America’s Next Top Model? Borrrring. Project Runway? Gross. How about a fashion storyline that inspires beyond the catty platitudes of reality TV. I’m talking about a story with soul. I’m talking about the story of one Hillary Justin; a tale as unique as the hemlines of the clothes she designs for Los Angeles-based label, dolan. Self-described as an “expression of synergies and contradictions,” the dolan line is: “Effortlessly sexy; Classically original; Playfully confident.” Creative Director and Founder, Jodie Dolan, was kind enough to let me spend an afternoon with her lead designer at their downtown office as Hillary imparted some hard fought wisdom as to how exactly a girl from the midwest with no ambition whatsoever to become a clothing designer for one of LA’s hottest labels, did exactly that.
Once upon a time…
…Girl moves from the midwest to Los Angeles to attend grad school. Girl gets job at small South Bay clothing boutique, above which there just happens to be the studio of a very small, very cool, very up-and-coming clothing label (hint: dolan). Girl and fellow Co-Worker become fast friends with Founder of upstairs label. Founder is a bit overwhelmed with work one day and asks Girl if she’d be able to do a few sketches of some clothes for her. Girl’s sketches are pretty dang good, and before long, Founder realizes just how talented she is and offers to make her the label’s principal designer. Girl cannot be a full-time designer and a grad student at the same time, so she must make a tough choice: stay in school or drop out and take this once in a lifetime opportunity on a career path she never dreamed she’d be on…
dolan Fall ’09
…of course she takes the once in a lifetime opportunity! She and Founder eventually even hire former boutique Co-Worker to be the label’s Account Executive, and open an office in downtown LA. A few years later the three friends discover their inventive tailoring and signature cuts capturing the attention of tastemakers, landing accounts with the likes of Barney’s New York, Ron Herman, Fred Segal, and being sold in premium boutiques the world over.
Pretty great story, right? The fact that it is all true, and that Hillary (Girl) has all the humility you’d expect from the protagonist of such a story, makes it all the more inspiring.
TR: Did designing clothes come naturally, or was there a learning curve?
HJ: I think that some aspects came very naturally, I have always had a knack for sketching and figuring out how to execute the ideas in my mind. Before clothing design, I was working towards my MFA in Sculpture, and I have found that many aspects of sculpting translate into clothing design (visualizing in 3D, choosing suitable materials, etc..) And, participating in 4H Sewing when I was younger, didn’t hurt either! All this considered, there was surely a learning curve. Clothing is a functional art form, so I had to learn to also consider practicality. I have had to learn the possibilities and limitations of fabric and technique.
TR: Who are five of your favorite designers?
HJ: Ahh! Only Five? Okay… Stella McCartney, Angela Missoni, Kate and Laura Mulleavy of Rodarte, Phillip Lim, and of late, Hannah MacGibbon of Chloe.
TR: Sounds like a dream job. Is it all it’s cracked up to be, or like anything else does it have its downfalls?
HJ: I imagine even the Ben & Jerry’s taste taster gets a stomach ache or a brain freeze now and then… But I am always humbled when I tell someone what I do, because I never dreamed I would have this opportunity. I have found that any frustrations that come about are usually solved with a little patience and creativity, so I try not to waste time on bummers.
dolan Fall ’09
TR: How much freedom are you allowed in your designs?
HJ: I feel a great deal of freedom. I think the longer I work in this industry, the more I realize that. We’re able to create our own prints, choose colors and fabrics that inspire us, design garments that we like to (and do) wear. We design for women just like us, so understanding that audience creates all the freedom in the world. We just ask, “What would I like to wear?”
TR: How have you evolved as a designer – from your first line to your latest?
HJ: I have learned to trust my instincts. In the beginning, I made clothes more complicated than they needed to be and much of that came out of not considering what I love about clothing. I love interesting color combination, thoughtful details, unexpected but easy shapes, and artistic prints. I think my design aesthetic has become more sophisticated and whimsical at the same time.
dolan Fall ’09
TR: Do you have ambitions of working for a larger clothing label someday?
HJ: I truly believe that dolan will become a more prominent label, so yes! I feel incredibly lucky to have started at a time when I can have an integral part in the formation of the brand. There is something incredibly special about working with an independent line. We all share in the highs and lows… it’s a very “all for one, one for all” type of thing.
TR: What advice do you have for young designers out there who want to start their own label, or design for a small shop such as dolan?
HJ: I think that working under someone before starting your own line is essential. There is no way to fully understand the job without working within it day-to-day. I think that is true for everything. I believe that working in a close-knit company can only heighten this understanding. We’ve all been a part of each step, from picking fabric to shipping boxes.
dolan Fall ’09
TR: You didn’t take a traditional academic route, but eventually took a few classes once you’d been established. If you had to advise an aspiring designer to take an ‘essential’ class, what would it be?
HJ: For me, pattern making made the most sense. There was something about the rules and preciseness that I really responded to, but I imagine that draping would be considered essential as well… Its all about exploring the method you respond to most.
TR: What are your five favorite types of pieces to make?
HJ: I love designing and coloring up prints, I love making flowy long dresses, sexy short dresses, slouchy t-shirts, and easy silk tanks.
TR: What can we expect to see from dolan in coming months?
HJ: At the end of April, our new t-shirt line, LEFT COAST, will arrive in stores. It has a cool worn-in, edgy vibe, which is a nice compliment to the dolan line that is a bit more bohemian. For our Fall 09 lookbook we layered the soft knit t’s with the silk dresses, tops, and skirts, and I think it’s a really easy and relevant way to dress.
Check out more of Hillary’s amazing work at dolan-group.com
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