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Colleen Quen Couture

Haute Couture within Reach

The French phrase "haute couture" translates to "high fashion" and is synonymous with several things: highest quality, superb (expensive) materials, unique/custom designs and exquisite detail-often executed by hand. As such, clothing bearing the label is usually the opposite of affordable for most women. However, those of us who are of more modest means are in for a treat: local couturiere Colleen Quen is opening her doors tomorrow and next Saturday, April 8th for a sample sale you won't want to miss.

Tomorrow's sale features her beautiful wedding gowns -- all one of a kind, and the April 8th sale is all about her evening gowns, cocktail dresses and travelwear. Pieces from the bridal collection normally retail for over $2500 but the one-of-a-kind pieces run from $800 to $1500 at this sample sale -- a reasonable amount to spend on what you'll wear to a one-of-a-kind event.

Quen's designs run the gamut from traditional to mod to modern, providing ample options for brides of all flavors. The famous Georgia O'Keefe gown is Quen's homage to the artist and features hand-pleated cascading flowers trailing down the back of the dress. Usher's co-star Emmanuelle Chriqui wore this strapless pearl-colored duchess silk number in the movie In the Mix. Hand embroidered blooms, rhinestones and seed beads adorn the magical silk organza Dandelion gown, which moves seamlessly from formal fanciness to reception with a removable train.

The Sari bridal gown plays off the one-shoulder Grecian look completed with a head wrap rather than the traditional veil. A flirty little French lace mini-dress evokes visions of a girly Nancy Sinatra, while the two-piece Tuxedo Wedding Dress borrows from menswear: the train falls from the top, mirroring coat tails. The Waterfall bridal grown features a square line and low back with a deep pleat (hence the name).

Showcasing Quen's trademark flower-inspired look is a dress with a pointy flared square neckline -- with the addition of fresh flowers, she likens the look to a window box in full bloom. Double duchess satin enhance the already dream-like quality of this gown. For a beach wedding, Quen has a pretty dress with a shorter hemline, high neck and low V in the back – flirty and a little more on the casual side.

Featured in British Brides magazine, the Butterfly wedding dress plays off Dior's look with a fitted bodice and a 50s-style full petticoat skirt. The twist: fabric bears the pattern of butterflies for an overall soft yet bold look. Quen's trademark butterfly wrap is also a twist on the traditional veil -- white gauzy delightfulness with handmade pointy-winged white butterflies. Though some of Quen's designs recall certain eras, they are all timeless.

Some of the wedding gowns actually evolved from the brightly colored eveningwear versions -- the Georgia O'Keefe dress was originally done in red, for example. The sample sale on April 8th will feature vibrant special occasion gowns as well as fun and slightly more casual cocktail dresses.

All the cocktail dresses bear names of actual drinks; the Sake-tini dress bring together fuchsia, red and orange, and is a favorite of Tyra Banks. It typically retails for upwards of $1500 but will go for $600 at the sale. There is also the Sangria dress, Lemon Drop, a dazzling yellow piece worn by Garcelle Beauvais, and the Pineapple-tini -- another yellow dress inspired by the famous gauzy Marilyn dress. Paris Hilton will be wearing a version of the Sake-tini in the upcoming "National Lampoon's Pledge This!" that is due to be released sometime in 2006 or 2007.

For sale will also be a frock that actress Bai Ling actually wore for a photo shoot -- a brassy strapless empire-waist evening gown with an artfully done bustle. Quen's evening gowns usually retail for upwards of $2000 but this dress will be sold at $800;

In greens and browns are a decadent Tahitian-inspired gown recalling Impressionist painting -- perfect for a radiant night at the opera. Other designs include the Mojito and Mermaid Dress. Quen uses primarily solids for elegant, classy pieces that are easily complemented by practically any accessories you should choose.

At the darker end of the spectrum, you'll find a vintage Barbie-like two-tone mermaid dress with French lace hand-sewn with angora. The Calla Lily evening coat combines Asian and French aesthetics and the silk swing coat is just as divine to cover your sensational outfit underneath. Madame Butterfly is a black equivalent of the Butterfly wedding dress, done in a beautiful Japanese fabric. Quen considers the Ladybug gown her "avant-garde" piece, noting that it is favored by artists and musicians.

One of the few patterned dresses she has is the zebra print Kenya cocktail mini dress worn by Melissa Rivers as she interviewed celebrities at the 2006 Grammy awards. Another is Quen's logo gown, the pattern utilizing her initials refashioned to form butterflies (more ninja-star like than hippy). There is also a more dramatic version of the Madame Butterfly dress done in zebra print at a longer length.

The newest addition to Quen's repertoire is her travel collection -- more affordable pieces for the sharp businesswoman on the go. Designed in a wrinkle-free gabardine-lycra blend, these stylish garments can be worn on a plane on your way to a cross-country meeting. Each design is named after a city: Chicago, Shanghai, London, Milan, Manhattan, Paris and Monte Carlo, to name a few. The San Francisco sheath is augmented by a flower-petal inspired capelet that really captures our funkiness.

These shirt dresses, trench coats and frocks make it easy to be chic yet professional on the road. Tyra Banks modeled the Chicago dress in an issue of In Style Magazine.

Though Quen has been making waves in the couture world for the last several years, tomorrow marks her first sample sale. Quen and her furniture designer husband Rick Lee moved into their atelier in a non-descript SOMA alleyway in September of last year and dubbed it Lee Quen -- Quen's fashion designs and Lee's furniture designs complement and are informed by each other marvelously. You could conceivably purchase a gown and a distinctive couch in the same visit! Lee was named one of Surface magazine's top 10 designers and his unique creations reminded me of sets from Clockwork Orange.

All of Quen's confections are designed and brought to life in the SOMA studio -- much of it sewn by skilled hands. Style mavens and fashionistas -- treat yourself to some couture and book an appointment to get something made uniquely for you – and be prepared to be dazzled!