Mirror, Mirror: Manayunk designer Paula Hian could be breaking through

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Paula Hian with two of her new knit designs; on the left the Angelique dress and on the right the Margaux. Hian and other designers are focusing on knits. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)

Over the years, Manayunk designer Paula Hian has had her fair share of fits, starts, and fashion drama.

For example, Hian swears the belted plastic raincoat she developed in a Paris factory in 2005 was copied by at least two well-known designers who shared a manufacturing facility with her.

Although the Paula Hian label received a bit of Hollywood buzz back in 2007 when Gossip Girl's Taylor Momsen wore the designer's bubble-hemmed frock on an episode, the artsy dress with the golden chain-link bodice never became a must-have.

And while I've always liked Hian's slim-fitting jumpsuits, she probably would have gotten more traction had she debuted them last year rather than 10 years ago. After all, 2014 was the year the tight one-piece met the firm backside.

But I think Hian might finally be onto something with her foray into the classy world of fine-gauge knits.

These aren't the chunky, oversize H&M sweaters we've been layering over leggings this fall.

Or the stiff yet sometimes too revealing Hervé Léger-esque banded sheaths that seem to be - don't tell the women of the Real Housewives franchises - on their way out.

No, Hian's knits are fluid and figure-flattering fancy. Infused with spandex, her fall pieces are of a heavy ply that molds to the body without showing panty lines, while the spring-to-summer wovens are cool and breathable.

It's a process that has taken about four years fine-tuning in France, and now Hian's knits are finally getting on camera. Today host Natalie Morales wears them on the morning show. And this fall, Fox Sports' NFL sideline reporter Erin Andrews was seen wearing a few pieces.

The silhouettes are simple, including a-line skirts easily worn with silk blouses (also in her collection), and sheaths with ruffled hemlines. Another staple in the grouping is the popular fit-and-flare, which Hian makes sleeveless, square-necked, and with three-quarter-length sleeves. There are also a handful of pencil skirts with matching blazer suits.

The shake-it-out-of-the-suitcase-and-slip-it-on quality of the pieces are enough to meet many a woman's get-up-and-go needs, but what fuels Hian's creative juices is being able to knit a pattern into the fabric.

"For so long, I designed in my head with colors and fabrics, but I could never find the fabrics that matched with my vision," Hian said.

The vision is an amalgam of angular, geometric shapes: zigzaggy stripes and wavy vertical lines inspired by gothic churches. She also fancies colorblocking.

High-fashion women's wear has been somewhat immersed in knits this year. The fabric lends itself to the dressy sweat suit trend, also known as athleisure. Alexander Wang's cuffed sweatpants and matching tops, in Target and Barney's, are much more sophisticated when fashioned from fine knits.

Also, today's styles are very inspired by the 1930s, 1970s and 1990s, times when no-frills skirt suits were made from knits. Note the current slow-and-steady comeback of the most upscale of American brands, St. John Knits.

"It's a very clean look and flattering on most body types," said Ann Gitter, owner of Knit Wit in Center City, which is carrying soft, sleeveless a-line knits by Parker and Autumn Cashmere this spring.

Over the years, Hian has had a tough time getting her business solvent, as her label has struggled with distribution challenges and getting the right marketing team in place.

And at 48, Hian, who has been on the industry's radar since 1986, when she won an international fashion competition (and subsequently landed one of her dresses a permanent spot at the Louvre), doesn't have a reputation for collaborating well with others.

She may be soft-spoken, but she's stubborn - and passionate.

But that might finally be paying off. Her collection of dresses, which retail for $1,500 to $2,000, are perfect for the CEO who has a cocktail hour following her big meeting. They should be in Neiman's and Saks. These are pieces a first lady should and could wear.

But, more important, fashion's focus on knitwear - actress Lupita Nyong'o is wearing a fine-knit Céline sweater dress on the December cover of Glamour - may be proof that Hian finally hit the zeitgeist right on time.


Paula Hian Designs, 106 Gay St. 215-487-2762


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