RAVENSWOOD — Since she was a teenager growing up in Iran, Nazia Zamani has wanted nothing more than to design clothes.
"I told my aunt once, 'If I don't sew a dress every day, I'll die,'" Zamani recalled.
With the grand opening of Zan Atelier ("Zan" is Farsi for "mother"), Zamani's custom design and alterations shop at 1625 W. Montrose Ave., her dream is finally realized.
She's long been a well-kept secret among a clientele that relies on Zamani to create one-of-a-kind pieces for charity events or restore a treasured vintage garment. She's been featured as a "tailor we trust" in Michigan Avenue magazine.
The designer is now looking to expand her customer base.
"I can't rely on just word of mouth," said Zamani, whose previous studio at 4641 N. Paulina St. also doubled as her home.
Already, curious passersby have popped into the small storefront, typically mistaking it for a boutique. Though Zamani has produced a small selection of off-the-rack designs available for purchase, her passion is "to make individual designs for individual people."
Custom-made clothing is far more common in her native Iran, she said. In the U.S., "It's more department store," Zamani noted.
Her selling point is control and fit, she said.
With custom clothing, the client has input at every phase, from the initial concept to the choice of fabric to the color to the style. Standard sizes are also thrown out the window, with the garment sewn to the client's precise measurements, Zamani said.
Growing up in Iran, where fashion is heavily influenced by German and Italian traditions, Zamani instinctively favors structure and is a perfectionist when it comes to tailoring.
"The fit is very important for me," she said, noting that Americans have a tendency to wear loose-fitting clothing.
To demonstrate the difference, she pulled out a bustier in progress and ripped open the seams to reveal the boning underneath, which varied from back to front in order to conform perfectly to the wearer's shape.
"You have a waist, you have a bust," she said. "You can be fitted, but at the same time very comfortable. You feel elegant."
Zamani brings the same single-mindedness to her alterations business, which goes far beyond the usual hemming or zipper replacement.
She's currently transforming a wedding gown into a blouse for a client. The gown belonged to the customer's mother and featured a high neck and copious lace embellishment. Zamani removed the lace and reworked the collar, completely updating the piece.
"She still has her mother's dress, but now she can wear it all the time," Zamani said.
Zamani moved to Chicago in 2003 and earned a degree in fashion design from Columbia College before heading to New York. There she honed her skills under the tutelage of Carolina Herrera — a favorite of celebrities like Renee Zellweger — and Dennis Basso, one of the premier couture fur designers.
"I started crying, it was so beautiful," she said of one of Basso's creations. "I had to stop and stare."
As a sample maker — cutting and sewing the samples shown on the runway — Zamani became adept at dealing with all manner of fabric.
"Every material needs a different way of sewing," she said. "I learned technique I couldn't learn in school."
"She has extraordinary technical skills," said Laurie Davis, owner of LuLu's at the Belle Kay, a boutique that specializes in vintage fashions.
Davis took Zamani under her wing when Zamani approached her for a job prior to her foray into the New York fashion world. Davis is also the one who persuaded Zamani to return to Chicago, helping her former employee set up her original studio and referring customers her way.
"She's a brilliant creative person," Davis said of her protege. "She made a coat that would put the highest couturier to shame."
Davis' mentoring has extended to assisting Zamani with the more practical side of running a design house.
"I've worked with her on understanding the American mentality," Davis said. "In her world, the more skin showing, the more embellishment, the better."
Zamani's been a quick study.
"These are for the market," she said, showing her off-the-rack designs, which have a stripped down, architectural feel.
Her personal vision is more apparent in a gown she created for a recent fashion show, with its full skirt and bold floral pattern.
"I don't want to be a follower," Zamani said, citing Lady Gaga as her current style icon.
"She's very brave. She's not conservative. She wants to be herself."
That description could easily fit Zamani as well.
The road from Iran to Montrose Avenue has been one filled with determination, heartbreak and obstacles, beginning with Zamani's father. A judge who prized academics above all else, he insisted his daughter attend university rather than pursue fashion.
"I told him, 'I want to do dresses. I want to design. I don't want to go to university,'" she said. "But it was difficult to be against him."
While she dutifully obtained a degree in the restoration of antique textiles, Zamani never stopped designing.
By the time she moved to Chicago, joining her sister's family, Zamani was divorced and was forced to leave her 8-year-old daughter in Iran with her ex-husband. Though mother and daughter have maintained a relationship, the pain of that parting is palpable to this day.
"In my country, babies go to father," she said. "To leave my daughter, I leave part of my heart."
Despite a complete lack of English — Zamani studied French in grade school, hence atelier for studio — she was accepted at Columbia College. Her sister wrote out the address on a piece of paper for Zamani to hand to a CTA agent for directions.
"You go from here to the moon" is how she describes her introduction to Chicago. "Everything is different. It was a really foreign culture for me."
With her sister now living in the suburbs and work consuming all of her time, Zamani has little social life outside her sewing room.
"My life, my love is fashion," she said. "If my customers are happy, I'm happy."
Zan Atelier is celebrating its grand opening from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., Wednesday at 1625 W. Montrose Ave. Appetizers and beverages will be offered. Zamani's creations will be modeled by her customers.