Phoenix Dressmaker Monique Sandoval's 5 Fashion Design Essentials

You wouldn’t guess it from browsing her stunning showroom floor, but Phoenix dressmaker Monique Sandoval failed her first home ec class.

“It was a vest, so that doesn’t count,” says a defensive but smiling Sandoval. “My heart wasn’t in it.” That is certainly not the case with the handmade gowns at Cleo & Clementine , a dress boutique in Phoenix’s Melrose District, neighboring the iconic Melrose Pharmacy at Seventh and Montecito avenues.

Cleo & Clementine specializes in occasion gowns, meaning everything from holiday parties to prom and, of course, weddings. Unique and feminine accessories throughout the shop join hand-dyed, hand-stitched, and in-house-designed gowns.

Sandoval might owe her dressmaking origins to family. Growing up in Visalia, California, Sandoval’s grandmother was a seamstress, providing the grandkids with handmade Halloween costumes, while her aunt lent out her sewing machine, allowing a young Sandoval to grab fabric out of a coffin (which is another story for another time).

Even her father once made a family project out of upholstering the couch. Recently, Sandoval says, her young daughters have brought out more of her feminine side. Watching them in ballet, “You can see the tulle floating in the air as they twirled, so that’s when I started working with better fabrics.”

Sandoval started off in her 20s with OUMA, an urban-style clothing line using T-shirts and standard cotton. Maturing as a dressmaker, she started using better fabrics and refining her design style. Cleo & Clementine was then established in 2012.

Though there are many, Sandoval can narrow down five essentials needed to own, operate, and enjoy her work at Cleo & Clementine.

The Team
Without hesitation, Sandoval says her first essential is her employees.

“Having a good, quality team is so important,” Sandoval says, “because you can manifest your vision faster.” Cleo & Clementine sees faster turn-around time as a result. “I can have an idea today, and they can have a sample by tomorrow.”

Sandoval refers to her team (the technical Rachel Regan Bermant, the artistic Claudia Marely, and intern Becca Young) as her "girls" – her other girls.

“We’re all just a balance,” she says.

Polished concrete floors bump up against whitewashed exposed brick walls. A massive illuminated sign reads “LOVE.” Lightly stocked racks of pastel gowns, houseplants, plush antique armchairs, Motown classics, and lots of natural light.

Walking into Cleo & Clementine can be akin to sinking into a warm, scented bath after starting an appropriate playlist. It’s calming and welcoming.

Sandoval says the atmosphere of her shop must be cozy, inviting, positive, and clean. “I feel like all of that sets the tone for clarity,” she says, “It allows you to stay focused.”

Cleo & Clementine is open to the public Thursday through Saturday, but brides are encouraged to set an appointment so Sandoval and her team may have one-on-one time without interruption to discuss direction, fabrics, ideas, etc.

“When you have constant traffic, that’s going to pull you away from the star of the show, which is your bride,” she says. “They’re here for this experience . . . this is their one wedding dress.”

Sandoval say organization is important for mental clarity and flow at Cleo & Clementine. “If there’s a place for everything, and everything is in its place, flow is a lot better,” she says.

The shop is designed with this mentality. All furniture is on casters. Racks can be wheeled out of the way for photo shoots; cutting tables can be moved to the center of the room to cut circle skirts. The team members need to be able to tear up the shop and return it to normal quickly because they “don’t have three hours to put the shop back together again.”

The shop space even exists for the sake of flow, as the business’ early days was in Sandoval’s husband-made garage. Quarters were close. “If you’re crisscrossing each other in the studio, it becomes frustrating,” Sandoval says. “You’re not as productive.”

Pen & Paper
“That way you can jot down your ideas,” Sandoval says. “It’s important to have pen and paper because ideas strike at any time.”

She says she takes her notebook (a gift from her daughters) with her everywhere – though receipts and napkins will do. She could be at a restaurant and want to document someone’s color combination; ideas could strike for a gown, a shoe, even marketing strategies.

But Monique, it’s 2016. “You have your phone where you can type your notes,” she says, “but it’s not the same.”

Sandoval then combs through her notebooks, rips out the good stuff, and then creates a binder. “So you need a notebook and then you need a binder to catch all those flyaways.”

“Obviously you know about the scissors and fabric. You need that,” Sandoval says. “But that’s just a given.” She stresses inspiration to be an essential part of the creative process.

Sandoval says inspiration can come from just having experiences. This means getting out there (traveling, concerts, restaurants) and even staying in (watching TV shows and movie, scrolling through Instagram).

Inspiration can also come in house from “just talking to the girls.” 

“Rachel, myself, and Claudia will sit down together a bounce ideas off each other,” she says. In addition to design and creation, the team has the job of calling out Sandoval on ideas that might not work for gowns, accessories, etc. “So just the girls themselves are inspiring.”

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Lauren Cusimano was the Phoenix New Times food editor from 2018 to 2021. Joys include eating wings, riding bikes, knowing everyone at the bar, talking too much about The Simpsons, and falling asleep while reading.