For most fashion designers, the first runway show is a nerve-racking experience, but when Emily Papuga sent her premiere Suite 33 collection down the runway this January, she handled it like a seasoned pro. Having worked behind the scenes at local fashion labels Sucker Jeans and Sarah Maxwell, Papuga may be new on the Cannonborough block where she’s set up shop, but she certainly isn’t a novice.

Last year, when Sarah Maxwell moved its headquarters to New York, Papuga was left without a job. She knew it was time to stop focusing on others’ designs and, like a backup singer moving to center stage, develop her own design voice. Armed with the lessons and industry connections she had acquired working for the start-up labels, Papuga entered the marketplace “a step ahead” of her competition. From stocking up on garment bags to perfecting the timing of a fashion show, Suite 33 is mindful of the myriad of details often overlooked by new labels.

“I definitely learned a lot from working with both of those designers,” she says, adding, “It’s been a lot easier for me to go out on my own because I was already used to doing this.”

Papuga is her own ideal customer — an easy-going 20-something with a confident fashion identity and a penchant for style experimentation. The Virginia native majored in fashion merchandising at West Virginia University and spent a summer in Milan studying fashion design. In August 2010, she moved into her own workspace, a charming nook in a cloistered office deep within Cannonborough. Her first collection of spring garments hangs on a portable rack inside the studio and is seemingly designed for a contemporary fairy-tale heroine — the thoughtful details and color blocked muted hues of the garments, such as clay gray and seashell pink, are soft enough to be feminine, yet the tailored mix-and-match pieces are practical enough to suit the girl on the go. The collection includes high-waisted short shorts in luxe fabrics, tailored miniskirts, zipper-embellished satin tops, and slip-on vests that have the impact of a statement necklace.

While Papuga is happy to sell directly off-the-rack, her design philosophy is built around custom orders. “I like the idea of taking a shopping experience and personalizing it to the max,” she says. In fact, unlike many designers who are fiercely protective of their creative property, Papuga enjoys incorporating clients’ design preferences into her garments and will frequently change the fabric of a dress, cinch a waist, or raise a hemline at a client’s request. She explains, “My approach to it is if someone wants to buy a piece and they love it, take it off the rack and go run with it. But if you love the pieces but it could be better or you want it a little different, then let’s talk because we can make that work.”

Next up for Papuga is a beachy summer collection entitled Suite 33 Shoreline, which she will present at the Film Meets Fashion show on June 23 at the Memminger. She gestures toward her work station, where yards of spandex in bright coral and geranium are strewn next to elegant vintage linen and a flowing bamboo-covered silk, waiting to be transformed into swimwear, cover-ups, shorts, and blousy tunics. While the spring collection is comprised of dressy pieces for the social set to wear about town, Papuga is designing Shoreline for a more laid-back, coastal gal, similar to herself.

“The line is going to be completely me — loose fitting clothes, interesting colors, contrasts, and textures. I think this is where people will really see my vision and my true design aesthetic,” she says enthusiastically. Papuga is coming into her own.