IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

From childhood fantasy to fashion reality

Peter Som was a shy kid who created his own fantasy world, filled with women dressed in beautiful clothes. Years later, his sketches have finally come off the page and are floating down the runway and out into the street.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Peter Som was a shy kid, one who would sketch to create his own fantasy world. He'd draw women — always women — in fantastic outfits, and then try to put them in motion with strokes of his pencil, imagining how these beautiful clothes would fit into their lives.

Now with his own fashion label and a full year as creative director of Bill Blass under his belt, Som no longer wonders: He sees his feminine styles float down the runway at New York Fashion Week and then, better yet, down the street.

“I see my clothes on the street and they look different than I recall, but different isn't bad. It's exciting to me to see what they do, how they wear it, what they wear it with,” Som says.

Som's intention is to offer women clothes that make them feel beautiful. He hopes he's taken care of the details — flattering lines, the fit of the shoulder — long before they ever see the garment. He wouldn't want his customer to have to worry about those things.

“The Peter Som look is romantic, it's a little dreamy. My girl is a little bit of a `head-in-the-clouds' kind of girl... has her head in the clouds. There's a beauty, a lightness about her,” he says.

Som seems to think about his “girl” a lot. The primary decoration in his neat office are bulletin boards covered with photos, clippings, swatches and notes that will influence his next collection.

He's a bit of a workaholic — and a bit of a perfectionist — but there comes a point, he says, when the California boy inside him comes out and convinces the Type A fashion guy to relax. He'll hit the beach (favorites are St. Bart's and Fire Island) and cook up a meal for friends.

Cooking is becoming a passion, and he says he makes a darn good minestrone soup with pistou. His newest challenge is teaching himself to bake: “I like the precision that goes into pies.”

Som, 37, grew up in San Francisco with architect parents who were supportive of his longtime interest in fashion. “My parents were creative and they encouraged my creativity — there was no pressure to be a doctor or a lawyer.”

He can see the influences of their aesthetic in the clean lines of his own designs, but he strives to also add an ethereal vibe. He uses touches of airy organza or chiffon to lighten a structured silhouette or a muted color to an otherwise severe style.

Suze Yalof Schwartz, Glamour magazine's executive fashion editor at large, says she likes that Som's clothes have an underlying edginess. It's a look she describes as “Upper East Side meets Soho.”

“I really appreciate his aesthetic for mixing something that's durable with something dainty — and then a tough shoe. ... I like how he took winter florals and mixed them with little leather jackets. He's really appealing to the entire world of women, not limiting his collection to young girls or older women, or a certain style,” Yalof Schwartz says.

For fall, Som was inspired by the hit TV show “Mad Men” and the slick world of 1960s advertising it portrays as well as the work of photographer Diane Arbus, who would intentionally shoot things askew.

“Everything was a little off-center — not quite perfect — which is really the whole point of finding beauty in imperfection,” he says.

Som studied art at Connecticut College before landing in New York. His first industry job was as a receptionist with a company called British Khaki. Answering the phone can be a lot harder than it looks, he says with a laugh: “You need a tough skin.”

Next came design jobs with Michael Kors, Calvin Klein and Blass, working with the late designer whose shoes he'd fill years later. He set the goal to open his own company by the time he was 30.

“When you're young, you think 30 is the age that you should have your stuff together,” he explains.

Needless to say, Som felt a sense of accomplishment when the Peter Som label opened for business when he was still 29. But then reality struck. “I was sooo naive. I had no five-year plan, no business partner, no clue. I was running on passion and drive.”

His first sale didn't go so smoothly either. He made jersey mohair tops — “Don't ask!” he implores — but he didn't think to ask the factory to preshrink the fabric. The tops he shipped were tiny.

Fast-forward to the present and Som has a business partner. He has a 10-year plan that includes designing accessories and expanding internationally. He will soon preview his spring collection; the look will be a sultrier style than he's done in the past as he takes his "girl" on a trip to India and Morocco.

He thinks it's the direction that fashion is heading and he's excited about the new season, but, he says, he can't confidently predict trends.

“I wish I could — then I'd be living on a beach in the Bahamas,” he says. “We do our homework, but success is definitely not a science.”