SAYING ‘NO’ TO HOOCHIE MAMAS

Stella McCaffrey does tasteful for tweens and teens

“It was divine intervention” says Greenwich’s Stella McCaffrey, newly minted designer and entrepreneur, about losing her banking job with French conglomerate BNP Paribas during the recent financial crisis. “Because, really, I wouldn’t have had the guts to leave a very high-paying job to start my own dress company.”

So after more than 16 years working on Wall Street, the newly divorced mother of two launched Stella M’Lia, a line of special-occasion dresses for girls ages 9 to 16. She came up with the name by combining hers with that of her children. “M” stands for son Michael and Lia is daughter Katherine’s middle name.

The impetus for creating Stella M’Lia occurred when Katherine turned 12 and began receiving two to three invitations a month for bar/bat mitzvahs.

“Katherine needed fairly dressy dresses, and the shock of it all was when you went out to the stores you couldn’t find anything that was appropriate or tasteful because a lot of it was black, bedazzled, short and tight spandex, which made the girls look like ‘hoochie mamas’ before they were even technically teenagers,” says the mom.

“A lot of the dresses would be too mature, too exposed or gave off a lot of messages that I don’t think these girls are ready or even aware they are putting out there.”

Feeling under pressure to compromise and spend a lot of money on something she didn’t like, McCaffrey realized these girls were being underserved in the marketplace. That revelation, combined with her professional background and passion for designing, made her uniquely prepared to launch Stella M’Lia.

“I always wanted to do something entrepreneurial and in fashion, but I never thought that it was a serious career,” says the self-proclaimed math and science geek, who put her dream on hold while she earned an engineering degree in her native Manila and later an MBA in marketing and finance from Carnegie Mellon University.

As a young girl growing up in the Philippines, she remembers how her mother always had Vogue magazine lying around the house.

“We were always exposed to fashion,” she says.

But with five kids, there wasn’t a lot of flexible income to spend on clothing. So the budding designer learned from an early age that if she needed a dress, she would have to design it herself, find the material and hire a seamstress to make it. It wasn’t until she came to the U.S. at age 26 for an engineering internship that she started to buy clothes off the rack. Still, even then she would “re-engineer” the garments. Indeed, just days before her wedding, she decided her dress had too much material so, without a second thought, the bride asked her seamstress to rip off the sleeves altogether.

“This was not foreign to me,” she says of her penchant for putting her personal mark on clothes.

Her dress line is inspired by those she refers to as “the masters,” including Valentino, Proenza Schouler, Versace, Carolina Herrera and Alberta Ferretti. With a keen eye on the runway, McCaffrey distills the best ideas into trends that are appropriate for tweens and teens to wear.

The challenge, she says, is creating designs that fit girls’ changing bodies. For that reason, the dresses are constructed with a bit of wiggle room to ensure that they’ll look good on a variety of shapes.

“These are party dresses first and foremost,” McCaffrey says. “But we draw the line. We don’t want to be pageant-wear or ‘Toddlers & Tiaras.’ I think Honey Boo Boo would find the clothes extremely boring,” she adds with a smiling reference to the 6-year-old beauty queen featured on “T&T.”

That niche strategy has already paid off not just from a financial standpoint – the dress line is sold in 45 better specialty stores in 18 states as well as Australia, New Zealand and Canada – but from a personal one as well.

“As a business, we are grateful to be able to support charitable causes for women and children in the U.S. and through UNICEF and generate job opportunities for moms and dislocated factory workers in deeply impoverished areas in my native Philippines.

“And now that my kids are teenagers, I have to be more vigilant. I think it’s more critical for a parent to be around,” she says about being able to work from home.

“So from a lifestyle perspective, this company is more aligned with my priorities, what I should be focusing on at this point.”

Stella M’Lia dresses, which range from $100 to $300, are available at Darien Sport Shop, Hoagland’s of Greenwich, Wishlist, All Dressed Up and stellamlia.com.

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