WALLA WALLA — It’s a long way from the Death Star to Second Avenue.
For Laurie Haluska, the designer who launched her career stitching costumes for Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia in “Return of the Jedi,” the journey to opening her own custom bridal and formal wear shop in Walla Walla, has had some out-of-this-world twists and turns.
An Emmy-winning costumer, Haluska has spent her 30-plus-year career creating wardrobes for Hollywood and theater, intricate pieces for some of the most well known super heroes in stunt shows at the world’s largest theme park, ornate gowns for debutante balls and custom wedding dresses, including a historic bridal line.
About a third of that time has been out of a home studio in Walla Walla, where the Colorado native moved with her family about a decade ago.
Now for the first time in her career what she’s dressing is her own store.
Laila Design Studio opens Monday at 343 S. Second Ave.
In the window of the shop, formerly home to the Yellowhawk Cellars tasting room in a dramatically remodeled commercial strip, samples of Haluska’s custom made gowns are displayed on forms.
On a recent morning, Eliza Van De Rostyne, design associate and assistant manager, glued glitter into designs for a dress in a back work space.
The debutante ball gowns will continue to be part of the business, as could occasional work for Hollywood if the right opportunity presented itself, Haluska said. But the purpose of the new shop is also to fill a gap in Walla Walla’s formal wear market. The closure of Purple Parasol earlier this year presented an opportunity, Haluska said.
In a temporary location above the downtown Starbucks, she stepped in to offer tuxedo rentals for homecoming season. The new shop is a permanent continuation of that service. Haluska plans to offer off-the-rack, ready-to-wear and custom-made dresses for everything from prom to weddings.
Consignment wedding gown sales may also be offered. And alterations on any kind of clothing is among the services at Laila Design Studios. The facility will also be a showcase for her latest line, Laila Casual, which features tunics.
The retail shop is a luxurious design of its own with red brick walls, pressed tin ceiling tiles and wood accents. A rack of Haluska’s dresses are on display and capped with the ski jacket she designed for the Salt Lake City 2002 Winter Olympics.
Although Haluska has created pieces for Harper Joy Theatre and custom gowns for two local brides, she has operated here with relative anonymity with little advertising or promotion.
That is until now. The new place is another stitch in a tailor-made career that traces its roots back to Haluska’s teen years.
In the ninth grade she declared she wanted to be a seamstress. Her mother encouraged her to shoot for the stars and become a designer instead. But in cutting and sewing she found as much satisfaction.
“Cutting is an art in itself,” she said. “Getting the right shapes and fit. It’s like an artist sculpting our of clay, except that we use fabric.”
After graduating cum laude from New York City’s Fashion Institute of Technology, she moved to Ashland, Ore. She took a job as a costume stitcher for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. When she found out a co-worker was heading to California to work on movie costuming, she asked if they needed extra help. For the next five months, she worked in costuming for Lucas Films, creating wardrobes for some of the most iconic characters in film.
She returned to Ashland and continued to advance. Her travels took her to Denver and Dallas, gaining experience along the way.
Among her costuming credits: “Sarah, Plain and Tall,” “Born on the 4th of July,” “Young Guns II” and made-for-TV-movie “Pancho Barnes,” for which she won an Emmy in 1989. Her last film was the 2006 “Lonesome Dove” prequel “Comanche Moon,” starring Elizabeth Banks.
In 1990, between jobs and in her down time, she began creating debutantes gowns. The balls continue to provide demand for her pieces. She’s currently working on 40 for a ball in Dallas and another 22 for a different event in Shreveport.
For a decade Haluska provided the sleek black costumes for the Batman stunt show performed at Six Flags Amusement Parks across the country. She had a workshop, where costumes were fabricated with the help of a team of employees. But after 9/11, and subsequent cuts in travel, budgets for the performances were scaled back dramatically. More costumes weren’t needed, Haluska was told.
“Two-hundred-thousand dollars in sales were all gone in one email,” she marveled.
Plans to take her bridal gowns to market were postponed. She moved her work back into her home. She’d been working quietly with clients and through word of mouth from in-home studios ever since.
Through the years, what she’s loved most about the work has never changed — whether the client is a big screen siren or the star of her own wedding.
“I love helping women feel beautiful,” she said. “You put the costume on and watch them stand up. They just blossom in front of you. They see themselves with different eyes.”
In the future, Haluska would eventually like to offer classes teaching other people to create garments, too. If things go as planned, the spot she’s in won’t last long.
Haluska plans to remain in that portion of the building for about six months, while the middle section of the strip center is prepared for her shop in the larger space.
“I love how this feels in here,” she said. “But I think we’re going to outgrow it really fast.”
Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 526-8321.