What Happened to Pretty Dresses? Tuleh Tries a Flowery Pink Look

When Marisa Tomei boarded Donald Trump’s Boeing 727 jet on Dec. 12 for Atlantis, the new 600-acre resort and casino on Paradise Island in the Bahamas, she was carrying Tuleh in her suitcase. It didn’t matter that she had her heart set on a strapless, flouncy, pink, prom-style dress with small purple flowers that was at a photo shoot at Vogue and couldn’t be retrieved in time. She fell just as easily for a white strapless number covered in tiny white bows, with a crinoline skirt and a cinched waist-Sandra Dee meets Park Avenue.

“It will be one of those big, fabulous, fun weekends,” Ms. Tomei said over the phone on her way to join the Trump entourage. “I said, ‘Oh. This would be perfect!’”

That same night, while Ms. Tomei played dress-up on the beach, magazine editor Jane Pratt wore Tuleh black silk broadcloth pj’s with a pattern of bluebirds and pink cherry blossoms to a holiday pajama party she co-hosted with R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe at Casa La Femme on Wooster Street.

“For some women Tuleh is everyday clothing, and for some women Tuleh is when you feel Tuleh,” said Josh Patner, one of the young clothing line’s designers. “Some women feel Tuleh when they are going on a date or when they are falling in love or when they want to be falling in love.”

Mr. Patner, 36, and Bryan Bradley, 32 (or Josh-and-Bryan as they are known), founded Tuleh a little under two years ago. “We thought that there weren’t enough pretty clothes in the world,” Mr. Patner said.

Tuleh is every little girl’s fantasy grown up: It’s pretty and sexy. It’s pink everywhere and pink with everything (especially green), floral prints, coats with feather or mink trim, purple, sequins, skirts billowing over crinolines, hems with satin piping, soft shoulders, flowing skirts, draping necklines. The suits are pink or pale-blue windowpaned. No miniskirts. No black. Nothing remotely unisex. Just real isn’t-it-great-to-be-a-girl pretty.

It’s Tuleh’s over-the-top-ness that appeals to women drowning in a sea of black and gray minimalism offered by Calvin Klein, Donna Karan and Jil Sander or suffering through the sloppy cargo pants of Michael Kors and Ralph Lauren. To a dress that is all at once strapless, poofy, fun and colorfully patterned, they’ll add a ruffle to boot. Sure, other designers offer beautiful evening clothes, but theirs is a calm, muted beauty, an entirely adult beauty, with toned-down neutral shades of one color or a suggestive whisper of sequins. Tuleh should be tacky, but somehow it works; with all of its activity and movement, Tuleh remains elegant.

“I never really studied design,” said Mr. Patner. But Mr. Bradley has, and together they have friends at every stage of the fashion business-from fashion P.R. firms (KCD, Kevin Krier & Associates) to fashion editors (at Vogue , Vanity Fair , Mademoiselle , Harper’s Bazaar ) to buyers (at Bergdorf Goodman and Saks Fifth Avenue). “We went to all of these people who were hungry for pretty,” said Mr. Patner.

They already knew how it works: You send around a “look book” (with photos from their show) or simply send a suitcase of clothing to a celebrity in the hope that one of your designs will see the light of day during a publicity tour. The pair is friends with stylist Terence McFarland, who sometimes dresses Ms. Tomei. He introduced her to Tuleh last fall. “I had a whole bunch of stuff to promote Slums of Beverly Hills ,” said Ms. Tomei. She was a co-star in the film, which came out last August, and she did a tour of the talk shows. “I had tons of clothes in my apartment and the things I consistently picked out was the Tuleh.” A “great pink outfit” on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno , a black and silver dress on The View . “It was really feminine, but it has a downtown feeling. It’s really unique. It has a festive feel, that everyday-being-a-celebration kind of feeling.”

Socialite Anne McNally wears Tuleh on “special evenings” because of Tuleh’s “combination of luxury and casual and the touch of antique sometimes-but made in a modern way. I find that interesting.” She was tipped off by Vanity Fair fashion director Elizabeth Saltzman who has known Mr. Patner for years. “From fashion camp,” he said. Ms. McNally has borrowed Tuleh’s “champagne dress,” covered in iridescent gold sequins and a purple outfit with a “little beaded top” and a floral skit with a sequined clover stole trimmed with 210 mink tails-all from the spring 1999 collection.

“[Tuleh] is not a ‘What?’ anymore,” said Ms. Saltzman, who has Tuleh in her closet. “When I mention them I don’t get, ‘What?’ I get ‘Oh!’ People will be wearing them. They certainly have stuff for girls of all ages. It is dress making to me that doesn’t exist. It is quality and at decent prices.”

As the buzz gets louder, Tuleh is popping up in every fashion magazine. The Nov. 5 show of its second collection was overflowing with fashion editors, not all friends. Fashion producer Kevin Krier and publicists KCD worked pro bono, convincing Maggie Rizer, Alek Wek and Karen Elson to model the clothes in return for the Christian Louboutin shoes they wore and inviting all the right people. Barneys New York’s chief executive Bob Pressman attended, The New York Times ran a photograph of the white prom-y dress and a pink-themed outfit and the company got orders from Louis Boston. Pieces from their spring line will retail at $1,000 for a green sequin skirt, at $4,000 for the champagne dress Anne McNally wore, at $350 for signature Tuleh sleveless tops made of Swiss voile. Ms. Pratt’s pj’s will run you $1,100. Everyone is rooting for Mr. Patner and Mr. Bradley as they search for a backer.

But backer is a dirty word these days, even to clothing lines with pretty clothes, a cute name and well-placed friends. As Ms. Saltzman put it: “The scariest part is that they shouldn’t be thinking about their business. They should have a business partner at this point who does that so they can think about their clothes. Yes, they are accessible and darling and sweet and all of those things, but they are in a business, a tough business, a very scary business and a very powerful position where they have people wanting them.”

On the other hand, Tuleh isn’t even two years old, which is the fashion equivalent of still being in the womb. On a recent drizzly Friday afternoon over ginger snaps arranged on a pretty pink plate in a West 81st Street apartment-turned-atelier, Mr. Patner and Mr. Bradley took a breather. The building was run down, the apartment dimly lit. Mr. Patner and Mr. Bradley looked anything but pretty in T-shirts, sneakers and nondescript pants. Mr. Bradley wore an old dark blue Izod shirt. “Men look best in khakis or in a Brooks Brothers suit. Or in a sweatshirt,” said Mr. Patner. “Women look really good when they are pretty.” Their designs-light and fun-hung along one wall of the room in stark contrast to the surroundings.

“We are ecstatic,” Mr. Patner said.

He had spent much of the day on the phone trying to get some of the samples back from editor friends in time for a meeting with Saks Fifth Avenue. The sounds of sewing machines and WQEW-AM radio filled the air. “The most genius radio station on earth!” said Mr. Patner, who was upset that the station had recently been sold and that the programming will soon change. “American standards. We live for it. You get Ella Fitzgerald, then you get Frank Sinatra, then you get Rosemary Clooney, but then every once in a while you get Karen Carpenter! She just comes on. It is so incredible. All of this great music from the war and after the war, and then like Anne Murray will pop up! This station is-and I mean this completely honestly-this station is the only thing that has kept us alive. Day to day.”

Mr. Bradley, the quiet one, finally spoke: “Day to day. It’s true.”

“We are sort of stunned. It is not that we are nonchalant,” Mr. Patner said, fidgeting. “O.K. Now I am sitting up straight.”

Mr. Patner grew up in Chicago and came to New York in 1985. He went from being an associate fashion director for women’s apparel at Bergdorf Goodman and an assistant to Donna Karan to a freelance stylist at The New York Times Magazine , L’Uomo Vogue and Dutch . Mr. Bradley grew up in Wisconsin and came to New York in 1990. He was a freelance designer and worked at Calvin Klein and Anne Klein. They were introduced by friends about three years ago.

After the pretty thing hit them, the pair consulted their editor, department store, publicist and stylist friends. “We made phone calls. We called fabric people to see if they would be supportive of us and take some small orders. We called KCD and asked them if they would help us out on the show. We talked to Kevin Krier, production maestro. They are good friends and good people and they believe in what we are doing. We called some editors and asked if they would come see the clothes. We found some seamstresses. We had some machinery. We had this apartment. It was Bryan’s. Now it is Tuleh’s apartment,” said Mr. Patner.

“Because everybody was so incredibly supportive and nice and excited, then we were really in trouble. Then we had to produce.” He nibbled on a ginger snap. “Basically from that day on, once everybody said Yes, then we had to make clothes and we had to work really hard to make them the very best they could be, because we knew that people would show up.”

One of the first things they did was bring sketches and a few samples to Bergdorf Goodman’s executive vice president, Joseph Boitano, and Lillian Wang, its fashion director for ready-to-wear. “He came with a battered suitcase and he opened it and it was gorgeous!” said Ms. Wang. “Pieces of pink tissue paper all wrapped around gorgeous clothes. It is beautiful. It is beautifully made. The color is amazing and they are doing prints which no one else is doing.”

Mr. Patner said: “We asked if there would be interest. And there would be.” Their first orders were from Bergdorf Goodman in New York and Neiman Marcus in San Francisco.

“I think the first day that the clothes were out on the floor at Bergdorf Goodman, a $7,000 mink-lined sweater sold,” said Mr. Bradley.

“Pink!” Mr. Patner screamed.

“Pink, in the middle of August. To a princess.” Mr. Bradley said.

“On a Tuesday afternoon, it was like Aug. 16. We were told it was a princess. We don’t know what kind of princess,” Mr. Patner said.

By that time, they had emptied their savings accounts and maxed out all their credit cards. Mr. Patner reluctantly gave up his shrink (Mr. Bradley doesn’t believe in them). Mr. Bradley moved into Mr. Patner’s Perry Street basement apartment (décor: “Yves Saint Laurent-1970′s-Chinese bohemia” with red floors).

“When Josh and Bryan decided to do it, I just breathed a huge sigh of relief,” said Ms. Pratt, who has known Mr. Patner since they attended Oberlin College. They shared a succession of apartments in the East Village after graduation. “Our group of friends from college have said this is what he should be doing for the past 20 years.”

Ms. Pratt wrote about Tuleh in the October 1998 issue of Jane next to a photograph of Josh-and-Bryan dressing Jane. “In Jane , one of the lovely things is that nepotism is not a bad thing. I can hype all of my friends!”

Bergdorf’s Ms. Wang also pled innocent of playing favorites. “Look, we know a lot of people,” she said. “They are doing well. It has both a very young clientele and an older clientele. The color sells, the more luxurious pieces sell. They are standing alone right now.”

Said Ms. Saltzman: “Being a connected soul isn’t going to hurt you. Still, it isn’t who you know, it is what you do with your connections. They have never approached any of us and said you need to give me press. I want to be with them, I want to help them.”

The designers are speaking to Nicole Fischelis, Saks Fifth Avenue’s vice president and fashion director, about the store carrying their clothing. “I really think that they are a new talent with a real young couture sensibility,” she said. “We have been looking at it for two seasons and it is developing and it is consistent. Their color sense is really wonderful and the fabric is certainly high-quality.”

Ms. Fischelis also knew Mr. Patner from the business. “Had I not known him, it would have been the same reaction … They have already created an identity for their brand. They have to continue being very persistent with it and delivering a quality product that is as good as what we see in the showroom, and on time. And he will grow his business.”

Another “old friend” of Mr. Patner, Vogue fashion news director Katherine Betts agreed, “They know more than anyone I know about fashion. It is not like they are going into this blindly.… There is not much in the market that is like that right now. And they are very determined.” Ms. Betts pointed to designer John Bartlett, who is now financially successful, who didn’t find a backer for many years.

For now, there’s barely enough Tuleh to go around. “We have been lucky enough to get an order from Louis Boston and Ultimo Dallas and Chicago. And a few high-end specialty stores,” said Mr. Patner. But they are restricted by overhead. “We have a limited amount of fabric,” said Mr. Patner. Operations are small. They have one full-time seamstress, a part-time seamstress, a part-time hand finisher, a “very good” pattern maker and a cutter.

“We are just trying to keep up. The financial news of this company is that it was all about, take a shot. It is like independent film: It is bursting credit cards, money from dad, no more savings account, Rice-a-Roni.”

In five years, they said, they’d like to have a working atelier. “Where women could come buy clothes and we could keep working like this out of it, kind of like a casual store, if you will,” Mr. Bradley said. “We would like it to be big enough to be impactful, but small enough that it is still personal,” Mr. Patner added.

Mr. Patner said he wanted to dress Cate Blanchett, the Miller sisters-Marie-Chantal, Pia and Alexandra-and Lena Horne. Mr. Bradley has his eye on model Maggie Rizer and singer Lauryn Hill. “If Hillary Clinton could find her Tuleh, I would dress her,” said Mr. Patner.

Mr. Patner used to dress Jane Pratt at Oberlin. “He’s always wanted women to look pretty,” said Ms. Pratt. “He used to come over before a party and help me. He wanted me to get dressed up for dinner at the dining hall!” He encouraged her to wear “painful” vintage princess-heel pumps and “figure-flattering” vintage dresses.

But he could never dress himself. “He would wear these boots he got from Capezio that came up over the knee in multicolored suede patchwork,” she said. “Josh was basically-he is going to kill me-the guy who wore the rainbow suspenders. But always with his own flair. He had an Afro for a while. He went through many phases. He always was just really out there.”

At Ms. Pratt’s pajama party, Mr. Patner, in black sparkly combat boots, a black turtleneck and gray Brooks Brothers pants, waded through the crowded party with only one thing on his mind: dressing women.

He spotted Cameron Diaz: “She has worn Tuleh.”

Chloe Sevigny: “Very Tuleh.”

He paused to kiss the cheek of Anna Sui, a flea-market friend and saw Liv Tyler.

“I want to Tuleh her,” he whispered.