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Puerto Rico Profiles
Front Row: Making Buildings And Dresses


February 27, 2001
Copyright © 2001 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All Rights Reserved.


Yola Colon with a suit and a coat she designed at
Kirna Zabête in SoHo. She is also an architect.
PHOTO: Andrea Mohin/The New York Times


"I love modern New York," Yola Colon announced, as she made her way toward the balcony of her Lexington Avenue apartment, past the Asian furniture, the coffee-table books on Alvar Aalto and Álvaro Siza, and the headless dress forms that aren't typical of the living rooms of East Siders. "Look, I can see the Lever House from here."

Many fashion people claim an affinity for architecture, but Ms. Colon, who has designed public buildings in her native Puerto Rico, has a claim that runs deeper. At 30, she is both a practicing architect and a fashion designer, having studied building design at Cornell and draping at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Her living room is now also her showroom. During her first job, at BNK Architects in SoHo, she started making wedding dresses for friends in her spare hours. "People let me do all this really creative stuff," said Ms. Colon, who looks like a cross between the actresses Penélope Cruz and Minnie Driver. Before long, she started making capes and shawls that captured the attention of buyers at Barneys New York, and quit her day job to pursue making buildings and clothes on her own.

Last year, she started to make dresses, skirts and suits, and took them over to Beth Sheperd and Sarah Hailes, the owners of Kirna Zabête on Greene Street. "Little Yola comes in with a duffle bag," Ms. Hailes recalled, "and proceeds to try on everything in her collection." Ms. Sheperd and Ms. Hailes had already stocked their store for fall 2000, so they turned down Ms. Colon. Undeterred, the designer came back the next season, and the owners bought most of her line for this spring, which includes a wildly patterned wraparound skirt suit made from vintage Marimekko fabric. Ms. Colon also cut a more low-key version in khaki, with top- stitching embroidered to simulate the outline of the Marimekko pattern.

In the meantime, Ms. Colon has designed an experimental school in Puerto Rico, where educational researchers will study learning disabilities. Born and reared on the island, she has also designed a nursing home there. "It's because of my father," she explained. "He runs a firm of engineers down there."

Not surprisingly, given her second vocation, the lines of Ms. Colon's clothes are uncomplicated. There is an element of Geoffrey Beene to them, not to mention Claire McCardell. But she isn't immune to the fanciful either. One evening dress for next fall comes in quilted mauve organza – stuffed in the quilting are turkey feathers.

So far, Ms. Colon's excursions into fashion have been unprofitable, she said, because of the high cost of producing such a small volume, and because she is in the habit of buying fabrics from purveyors like Holland & Sherry, which caters to Savile Row tailors.

But Ms. Hailes said she had faith. "The clothes have beginner, intermediate and advanced appeal," she explained. "The advanced fashion person will come in and say, `The line is incredibly cool and chic,' and the beginner will come in and say, `A wrap skirt with flowers; that's pretty; I'll take it.' "

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