friends’ homes. Custom clients came calling, and she officially launched Ellen Wise Couture (ellenwisecouture.com) in 2016. She presented at Couture Fashion Week New York and San Francisco Fashion Week last year, and is currently preparing for the Vancouver Fashion Week. “For me,” she says, “the real pleasure has always been in finding the fabric and making it coming to life.”
Wise is still a licensed attorney, too. Several years ago, as counsel for Community of Interested Neighbors, she was involved in the fight over a 16-acre parcel in Woodside that had been greenlit for a drug and alcohol recovery center — a decision that the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors subsequently overturned. It is now slated to open as a Canyon Ranch Wellness Retreat this fall.
The Wises live above the future retreat. The couple purchased their property about a decade ago and built a house where the Ellen Wise Couture studio occupies a wing. One of its signature looks is a take on the iconic suit by Coco Chanel, whom Wise cites as a major influence. Wise’s bouclé-and-silk rendition offers a more form-fitting, rather than boxy, jacket.
Among her most elaborate designs was a gown for a client attending the San Francisco Ballet’s annual gala. Wise used 9 or 10 yards of French Chantilly lace from Carolina Herrera’s 2009 runway collection. “I made this very fitted gown with a mermaid hem and train,” she says. “All the lace was done in panels and I had to match the patterns of the lace at every seam. It was really gorgeous, but it was so much work!”
Wise isn’t one to shy away from challenges, though. “There is always something to be learned,” she says. “It really is this left-brain-right-brain thing: You’re engineering at the same time that you’re trying to come up with something aesthetically beautiful.” And the vast array of fabrics out there make for endless possibilities. “I stick to certain tried-and-true principles that inform what I can create with a particular fabric,” she says, adding, “but that process frees me to create designs that I hadn’t previously imagined.”