Friday, December 12, 2008

Q&A With Jessica Neumann, Designer of Jessica Catherine Clothing Line

Midwestern designers are few and far between. Milwaukee has a few talented designers here and there; Chicago has even more. (Do they ever—Chicago hosts the Gen Art Fresh Faces in Fashion show every year for the express purpose of showcasing Midwestern designers). But Madison? Where art thou, designers?
Madison-based designer Jessica Neumann is changing that with her clothing line Jessica Catherine. Her classy, yet sexy, line of silk party dresses was showcased recently at Atticus, Kristin Wild’s store on the Square. I must admit, I have a personal bias toward Neumann’s line—I wore one of her dresses to this year’s Best of Madison! I spoke with Neumann on her budding design career.
(Shown up top: Myself with Jess, the designer, in front of two of her dresses at her Atticus event. All dresses shown below are also from her Atticus event and are there currently.)

Tell me how you got interested in designing.
I was thirteen years old, and I started using my mom’s sewing machine. I would cut up old clothes I had and make it into new stuff. Whatever fabrics were around the house or clothes I didn’t like anymore, I would just change them. When I was younger I was always creating my own style and expressing myself.
I always liked clothing, and as I got older, I always wanted to change [my outfits].
I started making clothing because a good friend of the family and a person I looked up to got me into it. Now I work with her on projects. We’re working together, designing, right now.

What is your design background?
[My] schooling is a big part of how well my garments are made and the techniques I use. But most of my experience comes from jobs I’ve worked in as a seamstress. [Up until recently I] worked at Creative Energy. I was one of three seamstresses there. I made energy efficient window treatments.
[A few years ago] I moved to Ireland and was organic farming. [During that time] I found online an artist residence called Das Sproutbau ( It was a four-week sustainable living experiment for designers. I had to explain what my project was going to be for an installation for a documentary. So how I was going to recycle and design a live-in installation. When I explained my project having to do with fashion, they accepted me.
When I worked at Das Sproutbau, I collected fabric around a condemned building and other pieces of plastic, hung all of it on a wall and painted it. I then took it down and used that piece to build a collection of dresses for a fashion show in Germany at Das Sproutbau.
I came back [here] and was looking for a project to work on. I wanted to work on something to benefit breast cancer. That was when I came across Milwaukee Fashion Week. I started designing dresses for my interview [for Milwaukee Fashion Week]. I applied, was accepted, and made eighteen dresses that would be ready for the runway show. I was prepared, but then the event was canceled. (Ed’s note: Milwaukee Fashion Week was scheduled to take place in Milwaukee October 3–6, 2008; organizers canceled the event due to lack of funding).
The organizer told me that my line and designs had won the [new designer] contest; actually, I tied with another designer. I never got a prize or anything, but I was told I was the winner!
The Milwaukee Fashion Week experience was a massive learning experience for me. I accomplished so much in that time, and it made me realize what I was capable of. It’s exciting to see what good things can come out of it.

What are your design inspirations?
Texture is a big part of it. Modernism is, too. I like modern clothing with simple lines.
I wanted to make party dresses that make people feel good when they’re wearing them. But also, [I want] people to feel like they have a special dress. I haven’t seen work like it. I want a woman to feel really good about herself when she wears one of my dresses.

What is your trademark? How would someone know a piece is your design?
It’s modern clothing. When you look at my line all together, the colors are very similar, and [so is] the structure of the dresses. There are about five [dresses] that are made of the same fabric but in different colors. And the way they are draped is different. I use dupioni silk and silk chiffon.
I also try to put some sort of recycled element in each piece if possible. I’ve used pieces of old wedding dresses for accessorizing a dress. I’ve taken pieces from old bridal dresses and used them to embellish a plain black dress. I use recycled zippers.
I like to add a certain element that’s little out of the ordinary to something that’s very sophisticated to make it more unique.

Why do you think women like your clothing?
They like that it’s silk. And they like the high collars on some of the dresses. Women like to show some skin, but still feel confident and covered up. And having a dress that makes you look sexy but not too revealing is really attractive. You can also wear my clothing from season to season. It’s nice to have piece like that that you can wear all of the time. And you can wear it with tights or boots or with heels. That’s important here because we have the change of seasons.

What designers are you inspired by?
I like this brand called The People Have Spoken (
Another big influence for me is Andrea Crews. It’s a project that takes place in France. It’s a group of people who take in all of these recycled clothing and have exhibitions and fashion shows out all of these recycled things. It’s high fashion, but it’s out of the ordinary. (Photo: Kristin Wild, owner of Atticus, with Chris Berge, co-owner of Weary Traveler, Natt Spil and Magnus)

What’s the process of designing a dress or a line for something like a runway show? It must be a lot of work.
Well, I’ve found people who want to work with me and can do the same things skill-wise, so we work as a team.
I had a few friends who helped me out with the line. Basically I drew up a pattern. I had the pattern and the fabric ready, and then I explained to them how I would like the dress made. I worked with talented seamstresses and they know what they’re doing. There were two or three dresses that friends helped me with for Milwaukee Fashion Week.
In general though, all of the work is done by me. I’m excited to work on projects with others, but they have to be as skilled as I am too.
(Photo: Do you recognize that dress on me? That's right, that's Jess' design that she's wearing in the photo above! L–R: Myself, visual artist Angela Richardson and Madison Magazine editor Brennan Nardi).

How long does it take you to make one dress?
To make one dress, it depends on the fabric. Everything is timed in my workroom. A simple dress can take me two days, or about twelve hours.
Something that has a bodice, texture, boning or a different fit, or in general more tailored, will take closer to a week to be fully finished.

What’s the next big project you’re working on?
I just launched a line with Atticus. I hope that works out. I’d like to launch a spring line as well as do some work on Kristin’s [owner of Atticus] website.
I’m trying to keep the cycle going of new ideas and new outfits. My spring line will be a little more casual for summer, but still edgy and sophisticated. It will be casual enough to wear to work, but you could wear it out at night too.
I’m also designing some bridal wear for a photo shoot in Chicago Social magazine. It’s for a spring or summer issue.
This summer I’m going to do some more bridal dresses. There’s also a large possibility that I’m going to the Netherlands to design a dress for a woman there. I’m excited to be working on bridal wear. I like making party dresses (laughs).

Formalwear and recycled/sustainable accents in your designs seem to be quite different!
I want to stay somewhere in the middle. I’d like to keep doing formalwear while still accessorizing or adding embellishment with recycled materials as well. I think it adds a nice touch. Part of using the recycled elements gives me the experience of going to thrift stores and rummage sales and seeing what’s out there. I’m very inspired by vintage clothing.

What’s the best part of being a designer, and the most challenging part?
The best part is that I get to make something with my hands and I can work on it anytime I want. I can always put it down when I don’t feel like doing it too. It’s great to take a walk and then be inspired by something. I really enjoy it. It’s a job, but it’s also something I love to do.
The biggest challenge is deadlines and production. I have new ideas constantly. I think, ‘Oh, I’d love to make that.’ Or, ‘I wish I had this fabric.’ It’s a matter of having priorities and knowing what I can make. There are things I’d love to make, but I don’t have time right now. Certain things can take months to create!

Many designers have a very distinct personal style. What’s your personal style?
It’s constantly changing, like my designs. I love Miss Sixty for shoes; their boots and shoes are really cool.
I wear a lot of simple, black clothing. I like wearing something simple but pairing it with great shoes. It’s all about the shoes! If I can wear a dress out, I will. That’s probably why I make dresses, because I wish I could wear them all of the time!
Speaking of shoes, I should probably get more (laughs).

Do you see yourself designing full-time in the future?
I see myself pursuing design very seriously. If I have a chance to move, or do international work, I’ll take it.
Ideally, I’d like to design full time. My goal is to work as wardrobe coordinator for the film industry, wherever that will be. Hopefully what I’m doing now will build my portfolio and show what I’m capable of. Sometimes you just have to accept where I am right now. There are a lot of things coming up that are to my advantage. I’m just going to work with them and see what happens.

Jessica Catherine’s designs range from $195–$350 and are available at Atticus, 18 N. Carroll St. 204-9001.

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