Lily Samii’s lifelong passion for fashion can be traced back to her childhood in Iran. Before becoming an apprentice to Oscar-winning costume designer Edith Head and working with noted couturier James Galanos, Lily earned a fine arts degree from UCLA and studied French dressmaking abroad.
Later, at her own boutique — which was one of the most successful womenswear retail businesses in Northern California for decades — Lily’s designs consistently outsold garments from fashion notables including Bill Blass, Escada, Oscar de la Renta and Yves Saint Laurent, leading her to eventually launch her own fashion label. Now devoted customers order her collection from Saks Fifth Avenue or directly from her Union Square showroom in San Francisco.
Ahead of New York Fashion Week, we chatted with Lily about how styles have evolved over the decades, why she values quality and attention to detail, and what the future holds for fashion.
“You should have passion and integrity for your craft, regardless of doing one couture gown or 5,000 T-shirts.”
You have a unique origin story. Can you tell us about your introduction to fashion and how you got started professionally?
Ever since I was a young girl, all I wanted to do was to be surrounded by fashion, textile and color.
My career started when I was attending UCLA; I would pass this magnificent store in Beverly Hills every day on my way back from school. I would often stand there and admire the beautiful gowns in the windows. Finally, a woman who worked there noticed my fascination and offered me a job.
I remember an experience I had working there that shaped my future. One day the store sold a Christian Dior gown with a white top and a black skirt to a very famous actress. While the alteration lady was working on it, she burned a hole on the top of the gown she went absolutely crazy — screaming, crying and all that. I told her not to worry, and asked, “Is there a fabric store nearby?” I ended up buying a yard of white duchess satin, and copied the top in no time. In the middle of that drama, guess who came in? Joan Blondell (the Meryl Streep of that era) for a fitting and watched all of this unfold. She told Edith Head about that experience, and that's how I ended up interning with Edith, and I went on to assist her on three movies.
The couture fashion industry is quite competitive. What would you say inspires your creativity as a designer and helps you stand out from the crowd?
The fact that garments are made in our production studio located in the same building as our showroom in the heart of San Francisco’s Union Square. I am able to be involved in every step and accommodate our clients’ very specific requests, such as matching a specific color to their event’s palette or replicating the texture of sand for a wedding gown for a ceremony by the ocean. Creating a couture garment is such an amazing process that requires patience, time and an appreciation of the art.
What allows us to stand out from the larger design houses is mostly the freedom of what we can do for our clients. I often tell them “The sky’s the limit.”
You’ve worked with fashion notables including Edith Head and James Galanos. What’s the best advice you’ve received from them?
Edith and James both taught me so much. One memory I have from working with Edith happened when she was working on a film called Ship of Fools. She was fitting the actress Barbara Luna for a costume, and she had her hands under the garment around her bust area. “You have to go from inside and feel how it fits; the foundation has to be substantial,” she’d say. “It can't move.” That’s what she taught me — the technique — so you don’t have to keep lifting the strapless dress. To this day, that image occurs every time I fit a strapless gown.
She also taught me to love pockets. If a woman has a pocket, she can put her hand in it and pose. I have pockets in almost everything.
I interned with James Galanos. He showed me how to finish the inside of the garment, which he was a master at. He'd tell me, “The inside must be as beautiful as the outside.” For the movies, the inside of the garment really doesn't matter. But for a client it was very important.
Throughout all these years, every garment I create is just as impeccably finished on the inside as on the outside, and all lined in pure silk. I have to maintain the integrity of what I do.
You’ve worked in fashion for over four decades. How has style evolved over the course of your career? Are there certain styles that have stood the test of time?
When I began in 1969, we had the popular “flower children / summer of love” style as well as other, more classic (Jackie O) styles — similar to the fashion world of today. As a designer I have always been drawn to timeless styles. Some designs might work for a season or when a certain “look” is popular. I strive for designs that transcend what’s popular and that will always look classic and relevant
How does technology influence your design process, and how has the advancement of technology differentiated your offering from other designers?
I’m very detail oriented. It’s amazing what we can do nowadays with laser-cut technology, which allows me to explore new ideas. I can simply say, “I want those flowers on this part of the fabric,” and it can be created for me in no time.
What do you see happening in the fashion industry going forward?
According to all the magazines and shows, men’s and women’s fashion will become evermore similar. Centuries ago, men and women did dress the same way, so it’s really not that big a deal from that perspective. This style is called gender-neutral, meaning it’s not specifically for any gender. In Europe you see that more, but in the U.S. it’s something that has yet to catch on.
What advice do you pass on to younger designers?
You should have passion and integrity for your craft, regardless of doing one couture gown or 5,000 T-shirts. The fact remains that people will know whether you really put time and effort into what you are creating. Don’t just think, “Oh, it’s just mass production.” It does matter.