NEW YORK — It was a year ago that Luke Aaron made his runway debut at Boston Fashion Week. The tall, droll designer applied for a time slot, competing against dozens of other designers for the chance, and showed a collection that looked like a modern take on Grace Kelly’s feminine ensembles in “Rear Window” or “To Catch a Thief.”
Since then, Aaron has become the closest thing to a fashion phenomenon that Boston has seen in years. There is near-unanimous praise for the Boise native’s work, and he doesn’t shy away from reinterpreting swoon-worthy romantic frocks of yore. Local magazines have declared him Boston’s best new designer. Many of the city’s fashion players have taken a shine to his sweetheart dresses and ready-to-wear jackets.
All of which is why Aaron was in the library of Soho House here on Sunday fussing with a model’s sleeve and scanning the room for reactions to his New York Fashion Week debut.
“It’s not a big-scale show,” he says, looking smart in a blazer and paisley-print button-up. “I’m certainly not at the point yet where I’m staging runway shows in New York. This is more to test the waters. It’s challenging to get buyers and editors to come to Boston, so I’ve come to them.”
No matter how small the show, it’s a rather confident and ambitious step for a burgeoning young designer to think about attracting the attention of editors and buyers during a week when thousands have descended upon the city to see the work of America’s fashion royalty. There are other Boston-based designers showing here, such as Michael De Paulo and Jackie Fraser-Swan, but compared to Aaron, they are far more experienced.
For his New York presentation, which took place at the exclusive, members-only Soho House, he set up a high tea with tiered trays of mini scones and cucumber sandwiches (but also with plenty of champagne cocktails nearby), while models in pleated organza skirts, one-shoulder draped dresses, and silk charmeuse gowns perched themselves on settees and posed against a wall of bookcases.
“Of course I downplay it,” Aaron says with a shy grin as he surveys the scene. “But it’s very exciting.”
This was not exactly the direction the 29-year-old Aaron had in mind when he moved from Boise to Boston 12 years ago to study at Tufts. The plan was theater costume design. He learned draping and sewing in the costume shop at Tufts, where he graduated with his BA before attending the Yale School of Drama. After graduating from Yale, he worked for prolific Broadway costume designers such as Jane Greenwood and Carrie Robbins.
But eventually Aaron became creatively frustrated with the theater. Designing within the limitations of shows meant he was unable to realize his own visions.
“I don’t mind being stressed out now, because at least I’m stressed about my own designs,” he says.
He came back to Boston in 2011, enlisted his sister as a business partner, and opened a boutique on Fleet Street in the North End. There, he sells his custom gowns, wedding dresses, and ready-to-wear pieces, which retail from $650 to $1,400.
He hasn’t entirely shaken his theatrical past. There is drama in his technique, and his collections tell a story. For the Spring/Summer 2014 collection Aaron showed in New York, the inspiration was travel and adventure in the tradition of Rudyard Kipling and Robert Louis Stevenson. This could be spotted in the desert-inspired earth tones and a very tailored, scarlet military jacket.
Aaron is hoping to see some results from his New York debut, but it was the Boston Fashion Week show in 2012 that suddenly put a spotlight on his work.
“I think Luke is one of the most exciting new Boston-based fashion designers around right now,” said Jay Calderin, founder of Boston Fashion Week. “For someone so young he has a very sophisticated take on fashion. More importantly, he does what a good designer should do, evolve from season to season.”
His designs evolved from frothy cocktails dresses for Spring/Summer 2013 to a darker, sleeker tone for his current fall collection.
Another of Aaron’s cheerleaders is Boston fashion queen Marilyn Riseman. She was so taken with his Boston Fashion Week debut that she invited him to show at one of the weekly fashion lunches she hosts at the Colonnade Hotel.
“He makes clothes that anyone can wear,” Riseman said. “He’s has a fantastic eye, and I like his perspective.”
It remains to be seen whether the New York show will pay dividends. He’s looking for orders from boutiques — his line is currently only sold in his own store — and for his clothes to wind up in the pages of larger publications.
Meanwhile, he remains realistic — and hopeful — about the next steps.
“It’s less of a jump and more of an addition to what we’re already doing,” Aaron said of showing in New York. “I’m still doing a show in Boston this fall, which is pretty much where all my clientele lives. The New York show is an add-on. But at some point you have to at least try to jump, and I wanted to jump while I’m still young and limber.”