New Canaanite Savannah Shepard, 13, balances on the balls of her feet and slides red and orange pins into the back of a cotton satin dress shell, pinching the fabric to fit Davina Reeves.

Reeves, 26, is Miss New York USA. On Sunday, she will compete against 50 other young women for the Miss USA crown at Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas.

On a rainy April morning at the contestant's brownstone apartment in Harlem, Shepard fits Reeves' slender 5-foot, 8-inch frame for a custom gown. The unfinished garden green shell with a contrasting organza overlay is the working product of dozens of lessons in sewing her first handmade dress.

"I love it because it's so classic," says Reeves, tossing wild, tight curls from her face before a narrow mirror. "I want to wear it after I win."

Shepard leaves pin heads like polka dots in the fabric layered over the butterfly tattoo on Reeves' middle spine and drops to her knees to adjust the length. Reeves pulls the fabric to a spot high on her thigh and contemplates an angular cut.

Shepard looks up through her long lashes to find Reeves' face and innocently asks, "Are you definitely going to wear this?"

"I'm definitely going to win," Reeves corrects.

She pauses, then smiles and says, "But even if I don't win, I'm still going to wear this for the after-party."

Reeves and Shepard met in February as spectators of the Milly by Michelle Smith Fall 2010 runway show during Fashion Week in New York. Reeves, three months into her reign as Miss New York USA, overheard a conversation about a young aspiring fashion designer with a book thick with sketches of wedding dresses, elaborate print tops, casual wear and gowns. Intrigued, she approached the fledgling fashionista, Shepard, and asked for a custom dress to wear at the Miss USA pageant.

"When I was a kid, I was at home sitting, eating junk food and doing nothing, and to see her so inspired and doing something like this -- I didn't have to see sketches of her dresses," Reeves says. "I just knew it was right. It's about helping people and motivating people."

The young women exchanged phone numbers and a series of text messages about the dress into the evening. Reeves offered Shepard a color palate to work from -- dark green, purple, yellow, silver, gold, gray and black -- and left her to her imagination.

"I was looking through Vogue magazine and I saw this one dress that had this side-swept sash, and I decided I wanted that to be part of [Reeves'] dress," Shepard said.

Shepard, who started sketching when she was 7 years old, used the inspiration from the fashion magazine and Reeves' color chart to draw a new creation at her work station of choice, her bed.

"I thought it was so cool, but it's the first real dress I've made," she says.

Shepard has sewn some of her clothing designs, but never a dress. She turned to a local dressmaker for private lessons to develop her design from marks on paper to a wearable piece of clothing. Shepard says her mentor allowed her to do all the work, but she could not have made the dress without her careful guidance.

On a furry area rug in Reeves' living room, Shepard's purple fingernails move purposefully, tending to the sizing of the fabric. Reeves, who has slipped out of the green shell and back into a housedress, steadies a small camera beside a bamboo plant growing out of a travel coffee mug on top of the television set. She wants to record footage of what she called, "the year of my dreams."

"The journey to the pageant has been organic," Reeves said. "I didn't pick this dress. [Shepard] designed this dress and it just jumped out at me. And I happen to love it, but it's not about the dress; it's about what it means. It could be hideous and people would ask me where I got it and I would explain that this young girl made this."

Shepard whips around and incredulously asks, "But you like it, right?"

"I love it," Reeves assures. "I happen to really love it. But I would love it either way."

Editor's note: Savannah Shepard is the daughter of Jeanna Petersen Shepard, a freelance photographer for the New Canaan News.