The making of a dressmaker: Young Los Altos designer crafts custom local gowns

Courtesy of Loic Nicolas Photography
A deep V and a cascading, loose bow add drama to the back of Los Altos native Sarah Blaha’s otherwise traditional gown, designed by Los Altos High grad Taylor Tompane.

Los Altos native Taylor Tompane went abroad to study fashion at London’s Kingston University, one of the world’s top-ranked design schools.

Her first commission on returning to town: crafting a bespoke wedding gown for Los Altos native Sarah Blaha (now Hansen), a longtime family friend who married in July at Pebble Beach.

The conversation began as an offer to shop together and evolved into the joint creation of a dream dress.

“I have very traditional tastes, and a lot of the dresses I tried on were too glam, and too lacy, and not structured enough,” Blaha said. “I had very strong opinions, and after we went to a couple of different salons, I just said, ‘I think I want to design it with you.’”

Over the course of a year they studied dresses, felt fabrics and built patterns, first in paper and then in three rounds of mockups. Questions ranged from style and structure to seams, zippers, buttons and panels.

“She was so flexible and thoughtful and caring that it was all about me – I was thankful for that,” Blaha said of Tompane.

Tompane, a Los Altos High School grad, had already built an extensive portfolio as a teenager, designing for Stanford’s Charity Fashion Show across multiple years. During her junior year, she showcased a 10-piece collection in San Francisco as part of Bay Area Fashion Week, and as a senior she sewed her own prom dress.

“I taught myself how to sew at a young age, and it was definitely a process of learning what to do, and what not to do. YouTube is a magical place,” she said. “If I was ever confused about how to put a zipper in, that was a great learning resource.”

Tompane toiled in her bedroom on an old sewing machine borrowed from her mother – and learned how to take it to pieces and make repairs when her increasingly elaborate chiffons and other creations taxed its humble parts.

In London, university education exposed Tompane to the world of couture design and professional partnerships, with projects for major brands from Brooks Brothers to Urban Outfitters. The environment was as competitive as a viewer of “Project Runway” might imagine.

“By my senior year, it was 12 hours every day, including weekends – no social life, no time off. I would take a power nap under a sewing table at school,” she said.

After years of designing evening wear, Blaha’s engagement gave Tompane the opportunity to take on the daunting task of making the ultimate piece: a wedding gown.

“It is such a wonderful thing to be a part of, such a labor of love to get to make such a special dress for someone,” Tompane said. “It’s their one big dress.”

Because so much of the ceremony involves spectators gazing at a bride’s back, they designed for interest from the rear. A cascading, deconstructed bow ripples downward like a loose, modern bustle, and a sweeping deep V softened with organza frames Blaha’s back.

“It is a structured, simple dress, but I think her vision was understated elegance – it looked absolutely, dramatically eye-catching in its simplicity,” Tompane said.

“It was magical – everything I dreamed it would be – from putting it on to taking it off,” Blaha said.

Little touches made the dress comfortable for a long day of activity. Tompane sewed Blaha into the gown, attaching the bow to the corset bra so that the bow’s weight wouldn’t pull on the dress itself, providing a smooth look in photos.

“One of Taylor’s better ideas was that instead of using a traditional crinoline skirt, she found a hoop in London and brought it all the way back,” Blaha said. “I wore a hoop skirt, which was brilliant because I could walk and my legs weren’t itching. I was comfortable and I felt beautiful.”

For the reception, Tompane bustled up the skirts and Blaha said wearing the dress throughout the duration of the party – through smudges, wine stains and the dance floor – left mementos of a day fully lived.

They used a rich, structured off-white silk faille fabric with an off-the-shoulder neckline and a line of taffeta-covered buttons stretching down the train. The trumpet-shaped skirt fits to the top of Blaha’s thighs and then flares out.

“I sourced a huge amount of fabric for her to choose from so that the exact weight and color were what she wanted, and we made a custom mannequin for her out of duct tape,” Tompane said. “We did three toile ‘practice’ dresses, and I had Sharpie marks all over to indicate notes.”

Tompane’s dissertation had already provided her with a field of knowledge about how to save money by sourcing silks wholesale.

“It is a big dress, but no one should drop a house down payment on a gown,” she said. “We were working toward efficiency.”

Depending on the materials and ambition of the design, Tompane takes commissions for party dresses starting at approximately $200 and wedding gowns at $5,000.

“It depends on how much extravagance and meticulous detail they want,” she said.

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