A Romantic New Clothing Line With Hidden Quirks

In February, the designer Meruert Tolegen made her New York Fashion Week debut in the midst of a winter storm. As snow fell outside the windows of her chosen venue, a former shopping arcade in Chinatown, models walked in fittingly romantic clothes, including a Pierrot-inspired black silk dress with beaded flowers; an ivory smocked, embroidered-lace dress with panniers; and an enveloping white satin puffer coat with a dainty floral print. Emphasizing the moment’s synergy were the show notes, which included a passage from the Belgian writer Paul Willems’s 1983 story collection, “The Cathedral of Mist.” An excerpt: “The sound of our voices changed and bent, too, beneath the whiteness, while the flakes piled on our clothes and hats.”

A polka-dot jacquard dress with asymmetrical pockets and a print of ghosts and florals.Credit…Sean Donnola
A silk taffeta bustier top and a beaded lace skirt.Credit…Sean Donnola

It was a notably serene show, and one that announced the arrival of a new talent. Tolegen, 32, who previously showed collections in Paris, makes personality-suffused clothes rich in both trimmings and technical skill. And, though her work has hints of the antique — “When I say I like vintage, I mean the 1800s,” she says — it also feels modern and fresh. Her namesake brand was born out of La Petite Anaïs, an online children’s clothing retailer that Tolegen, who’d begun her career as a scientific researcher, launched in 2019. Soon after, she added an in-house line of her own designs; among the current offerings are a jacquard coat with a Peter Pan collar and a motif of strawberry vines, and a pink lace dress with a rosebud-strewn yoke. Having decided she might like to wear something similar, she started posting women’s looks on Instagram in 2020, though her love of beauty and craftsmanship was established long before.

Until settling with her family in the San Francisco Bay Area at age 10, Tolegen grew up in Almaty, the largest city in Kazakhstan,and spent much of her time at her grandparents’ house, which had a yellow facade and a wraparound garden she’d help her grandmother tend. “At night, these big beetles, maybe two inches wide and all green and blue and pink, would gather around the lights,” she recalls. During the colder months, she’d knit and crochet with her grandmother, surrounded by the rugs and pottery that Tolegen’s grandfather had picked up on his travels. At the top of the house was a cupola, whose interior, with its low table and myriad korpe — hand-stitched patchwork tapestries — resembled a yurt and, whenever Tolegen felt upset or otherwise moved, she’d climb the staircase to the dome and draw pictures of the Trans-Ili Alatau mountains, which border the city to the south.

A floral jacquard dress and jacket.Credit…Sean Donnola
Tolegen’s knits, such as this oversize mohair cardigan and matching headscarf, are handmade in New York.Credit…Sean Donnola

Her women’s line started as its own art project: “I kind of just made what was inside my head,” she says, adding that it has since become more wearable. The voluminous but lightweight Pierrot dress, for instance, is an update of one of her earliest designs, originally made from a prohibitively heavy velvet. Her clothes, which are hand-knit and -embellished in New York, where she’s lived since 2013, have also become more grown up. “When you have a child you’re dressing, they have this cuteness about them and you want some of that cuteness yourself, but a little bit of that has faded away,” says Tolegen, whose daughter, Anaïs, is now 7. “Being a mother was such a big part of my identity, but now I’m coming back to myself and rediscovering who I am.”

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