Just when Lena Dunham and a handful of tech geniuses seemed to corner the market on wunderkind status, along comes Maria Stanley. At just 25, the Minnesotan is hoping to take L.A. by storm as head designer of new contemporary clothing line Harlyn.
The guiding aesthetic for the brand, which hit stores including Planet Blue and Anthropolgie in February, could be described as "It's Jess!" — as in Zooey Deschanel's character in "New Girl. Girlie "fit and flare" dresses, collared jumpsuits, cap-sleeved peplum blouses and discreetly tailored peg-legged trousers in sand-washed almost suede-like silks with heavier drapes are spiced up with signature prints that play on classics like a navy and ivory chain link motif.
"The Harlyn girl is sweet and feminine, but quirky and nerdy too," muses Stanley, who references slightly offbeat fashion plates like Deschanel, Alexa Chung and Clémence Poésy as archetypes. "She comes off confident [in her uniqueness] and isn't afraid to mix and match patterns."
Surely Stanley's Silverlake neighborhood inadvertently inspires too. She hangs among musicians and artists at corner coffee shop Casbah with her Pomeranian Fradi (as in "fraidy cat") and buddies such as Lori Leib, creative director of Bodyography makeup.
But Stanley's playful style is not due to happenstance or L.A. influence alone. Back in Minnesota, her mother — an amateur artist and interior designer — taught her to sew as a child, prompting Stanley to craft elaborate outfits for her dolls and herself.
From age 3, Stanley knew she wanted to be a designer. In her preteen and adolescent years, she trekked to nearby thrift stores whenever possible, rocking risque get-ups like vintage negligees with skinny jeans and knee-high flat suede boots, while other kids wore screen-printed T-shirts and Crocs. "I definitely wore some pretty crazy outfits," she laughs. "I look back and wonder, 'How did I have friends?'"
At 18, she left Minnesota for L.A., where she honed her craft at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising (FIDM).
During school, Stanley interned for independent designers including Sarah Johnson of Rock N Reconstruct and evening gown creator Julia Clancey. The time with Johnson was especially influential. "When I first got to L.A., at Sarah's side, I jumped into this crazy behind-the-scenes fashion world," Stanley says. "She took me to vintage warehouses with mountains of clothes for ... a free-for-all digging party. Then, we'd go back to her house, rip the stuff apart and make it into something else."
Later in Stanley's FIDM career, she interned for Tulle, where the feminine, vintage-inspired sportswear aesthetic jived well with her own. The company hired her immediately after graduation as an assistant designer. She soon worked her way up to designing.
She jumped from there to Ark & Co., a large contemporary line under the umbrella of clothing company Bizz Inc. Stanley thrived, experimenting with colors and exploring fit, ultimately finding her own design style through trial and error.
In 2011, Bizz Inc. Creative Director Kei Kim offered the young designer her own line. "Harlyn was created with Maria in mind," says Kim, who oversees Ark & Co., Aryn K. and now Harlyn. "I admire her ... passion and energy ... and ability to give clothing distinctive personality."
For Stanley, this first spring 2013 collection — a whopping 100 pieces dubbed "The Innocents" —is "a little '50s housewife and 'Stepford [Wives],' if that person went a little crazy and was drinking cocktails at the Beverly Hills Hotel." She likens her prints to Grandmother's tapestry couch, but reinvented and made youthful.
"I found a niche in L.A.," Stanley says. "The job definitely has its challenging points: I learn something new once an hour, even a year later. But I'm over-the-moon excited. I've worked my butt off, but I'm the luckiest girl in the world!"