The recent COVID-19 outbreak has cancelled the majority of events on campus, but perhaps none as large as the Cornell Fashion Collective’s 2020 runway show. However, senior designer Jillian Lawler ’20 innovated and managed to hold her own intimate, private show to showcase her collection, Opulence. The Sun sat down with Lawler to discuss her collection, her time with CFC and her show.
What was the theme of your collection?
Jillian Lawler ’20: The title of my collection was Opulence, and I was inspired by my time abroad. I studied abroad last semester at the London College of Fashion. I usually design around my personal experiences, whether that be my past, my present or things I’m interested at the moment. Studying abroad helped shape my view of fashion and design, and it also polished skills I learned from Cornell by examining them more in depth. Since I was in London, I got to travel a lot — my line was actually inspired by my time in Italy. I was just walking around and was inspired by the architecture and nature. Mainly it was the ivy that was growing on the vistas — I really liked the daintiness of it but also that it was so strong and could break through the brick and the woodwork, which stood the test of time. The beauty and the toughness of Italy and the flowers were my main sources of inspiration.
How did that manifest itself in your designs?
J.L. ’20: I come from a female empowerment background because I went to an all-girls school for 10 years, so in all of my collections and designs having that as a core value has always stayed with me and makes them cohesive. I really do believe that the dresses I create — the clothing and the garments — are there to make women feel empowered, strong and commanding, just like the structures and architecture of Italy. I created some flower motifs to symbolize spring in Italy. Some of my dresses were very structured, some were very flowy. Italy, for me, is very ornate and elaborate, very beautiful, delicate and dainty at the same time, so a lot of my dresses embodied that with extremely elaborate embroidery and strong structures, with structures that are very flowy as well. I did a lot of corseting and boning in the dresses with lacing at the back to show the structure of the dress because that pulls in the girl and makes her feel taller and more supported.
I picked my models — they were all my friends. Some of them were shy and didn’t know if they could do it. I taught them how to walk, and we did a lot of model bootcamps — we walked and practiced eight to 10 times. I was kind of like a drill sergeant teaching them how to walk in heels and how to work with the dresses. I knew what it was like to not feel prepared, as I did a runway show for all four years in high school as well. So having some people not feel prepared with the other designers in high school, I could really empathize with them. And so I didn’t want that to happen to my 12 models because I did the max amount of designs. So it was extra work. I really helped them come out of their shells and feel confident on the stage.
I had a CFC afterparty at Argos Warehouse after the whole runway show and at the private showing of my collection, I heard two of my models talk to their friends, saying “The clothing that Jillian put me in, I’ve never felt that way before in a garment. I’ve never felt that powerful or confident as in Jillian’s stuff when I wore it, and when I stepped into it, it just made me feel like I could conquer the world.”
That was really touching — I was crying then, and I’m tearing up now. Sophia O’Neill ’20, she was one of my models and is one of my sisters in my sorority, came up to me and told me that modeling for me was the best experience and that I made her believe that she could do anything because of me — because of what I created and what I put her in. That’s the epitome of what I strive for as a designer — to make women feel empowered, elevated and beautiful, like a modern chic warrior.
Going back for a second, you talked about embroidery on your designs. Did you do this by hand? And also, what was the process for sourcing your fabric like?
J.L. ’20: On some of the garments I did, but for most of the garments I sourced fabrics that I loved from local niche fabric stores like G Street. I’m from the DC area, so I was able to go to some of the fabric stores I went to in high school and see everybody and say hi and have them help me pick fabric out. I looked for fabric that I loved and that really speaks to me in that moment. I’m kind of an old school designer in that sense where I look at the fabric and I see what inspires me. I have a design in mind, but if the fabric tells me otherwise, I will go with whatever the fabric tells me. I layer my fabric, play with it, cut it up and create appliques from it to hand stitch and hand embroider things around it.
With this collection, I hand tacked every single Swarovski crystal on my garments, which was a lot of work, especially on the wedding dress and the other white dress — Noe Abernathy’s ’20 dress. I did a lot of hand sewing, finding trims and finding different aspects that I could add onto the fabric, whether that be a silver metallic tulle that I could put underneath the fabric or different colors of nude tulle so it could match the girl’s skin tone. For me it’s a lot about layers, layers, layers to create something that hasn’t been seen before.
What was your timeline? You mentioned the crystals and the embroidery and how that’s a super intensive thing. When did you start? What was your process?
J.L. ’20: Most senior designers start in the summer going into senior year. I started thinking of my design when I was abroad. Then when I was in Italy, I was like, “Oh my gosh, I think this is what I want to do.” This is what is really speaking to me at this moment. So I went to my apartment and started sketching. My sketching process definitely started spring semester of my junior year. I started creating a hundred different sketches during the summer and I picked the top 50. So it’s a long process that took over a year to think about.For me, I like to always think through everything and make sure that I believe in what I’m making.
I can definitely tell you that throughout the whole process — especially during the school year — I nixed designs and I changed fabrics around. It’s a very long process and things change; things develop and evolve throughout your time working on CFC. Probably four of the dresses I decided to make in the summer stayed with me. But for the rest of the dresses, I changed the designs around. Even last month, I decided to change one of the designs and do a whole new dress. But it turned out that I loved everything that I made. I always wanted to be passionate about the things I make and about the idea behind everything, or else I just lose interest.
What type of inspirations come up that cause you to shift your ideas that late in the process?
J.L. ’20: I’m constantly sketching. I always look around at my surroundings and look at nature, buildings and Pinterest. I have 50 different mood boards on Pinterest. Everything can inspire me, from a one second clip of a movie — like a girl flipping her hair reminds me that I want to do a slit in a dress and I want that to flow like her hair. Everything inspires me, and I am an extremely efficient person, especially during the times of preparing a whole line and creating an entire collection. I have been taught from a very young age to be efficient, so I honestly never stopped thinking about my collection. I thought about it 24/7, even when I slept. I’m a lucid dreamer, so I would design in my dreams.
I was thinking about my clothing 24/7. I lucid dreamed about how I would construct my dresses before I would even start pattern making them or preparing muslin for them. So when I get to the studio, I can create a muslin that day because I just dreamt about it the night before, and knew how I was going to make it from trial and error in my dreams. A lot of people would take a lot of time to create a muslin, but it’s known among the other seniors that I work really fast, especially when I’m really passionate about something.
How has devoting your energy to this collection gone?
J.L. ’20: This semester, I left home in January,and I was here in Ithaca and I was just sewing, sewing, sewing since the beginning of the semester. I arranged my whole schedule from freshman year and to be okay with not taking a lot of classes. This semester, I’m taking 12 credits, because I knew that senior year CFC is a big priority.
I made sure that all my credits lined up so that the last semester of my senior year I would be able to focus on CFC and work until 4:00 AM and still not be worried about the classes I’m taking. Really from freshman year, you think about senior year. It’s kind of crazy, but that’s what we do as fashion majors.
What part of that balance do you think is hard that outside observers or other Cornell students might not pick up on?
J.L. ’20: FSAD is a pretty small program, and design is an even smaller program — there are seven people in my year. I think the whole Cornell community knows about us, but I think the majority don’t really understand what we do. That’s why I think CFC is so important. All the alumni and everybody on campus comes to CFC. People from all walks of life at Cornell get to see what we do. Some people don’t know what they’re walking into and then they’re just amazed at the craft, the effort and our passion and how much time it takes to create all of these garments.
Even if you are a Level One and you make one creation, it takes a lot of time and energy and you’re emotionally invested in this fashion show. Fashion designers are extremely vulnerable people at heart because you create something that you put your heart and soul in and that you believe so strongly in and you’re having your model walk out to 4,000 people for them to judge whether they like it or not. For me, that’s my favorite part, because that means that I created emotion. Whether they liked it or not, I created an emotion that they felt. Indifference for me as a designer is the worst thing I could possibly face. Without CFC, I feel like people wouldn’t know we existed. People wouldn’t understand how much time being a designer takes.
I know for me, making the max number of pieces for CFC this year took a big toll on my health and my mental wellbeing. I probably slept three to four hours a day because I would wake up at 5:30 and get to the studio at around 6:30 a.m. Then I would leave the studio around two, three o’clock in the morning. I don’t think about anything else except the garments I create. I always have an alert on my phone saying you have to go to class in 30 minutes. So then I pack up and I go, but I always come back. Sometimes I forget to eat. I remember in the morning, but then I forget to eat lunch and I forget to eat dinner and it’s taken a lot out of me.
We were so scared about CFC being canceled, and then when it was canceled, I know for a fact that all the designers were just heartbroken and defeated. It does take a lot from us — not just our emotions, but also our health, sleep, food and money. We have to pay for all of this out of our own pockets, even for our classes. We don’t have a budget, we don’t have funding for buying fabric. We have to do that. It’s a big financial burden, so having it canceled was really devastating for us.
Once CFC was cancelled, what inspired you to do your own private showing?
J.L. ’20: I was always going to have a big CFC after party at the Argos warehouse. There were only going to be a few people there, just to celebrate us and the fact that CFC’s over. That’s a big milestone in every single senior designer’s career because from freshman year to second semester senior year, you have to make a lot of sacrifices. You can’t go out to parties that much. You can’t go to frat parties, go to your date nights, go to Crush because you’re in studio and you have to design. So for me, Saturday, March 14th was the golden date where I could finally do everything I wanted to since freshman year, and that was kind of taken away from us.
When I heard that CFC was canceled, it felt like everything was just crashing. I was a mess, but my mom came to the rescue because we had the venue, we paid everyone and we couldn’t get our money back. My mom talked to one of my models’ moms, and she was like, designers in Milan are doing these private showings where they have a few selected people and they do their runway show and they have a little party after. But it’s a small event just so they can keep coronavirus at bay and still be safe, but still be able to show their designs to people. She called me after five minutes and said, “Jillian, we have an idea. I talked to your sister. She loves it too. We’re going to have a private fashion show at Argos.” This was four days before the show that this happened. She just took the reins of the whole situation because I was a mess.
My mom and my model’s mom saved the day, and Argos Warehouse was amazing. I was afraid that the whole day I would feel so stressed and after the private viewing I would still not feel complete. But after I showed everything, it was like a weight coming off my shoulder, and it felt really good and almost equivalent to how I would feel after a CFC show, so I’m really grateful for what happened on Saturday.
Was it a completely different type of feeling for you, showing at an environment like Argos compared to Barton Hall?
J.L. ’20: At Argos I felt a relief but also a community; I felt so supported and loved there. People were there to see me and they knew what CFC meant to me. A lot of my friends have been through every CFC fashion show with me. They all know how much work it takes and how passionate I am about my major. So when I finished that fashion show there, I felt so loved and so, so supported and so thankful that I have created the lasting friendships that I did at Cornell. It was a bittersweet moment because I knew that this would be the last goodbye.
Usually after a CFC fashion show, when there’s thousands of people, I feel relief because it’s over and I feel really happy that people got to see what I created. Even though this was a smaller event, I felt a sense of complete satisfaction.
Daniel Moran is a junior in the College of Human Ecology. He currently serves as the assistant arts editor on The Sun’s board. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.