Young Designer Spotlight: Je Suis Dee

For those of us that are brave enough to venture into the world of fashion as young designers, the past year has been no mean feat. Lockdown is hard. Starting as a young designer is no (one hour-long, socially distanced) walk in the park. Unsurprisingly, the two mix to make a pretty tart cocktail of career growing-pains.

Nonetheless, there are still young designers thriving out there! To get some info from the (clothes) horse’s mouth, Chapter Z has spoken to young designer, Delphine Gwilliam-O’Connor. Her self-made brand, Je Suis Dee, has been her passion project since graduating from fashion design in 2019.

Producing collections of billowing linens and puffy-sleeved, cropped delights to name a few pieces, Delphine has expanded her final collection into a fully-fledged brand. Self-professed as ‘conscious slow fashion, handmade to order’, Je Suis Dee has caught the eyes of many conscious consumers. 

Read on as we get into the nitty-gritty of designing sustainable fashion garments – all over Zoom of course.

Where did you go to university and how was your experience there?

Before studying fashion design, I did fashion illustration at LCF for a year. But I soon got bored. I wanted to make things! So I enrolled at the Arts University Bournemouth to study fashion design. It was very tough! There was a lot of crying from us all on the course. Fashion design isn’t the typical uni party life. You are there to work all day, every day.

What inspired your final collection and how was that creative process for you?

Well, for starters I wanted to do menswear and womenswear, but my tutors told me to stick with what I was good at – womenswear! A lot of time is spent on your theme for your final collection – I spent months on my concept. When people say, ‘come with a concept on the spot,’ my brain just goes ‘ahhh.’

The main inspiration for my process came from an old box my sister and I found when we cleared out my grandparents’ house. It contained old film slides, notes, and itinerary of a trip they took to Australia, Thailand, and New Zealand.

My sister went to all the same locations and took some now and then photos based on the old ones. They were so beautiful – it completely captivated me! My collection was inspired by the box, there was so much life in this thing that had been sat there for years. I used the photos to create digital prints, which was really fun. The collection was inspired by multiple elements, including kimonos from their visit to Japan.

Funny (and stressful) story: two weeks before the final collection I remade the whole collection in linen, rather than silk. My tutors suggested that my collection would look better in linen because it had more of a beach vibe to it. There were photographs and illustrations presented with it – it’s very spring/summer. One of the pieces can be worn in and out of the water as well!

Fortunately, my work paid off and my collection was featured in graduate fashion week. It’s so competitive – everyone wants to be chosen for something!

What was your thought process after leaving uni?

I love fashion but I want a nice lifestyle. I need to be in a space that makes me feel good to able to be creative. But I didn’t want to work for someone else. You can get start-up loans from the government, but I didn’t want to do that.

I moved home after I graduated and was there for a year. I couldn’t afford fabric – good quality linen is £15-18 a metre, for example! So, I  used some savings and bought a screen printing kit. I took over my parents’ cupboard under the stairs and used it as a makeshift darkroom. I started printing on anything I could find in the house!

Studying fashion at university was so exhausting, I didn’t want to go straight into a fulltime job. I printed on my own clothes using this makeshift workspace. These were just fun projects. I’m a perfectionist, so I never considered them finished, sellable products.

After seeing my work, my family loved my pieces and encouraged me to keep producing them. So I started upcycling old clothes by screen printing on them. I now have a whole separate room full of clothes ready to upcycle! Most of these are sold through Instagram. One of my friends is a photographer and took photos of my friends and me modeling them. I did that from June 2019 until March 2020.

What were the biggest impacts of COVID on your emerging business?

For a couple of weeks, I was distraught because I couldn’t go out and buy clothes to upcycle. Sewing my own garments was my other option but I was so done with sewing at uni so I was reluctant to carry on. But luckily I had an industrial sewing machine, so I decided I could make some clothes from scratch.

To start with I made up a couple of patterns. I’m really dyslexic – I would never show anyone my patterns – they just aren’t normal. A lot of people cut their patterns from blocks. But I usually cut out big shapes, drape it on a mannequin and voila!

What is your speciality?

A lot of shoulder puffs and I love Winnie tops in denim – all things voluminous I love!

I can see that you value construction in your garments.

Yes! Of course, you want more sustainable, organic and ethically sourced fabrics but this makes the price a massive issue. I always try and get things second hand. But when it comes to high demand from customers, I have to buy new and things get a bit more expensive.

Obviously, that’s not as sustainable. I will usually not buy new denim as there’s plenty of great vintage denim. It’s about being as smart with your resourcing as you can.

Do you think that it’s easier to be sustainable when you’re a smaller business?

When you run a small business and you’re not doing that many orders or your business is bigger and you’re producing fewer pieces at a higher price, then you can be more sustainable. But as it grows and demand increases,  you’ll need to start looking at newer fabrics.

The narrative around sustainable fashion is huge at the moment, it’s the hot topic. Many fashion students and young designers are concerned with this in their work. But the kinds of sustainable fashion that students produce in their final collections aren’t necessarily replicable, is it?

Yeah, you have to search for what you can get. You’re faced with the challenge of saying that you just can’t make something if you can’t source it second hand and saying that you’ll buy it new.

Everyone is doing deadstock fabric. But there are pros and cons to sustainability. I don’t claim in my bios to be a sustainable fashion brand. Claiming to be fully sustainable is a big claim to make and it’s very difficult to live up to. The likelihood is that the processes of making clothes aren’t going to be fully sustainable.

There are ways to be sustainable, like buying second hand. But you don’t always know how these fabrics were made. They could be non-natural fabrics and when you wash them the fibres go into the ocean. But compared to how fast fashion brands work, small brands are by far the more ethical and sustainable option.

The world is full of conscious consumers.

Yes, which is great! The thing is, sustainable fashion is more expensive. I think to myself “I’d buy that” when I look at the effort that’s gone into a sustainable, handmade piece. But it’s not the case for everyone. Thankfully though, there are lots of people who are willing to pay to support artists when they care about their ethos.

Do you think that sustainable fashion is exclusive?

Yes, it is in some ways. I spend my whole life thinking about this; it’s understandable that not everyone can afford to shop sustainably – I think it’s more an issue of consumerism. You just don’t need to buy loads of clothes.

Do you think it’s the job of young designers like you to try and be sustainable when there are the ASOSes of the world that should be doing more?

Large companies like ASOS should be doing a lot more and it’s always going to be like that. But the more people that actively support sustainability, the more people will listen.

Younger people push what’s on-trend and what’s cool. Students that come out of uni experiment so much and you’d hope that 

What do you think consumers should be doing if they care about sustainability?

For starters, lower your consumption. You just don’t need that much! If you’re a shopaholic, just buy things second hand. I’ll sit and scroll through eBay for hours at a time!

Consumption is the main thing. It’s all about putting the time into searching for things second hand.

Buy less, shop small!