The Universal Asian got to know Jean Elliott, a wholehearted apparel designer and creative. Visit her site here.
Tell us about yourself.
I was adopted from China at age two; and my parents have lived in Portland, Oregon for the past 25 years, I believe. So I’ve been here, went to school here, and went to college at the University of Oregon. I graduated with a degree in Product Design; and I’m currently working as a product developer at the company Poler.
What got you into apparel design and design as a whole?
When I was in fifth grade, I was super into dragons. I drew them all the time. Then, in high school, I was part of the AP Studio Art class, which was just an art class with concentrations and a bunch of different projects. From there, when I was looking at colleges, I didn’t know what I wanted to do degree-wise, and I had a college admissions person ask me if I’d ever heard of product design. I hadn’t, so I looked into it, and it seemed like a really great major for my interests. My parents were super encouraging; they didn’t steer me away from any sort of degree. In my program, we had a term where we had to just figure out how to sew a bag in five weeks. Since then, I’ve been super interested in sewing. Now, I sew a lot of my own clothes. I’m in the process of getting one of my friends to design a label for me, so I can start selling more professionally. I’m actually getting married soon, so I’m going to make my wedding dress for that. But, yeah, I think it’s such a cool hands-on art form.
What inspires your pieces?
At the moment, since I’m still learning and teaching myself how to make things, a lot of it is construction-based. I want it to fit well, and I want all the stitching to be perfect. But, I think in the future, when I start to actually create my own things and not worry about construction, I really love the idea of creating stuff that’s a little more extra or has more frills on it, because that’s not really my personality; I think it’d be a really cool thing to explore. I just made a super cute baby blue tiered dress that I’m super excited for. It’s kind of too cold to wear it right now, but I’ll wear it sometime.
What is the process of designing a piece from start to finish?
Usually you have to start out with sketches and that kind of thing, and I’m kind of lazy—but that’s the process you start with any real design. You do need to start out with sketches, and that’s what I had to do. I had a ten-week course where we had to have sixty drawings every class… it was horrible. So, you design it on paper, and then you start constructing it either by hand or on a computer program. You create the pattern out of paper usually, and then you make a test pattern out of muslin, fit it, and if it doesn’t work, you have to do a bunch of other adjustments. Then, you continue that iteration until it basically fits the way you want it to. And then, you go into creating an actual product. If you’re really good and know exactly what you want, then you can skip a few steps, but I’m not at that point yet.
What are some challenges you find yourself running into while working on a piece?
Personally, I’m a bit of a perfectionist. Like, if I feel like something isn’t going to be perfect or if I feel like I’m not going to have time to do it the way that I want to, I freeze up and I’m like ‘oh my god I can’t do this’ so I work on other little things. Then, I have to finish at the last minute and stay up for two straight nights to do it. It usually turns out fine, but I just psych myself out a lot of the time because I want it to be a certain way. Construction-wise, it’s so annoying if the fabric is stretchy at all, and you’re just not careful about it. With sewing, it’s think twice, sew once. It’s a pain, because I don’t quite have the technology to sew certain things. With stretch fabric, you need the stitch to also stretch. Leather is also a huge pain to work with because if you mess that up you really mess that up, and it’s really expensive.
What’s your favorite material to work with and why?
I would say just plain old 100% cotton. Only because it doesn’t stretch, and a lot of the products and clothes I like to make are made out of it. Like, I’ve made a few chore jackets; I’ve made pants. I think it’s easier to pattern for those because you don’t have to make the pattern while considering that it might stretch or that it will stretch in the final product.
Who are your biggest influencers as a designer?
I just recently finished the entire season of “Next in Fashion,” which is hosted by Tan France and Alexa Chung. The winner of that show is a Korean designer, Minju Kim; I love all of her stuff. It’s so great. It’s all super flowy, and it’s very playful but not childish. She blends that super well. There’s also Vera Wang. She does bridal gowns all the time. I read that she didn’t start designing her stuff until she was 40 or something. I think she was already in that scene, but didn’t start designing until later, so there’s hope! Then, in general, not design-wise, I just love Asian representation. Like, Ali Wong. I love all her stand-up. I love everything she does.
What advice do you have for aspiring designers?
I have my own problems with this: be able to create stuff, and then not be afraid to hate it in the end. Because sometimes I’ll create something, and the perfectionist in me wants it to be perfect, and if it’s not I’ll get really upset at myself. Also, be okay with wasting fabric. That’s one of my big issues, I don’t like wasting anything. And I know you need to have a ton of iterations to get something to where you want it to be. It’s a muscle you have to work on, just like anything else you want to be successful in. Continue to do what you want to do even if it sucks sometimes. Find people—find a lot of Asian-American or Asian creatives to follow. Yeah, just finding people who look like me has always been super cool for me. Growing up, I didn’t really get into it until college.
What is the business side of designing like? How do you market and promote your work?
The business side of designing is literally the worst part for me, because it has nothing to do with the actual designing process. I know a lot of this from work, because I’m emailing all day, for eight hours plus. I’m a product developer, so it’s my job to help move the designs along, but the designing part is such a small part right now. So the business side of design, if you’re only into design, is very upsetting. You have to be able to tell a story, you have to be able photograph your work—which I cannot do. You also have to be able to write coherently about your work, which I also sometimes cannot do. You need to find the people who are interested in your work; otherwise, you’re just throwing it out there, and if nobody knows it exists it’ll be hard for people who like that stuff to find it. The business side, for me at least, is a pain in the booty. If you can find a friend or a person you trust to help you with that kind of stuff, it’s super great.
How can BIPOC creatives lift each other up in a world that won’t make space for them?
I mentioned it a little before, but yeah, finding those people who you either align with or who look like you, finding those and seeing how they’re successful and where they went and what they did to get there. Also, if you do end up in a position where you can help people, help them. That’s one of my goals in life. I want to be able to take people who look like me or who are underrepresented and be able to recommend them to people, and have those people I’m recommending them to understand that I am picking somebody who I know is good and they can trust my opinion on that. That would be super great.