Virginia-born Constance McCardle has carved out an exclusive niche in the fashion industry because of her fascination with everything vintage.

With vintage clothing designs surging in popularity, McCardle is emerging as trend setter.

She has had an outfit at every major red carpet event, from the Oscars and the Emmys to the Grammys.

“My approach to designing is more like art,” she says. “I build each one like a painting, mixing old and new. The silhouettes are feminine and classic.”

In her studio in Ossining, N.Y., she crafts one-of-a-kind, haute couture gowns.

Check out Constance’s designs; click to enlarge.

Growing up in the Blue Ridge Mountains, her mother seamstress mother taught her how to sew and design, and she made her first dress when she was nine.

She was “hooked,” literally, and became an expert in all forms of needlecraft, according to her official biography. She could even make lace, and became fascinated with the fabric and its history.

She moved to New York City in the 1980s to study fashion design, and her love for lace became her signature of sorts.

She began using the antique fabric to create one-of-a-kind blouses and the soon found their way into upscale Manhattan department store Henri Bendel.

After a trip to Milan to work for Italian designer Raffaela Curiel, McCardle returned to launch her own label.

But vintage fashion doesn’t mean that designers are pulling out old clothes from dusty attics and recycling them.

Rather, they are incorporating vintage fashion trends into modern designs to create new looks.

“What I’m doing right now is clearly influenced by vintage; there was a definite architecture of design back then,” McCardle explains.

She’s made a believer out of Helen Katz, owner of the Havana Club in Miami.

“Every piece that [McCardle] makes is so unique and fits perfectly to the body. I was so impressed with her work that I ended up buying five of her gowns!” Katz says.

This year, working under her CMC moniker, McCardle will see her designs reach a much broader audience in entertainment.

Celebrities such as Lady Gaga, Ke$ha and Katy Perry have all already latched onto trend.

To find out more about how the vintage look is evolving, TheImproper spoke to McCardle at her studio in suburban New York, where she is currently based.

TheImproper: Vintage seems to be all the rage right now, but you’ve had a history with it. Give us your take on the emerging trends.

McCardle: I think people like vintage now because it is unique and very personal. I have seen in my business the past year a real interest in one-of-a-kind. After years of mall shopping where everything looks the same, it’s time to break the monotony. Most vintage clothing is very well made with attention to details that are just too expensive to produce in the mass market today. To make vintage look contemporary you have to mix it up with something that is current. If you go all vintage from one era it starts to look like a costume.

IM: Needlework, embroidery, macramé, lace making, all very specific tasks. what’s your favorite and why.

McCardle: I don’t think I can have a favorite in the “string arts.” I love them all. I spent a tremendous amount of time studying these techniques in my earlier years; each one I still find fascinating to this day. I use these skills everyday in my studio creating my current pieces. It opens up so many possibilities on finishes. I must say that I did linger a little longer on lace making than the others.

IM: Your approach is almost that of a graphic artist, correct? What else is distinctly different about your approach?

McCardle: Yes, I am sort of a fashion graphic artist. Shapes and colors are what it is all about. I have always approached my work with an artist’s mentality, “wearable art,” for sure. Each garment says something to me. Who are you? Where are you going? What are you doing? They kind of tell a visual story.

IM: You also seem to take a more organic route.

Singer Emmy Lou Harris wears a Constance McCardle dress.

McCardle: Organic is a good way to describe my work. I build the garment as someone would sculpt or paint. It has to be the right thing to make it come alive. Since I use a combination of new fabrics and vintage elements, I have to bring them together so they look like they were meant to be.

I have had many times where I wait years before the right things come along to mix with a particular textile. I create a lot of my own textiles as well with dyes, hand painting, needle arts, whatever it takes to make the picture complete.

IM: Your first store was in Lexington, Va., in 1977. Does that seem like a lifetime ago? Tell us how things have evolved for you.

McCardle: I was in my mid 20’s back then. I made a huge leap of faith in 1980 and moved to NYC to go to fashion school. Because of my interests in lace, at the time I naturally fell into the bridal biz for 10 years after school. I had my second store during this time. In about 1993, Vera Wang came out with her new look for bridal, which was a clean, non-embellished look. Lace became out of vogue. Everybody wanted that look; it just wasn’t what I wanted to create.

IM: What do you think of today’s designers, yourself included.

McCardle: I think there are some really interesting designers today. The limitations have been lifted. I look towards the European designers for inspiration most of the time. Jean Paul Gaultier is one of my favorites because he really gets into unique textiles. There are so many new designers it is hard to keep up with them. Time will tell who is really in it for the long haul. Most product businesses create a design that they sell indefinitely. In fashion you change with the seasons. Reinventing constantly!

IM: Are there any trends that you really like?

McCardle: Fringe and lace are back in at the moment. Both didn’t go out for me, but I am always glad when they pop back in.

IM: Since we’re based in New York; give us a take on your first time here.

McCardle: The first time I came to NYC was in 1976. I was touring with an entertainment group. We were traveling in an old tour bus and parked at South Street Seaport for 3 days. You could call it temporary street living. I was just amazed by it all. Very exciting! It was very different then. Today, NYC is cleaned up and so much safer.

IM: What celebrities would you like to design for?

McCardle: I would love to create something for Nicole Kidman. She is just a designer’s dream client. Of the newbie’s, I think Katy Perry. She likes very unusual clothes. I like celebrities who aren’t afraid to wear what they like.

It would be very cool to work with Mickey Dolenz. I have to laugh though because I had his picture in my room as a young teenager. He was my celeb heart throb. Who knew? I promise not to scream when he has a fitting.

IM: What’s always been your fashion-mantra?

McCardle: Fashion mantra? It would have to be “Mix it up!”

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