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Classy coverage: Ursula Dean of Modaspia says she designs feminine pieces like those modeled above with “modern glamour” in mind. This year, she’ll open a store in Oakland (she also owns a shop in Placerville). Photos by Jeremy Scott Dean.


Sartorial spy: Ursula Dean

Last summer, I bought a cream linen Modaspia dress with unusual darts around the armholes and took it with me to France. It came out of the suitcase every day looking fresh and the shirring at the waist allowed me to eat those five-course set menus. “Somehow that dress is very French,” said one of the locals in Toulouse, cementing my love for the frock.

A few months later, I meet the dress’s maker, Ursula Dean, 48, at a factory off a gritty Fruitvale street. She is wearing one of her hand-knitted charcoal grey sweaters (they retail for $180), which sets off her steely blue eyes. Long ago, Dean was the kind of young woman who drove a Roger Moore-esque 1966 Volvo Coupe and changed her hair color so frequently that her husband affectionately called her “spy girl.” Hence Modaspia—“moda” is Italian for fashion; “spia” is a take on spy. Today, the former woman of mystery is a time-pressed mother of two who often starts her day before dawn, balancing family life with the thriving business she launched in 2001, using factory overruns from top European couture houses as her fabrics.

STYLE: Dean likes the idea of “modern glamour.” She sells a range of 23 pieces—sweaters, tops, tunics, and dresses—some in prints from places like Prada and Anna Sui. But, she says, “Nothing is tight—and if it’s tight, it’s shirred.” It’s important to her that the inside is as beautiful as the outside of the garment.

SALES: Dean sells around 2,000 pieces a year through 35 stores and her own website. She operates a brick-and-mortar store in Placerville and intends to open another in Oakland this year. Her mother-in-law is the accountant, her cousin models the clothing, and her husband helps with business decisions.

SMOOTH MOVE: Three years ago, Dean “threw” one of her dresses for childen on the website Etsy, just for fun—and sold out immediately. Subsequently highlighted as an Etsy Featured Seller, she received orders for 150 dresses in three days (her store had to close for a month to get caught up).

WHO KNEW: From Etsy surveys, Dean learned that her customers tend to be in their 30s and 40s. Often, they work at universities. Some own as many as 50 of her pieces.

THE BIG APPLE: Dean doesn’t do trade shows. Instead, she rents a New York City loft with a view of the Empire State Building and serves Campari to potenial buyers. “It’s so much more fun,” she says.

RESUME: “A few years ago [I realized] I’d surpassed my salary at Charles Schwab where I worked as a retirement specialist. It still surprises me that I’ve carved out a career as a clothing designer.”

PHILOSOPHY: “I do something no one else does. It’s crazy, but it works. I can totally call the shots.”

Designer: Ursula Dean (brand name: Modaspia)
Bella Vita, 5407 College Ave., Oakland, (510) 653-1609;
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Ursula Dean. Photo by Jeremy Scott Dean.