How a Target Heir Is Customizing Dresses to Beat the Rack

SAN DIEGO (TheStreet) -- During Hollywood's Golden Age, Edith Head worked with virtually every top female star.

She was nominated for a record 35 Academy Awards for costume design, and to say she was talented would be an understatement.

Her claim to fame, (besides Dorothy Lamour's trademark sarong), was using color theory to make women look fabulous.

It's an approach to developing dresses for women Anne Dayton is bringing to the masses via her upstart website PIOL Dress.

Dayton's site uses Head's clothing theories and other custom tools to allow women to design the most flattering dress silhouette for their frame and coloring. With a proprietary made-to-measure software program, 44 color palettes and 345 fabrics (prints, solids and neutrals), customers are able to design up to 56,000 different, custom dresses, as well as get suggestions for their "color aura" -- the theory created by Head.

Within minutes of a customer designing a dress on the site, a pattern or "marker" is made by the website's software and sent to be cut and sewn in New York City's garment district. The finished dress is delivered within three weeks.

Dayton predicts her site will revolutionize the way women shop.

"We can literally make a dress for any kind of women, any shape or size, " Dayton says. "Sixty percent of women don't fit into standardized dresses. So being able to fit differently proportioned women is something we feel no one else can do."

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"We are a brand-new idea. We are disrupting the market, asking women to buy a dress in a new way," she says.

Disrupting the market may be a sizable challenge, but Dayton is no stranger to entrepreneurship or to bringing shopping ideas to the masses. If you don't recognize her name: Her family founded Target.

PIOL Dress is entirely Dayton's baby, but when you think about it, radically changing the way American's shop is practically in Dayton's genes. Target did just that decades ago -- bringing stylish but radically inexpensive clothing and home goods to the masses.

An artist by training, Dayton's foray into launching a custom clothing website is almost accidental. She came across a book by Head one day and was hooked.

"I tell people this fell into my lap," Dayton says. "I picked up [Head's] book How to Dress for Success and began to read it and really found an exciting approach to women's dressing. In reading her book, I fell in love with this creative, artistic approach to dressing." 

"She dressed all different types of women," Dayton says. "Old to young, all different types of faces, and she had a different understanding of what a dress can do for you -- a slightly different take on how to dress a woman. She really had an artist's eye and realized certain colors make you pop and used this in terms of determining colors for her actresses."

Dayton spent about two years getting her site running, including taking Head's color palette and expanding it slightly beyond its original 34 colors. The website launched in September. 

Head's theories about dressing, including her color aura chart, and some of her more famous quotes on the subject, can be found throughout the PIOL site, such as this gem:

I assure you that even the most beautiful women are not pretty all over. They have merely learned to use clothes deftly enough to give others the impression that they are. Why shouldn't you?

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Custom dresses from PIOL Dress are not Target-cheap. The average price is $525 to $595, with a stretch silk topping out at $645. But Dayton, who says the site is still very much in a fledgling phase, is confident it will do well. "There isn't a woman we cannot dress -- our demographics are virtually unlimited," she says.

In addition, Dayton says, the business model is extremely efficient: Since there are no ready-made dresses sitting in warehouses, the only inventory PIOL has is fabric. 

What's more, the site is offering up a shopping opportunity unlike anything else out there. 

"I don't think this site could have been made five years ago. We are using some of the top technology on the dress side of it," Dayton says.

"Our potential is so extraordinary," she adds. "There is this viral quality to what we offer that is unparalleled. I actually think we are creating a new sector in the fashion industry."

"We don't make dresses and try to sell them to you," she says. "The whole custom-made element, that you design it -- I'm hoping we fell into the holy grail of customization."

So would Head approve of all this -- the way her coveted style sense is being served up for women across America?

Dayton has not even a moment's hesitation.

"Oh absolutely. I think she would be thrilled with this idea," Dayton says. "Her book was written for the American woman. She wanted the American woman to know what was making her so successful."

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