When Jessie DeSue of Saint Elyns sent me photos from her spring collection I was really stopped in my tracks. It was so beautiful—her 1970s-inspired dresses and blouses are exactly the sorts of things I’d wear every day if I could, and I felt as though she’d almost read my mind and brought to life all those things I dream about but can never find: romantic (but not romantic to the point of being costume-y) white maxi dresses, simple peasant blouses, little denim dresses. Sometimes (a lot of times) I do random searches for ’70s dresses on Etsy and fall in love with specific prints and shapes, but almost always end up getting discouraged by puffed sleeves or high necklines or lace trim that’s just there for the hell of it. That first St Elyns collection was basically all the beautiful 1970s pieces I’ve ever fallen in love with, just minus the lace trimmings and beading and every unnecessary detail.
Now Jessie has a great new collection out that’s also inspired by vintage pieces. There are so many interesting details in it that when I saw it I wanted to know all the stories behind it, and I knew that Jessie DeSue would be perfect for the next inspiration interview . . .
1. How would you describe yourself and what you do?
I would ultimately describe myself as a problem solver. Having parameters and limitations is what makes designing in general a challenge, and is really what inspires me, whether it be a space, a textile, a layout or clothing. That said, making clothing is my favorite way to challenge myself! In apparel the possibilities are truly endless, so it’s a way I can just let my imagination run. There is design on many levels; from the textile itself, to the garment, the way it fits, and the overall picture of a collection, which includes the identity and branding. My line, Saint Elyns is a creative outlet for me on all of these levels.
There is also a correlation between home sewing and fashion that is present in Saint Elyns. I learned to sew when I was a kid, like many women do. And when you first come to learn how clothing is made, it is magical in a sense. Fabric is such a non-threatening medium, and a sewing machine is a simple yet enabling tool. When I would sew, I remember having a fantastic vision in my mind of what the end result would be. It was very exciting. Clothing is very important to your identity as you grow up, and the idea that you can create clothing for yourself that is unique to you, is very empowering. I want Saint Elyns to feel like those fantasies coming true.
2. How did you get your start in the fashion industry? Did you always know you wanted to ultimately start your own label?
I found myself doing a lot of sewing at home, and when I reached a point where my designs were outgrowing my technical ability, I decided to enroll at the Art Institute of Portland. I simply wanted to enable myself by learning the craft. It wasn’t until I got started in the apparel program that I realized how perfect it was for me. It is really an all-emcompassing craft that satisfies so many technical and creative aspects of thinking.
The dream of selling my designs always existed somewhere in my mind, but I assumed I would have to live out a career In the industry first. I really enjoy patternmaking and product development, so out of practicality, I focused on those areas. This was a blessing in disguise because I am now equipped with the skills needed to develop my own line, thus making it possible.
3. When you design your collections, do you have a specific girl or muse in mind?
I don’t design for myself, but in a sense I design the collections for the girl in me. I grew up with older sisters, who were teens in the eighties. They had the big iconic hair and loud graphic sweaters with shoulder pads and pegged jeans. And I got their hand-me downs from the 70’s. When I grew a size I was so excited to dig through the next round of their clothing. I can remember the fabrics vividly. There was something really special about those items, probably because I looked up to my sisters so much. My sense of fashion knew no boundries at that age. There were no rules. It was all about discovery, as though fashion and playing dress-up were melding. It was the most pure, whimsical and carefree I’ve ever know fashion to be. When I design, I naturally try to recreate that feeling, where each piece evokes exploration, discovery, beauty and fun!
4. I’m always amazed at all the fashion labels (and Project Runway winners) coming out of the Portland area. What do you think it is about the place that inspires so many people to design?
I moved to Portland from the Midwest when I was 20, having never been here before. And from day one I have always felt this city was enchanted. The town and Oregon in general are beautiful and full of inspiration. There are so many talented people here who are creating amazing things, and Portland is very supportive of locally made goods. Consumers here ask where products are made and often make purchases with that in mind. Portland is very nurturing to its community of makers.
With regard to apparel, the fashion program at the Art Institute is definitely a huge contributor. This program has actually been around since 1963! It was previously offered at the long-closed Bassist College. Portland is also home to the Nike World Headquarters, the US division of Adidas, Columbia Sportswear, Icebreaker and many other apparel companies. I think this history has filled the community with a vast amount apparel knowledge, giving designers of all levels, access to the resources and support they need, really enabling them to put themselves out there.
5. Any favorite fashion-related films or books?
Books that I am the most inspired by tend to be old DIY books, especially from the 70’s. I think people were experimental in general in the 70′s, and that goes for home crafts as well. There are no holds barred in some of these books, and they are jam-packed with outrageous projects, awkward wording and wild color combinations. I can sift through them for hours.
One other source for inspiration is thrifting! I find it thrilling knowing you could come across a gem at any moment. Thrift stores are saturated with inspiration—from failed sewing attempts to mass-produced monstrocities from the 80’s. I find inspiration in all of this stuff, as well as old paper patterns, fabrics and objects. I will make general notes about the things I find, usually about how patterns are pieced together or interesting prints and textiles, and then do drawings based on that concept. Usually the end result doesn’t resemble the original in any way, but they get my mind moving in the right direction. It took me awhile to figure out that I could take inspiration from a thrift store without buying and wearing the ugly garments that “had an interesting detail”!
Regarding movies, I yearn for a good fashion documentary, but they all seem to fall flat for me. In fact I would love some suggestions for some more obscure titles.
6. Would you say your collections are vintage inspired? Do you have a favorite decade, clothing wise?
Yes, my collections are definitely vintage inspired. The problem is that I’m truly inspired by all decades of clothing. Therefore Saint Elyns will be moving within them as the seasons go on. There is so much history in fashion that virtually all clothing makes an inevitable reference to the past in some way or another. As long as this is evolving, then so will Saint Elyns. My all time favorite eras though, are the 1950’s and the 1970’s, so I’m sure you will continue to see heavy inspirations there.
7. What are you most looking forward to wearing this summer?
I am a denim girl. Plus I have a mild, yet sticking obsession with high waisted jeans and crop tops, so I see that continuing through the summer. I’m also waiting for my No. 6 clogs to arrive any day now, which I think will influence my wardrobe and will likely result in more dress wearing. Which will result in more dress making. I plan to throw together some 70’s inspired pullover dresses in small colorful plaids, and I’ve been experimenting with doing an ombre dye on gingham and prints.