Designer Carmen Marc Valvo zips into Austin from Dallas, where he spent part of the previous evening riding a mechanical bull at Neiman Marcus' 100th anniversary event.
Valvo, dressed in black jeans, a white button-down and short boots, might not be a familiar face in women's wear in the same way that other New York designers such as Ralph Lauren and Donna Karan are recognizable. But since he started his label in 1989, Valvo, who turns 54 next week, has become known as the go-to guy for women's evening wear.
His designer frocks from his couture and ready-to-wear collections have been worn by A-listers such as actress and singer Queen Latifah (he simply calls her "Queen"), "Ugly Betty" co-star Vanessa Williams and Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson.
He's about to expand his line, which includes swimwear, coats and furs, with lingerie and women's and men's eyewear.
He's a favorite of Austin women, and if you go to any of the many galas scheduled to happen over the next few months, you're sure to see his creations. As we talked, I asked him to share some style tips for a holiday gala, wedding or other big event. What follows are some of the highlights:
How to stand out, Part One
"The best way to do it is with color," Valvo says. "Here in Texas it's probably more color. In New York and San Francisco and really any urban setting, people find wearing black is a safer kind of color or a dark brown or midnight. If you really want to make an entrance, wear something that's bright red or hot pink."
How to stand out, Part Two
"One color that I think is amazing for balls is winter white," he says. "It's so unexpected in that sea of black or dark jewel tones. That white will make it go whhhhaaaa. I suggest that the chairwoman (of an event or ball) should wear ivory for that very reason."
Go beyond the mirror
"Take a camera and take a picture of yourself in the gown you're thinking of probably purchasing or take a picture of the three options that you have" in your closet, he says. "A photograph never lies."
Trust your judgment
"Don't go shopping with friends," he says. "Sometimes they say, 'Oh, that looks terrible on you' because they think it looks too good. Sometimes they are not as honest as you think they are."
Why the empire rules
"Usually the goal of every designer is to make someone look taller and thinner," he says. "An empire silhouette gives a really nice appearance of tallness. You're changing the proportions so it's just under the bust. It looks like you have incredibly long legs even if your legs are really short. It works if you're petite and it works if you're a bigger girl."
Behold the halter dress
"The other silhouette that I think is always flawless and elongating for a woman is a halter, a deep plunging halter," he says. "You elongate the neck. A halter empire — that's a home-run. It's an amazing dress. I put that dress on Claire Danes, on Vanessa Williams. I'm doing a version of it for Jennifer Hudson."
Battle of the bulge
"Layering with a little fur shrug to cover yourself, a chiffon stole or a wrap would be nice," he says. "I always suggest a woman not to wear it over the shoulders but to double wrap and drop. If you wear it over the shoulders, you're adding girth and width. If you drape it on one side and let it hang on the other, it makes the woman's appearance smaller."
Mother of the bride, Part One
"I always say it has to be youthful," Valvo says. "Gowns are easy and you can have a shawl for some comfort. A lot of times because it's a mom, they feel like they want a little more coverage. If that's the case, a little chic jacket or a soft jacket and a long skirt. We offer a lot of options actually for those occasions. With evening separates that we do within the collection, we can get anything for any body shape or type."
Mother of the bride, Part Two
"You can be feminine and sensual," Valvo says. "But not overtly sexy. These days with the changing family dynamic — sometimes there are three and four mothers involved in a wedding — I always say err on the side of conservative. Don't get too overtly sexual. It's not their day. It's their daughter's day or their son's day."
Mother of the bride, Part Three
"Pick a color that looks good on you," he says. "In the photograph that's going on the piano, it's you and your child, not the other mother and not the bridal party. Make yourself look gorgeous for yourself and your child and don't worry about the color. Even midnight in the summer is fine. It's a year-round color like black, and gold's a year-round color."
"You can get a lot of looks out of them and really maximize your options," Valvo says. "For someone who is very social it gives them a way to mix and match their pieces so it looks like they are wearing something new and different."
"I always think the attention should be brought to the face," Valvo says. "If you wanted something, I would do bracelets, and a bag and ears as opposed to a necklace. I know a lot of women love their necklaces and they have beautiful, beautiful pieces, but sometimes in a photograph it becomes too, too much."
Jewelry,night and day
"You can never go too wrong with adding another layer with a scarf or adding another five or six bangles," Valvo says. "That always works. For evening you should pare it down more. It's 'less is better' for evening."
Evening wear splurge
"Women usually spend a lot of money on their day attire but not for evening for some strange reason," he says. "They probably only will wear it once or twice. If you're buying a gown and you wear it once, put it in the back of the closet and, like an old friend, bring it out in five or six years."
"The little black dress is what they should have," Valvo says. "It should be special enough that it can go black tie but classic enough to go cocktail, especially if you're traveling and you're not too sure what the attire requires. And the black strapless evening gown would be a big evening staple."