I recently had the opportunity to interview our new Fashion Illustration and Design Instructor, for the Fashion Studies Course, Julie Ann Silverman. She comes to us from Southern California where she has been a swimwear designer for the last 20 years. She is amazingly talented, and a wonderful Instructor. I’ll be breaking her interview into several parts as she has revealed so many little diamonds in this one interview, that it is too hard to absorb all at once. I love her take on developing your own style so read on below to find out more.
Jennifer - It's so exciting to have you on our team, here at The Sewing Room, teaching fashion sketching and illustration in our Fashion Studies program. When you reached out to me about potentially working with us, I got really excited - to have a professional illustrator teaching the students is an incredible experience for our students. When I perused your website, I was even more thrilled. It seems you are a girl after my own heart. You've really cultivated a modern style with a clear vintage aesthetic . Can you tell our readers a little more about how you developed your style, both creatively and personally?
Style note #1: Express Yourself
I have loved fashion ever since I was old enough to dress myself. ‘Dressing up’ was my favorite activity as a child. Just as I was blooming with creative self expression, it was squashed by having to wear a school uniform from Kindergarten to 6th grade. Luckily, they didn’t have a rule for shoes. I remember wearing my favorite royal blue sneakers for all of 3rd grade because as Nathan Lane says in ‘The Birdcage’ “One does want a hint of color.” Fashion fascinated me. The more I learned, the more I wanted to know. I bought my first Vogue magazine in 4th grade and it opened up my eyes to the endless possibility of expressing yourself.
Style note#2: Standing Out vs. Fitting In
My mom loves musicals, so luckily all of my uniform wearing was offset by dance performances and the need to wear a costume. I started tap and ballet when I was three and performed every year in the Richmond auditorium for the next ten years. My dance teacher came from Hollywood and staged full scale dance productions, with hand painted sets and loads of costumes. I fell in love with the whole scene, but especially the costumes. I suspect that being on stage in these early years may be the reason that I often dress to be noticed. Why would you want to just fit in, when you can have all eyes on you for a moment and stand out?
Sometimes my choices have caused me a bit of grief. I remember getting scolded by my instructor at Berkeley City Ballet during a Summer Intensive for not wearing a solid color leotard in class. (Ballet is very strict and mine was white with lavender rose buds on it - very Betsey Johnson) The following year, I started cutting up my clothes, a la the film Flashdance, and my mom said she was no longer going to buy clothes for me. This inspired me to start teaching dance so that I could fund my own shopping sprees.
I didn’t make much money at that age so I spent a lot of time in the Goodwill. I used to watch old movies with my mom and liked the clothes they wore. So when I was 16 and could drive, I would go to Berkeley and browse through Aardvarks Odd Ark and other vintage shops, drooling over all of the ‘fancy clothes’ of the past. The stores at the time were filled with items from the 40s, 50s and 60s. During high school, I really experimented with mixing all of this clothing together and tried a different look every day. When the film Pretty In Pink came out, I could have been the stylist for Andie and Iona because we all shared the same look of vintage mixed with new. My mom would say “Are you sure you want to go to school dressed like that? Consider that your clothes are sending out non verbal messages about who you are. What are your clothes saying about you?” and I would reply, “Mom, I dress for me, not anyone else. My message is ‘This is me’ and if they don’t get it, it’s their loss.”
I stood out so much in high school, that all of my teachers and friends told me that I should be a fashion designer and I started to believe them, so I chose my electives as Art, Sewing and French, as you do. haha. I’m rolling my eyes. No one in my life had the first clue on how to guide me to be a fashion designer back then. The Sewing Room did not exist.
Style note #3: Failing Quickly
I was getting A’s in Art. B’s in French but C’s in Sewing. Actually, I almost failed. My mom and grandma started teaching me to sew at 4 so when I got to high school, my skills were way beyond the basic seam. Being somewhat rebellious, I would not stick to the lesson plan and sewed 5 times as many garments as anyone else did. This infuriated my teacher. I just wanted a space to choose my own fabrics and make my own clothes. I made a lot of mistakes, for example, my stitches per inch were so high that they almost cut the fabric, but I also quickly learned how to solve a lot of problems with my new best friend, the iron. (By the way, you know you are on the path to a career in fashion, when you are willing to risk ridicule from peers for what you are wearing, and bad grades from your teacher for the clothes that you are making.) What kind of garments was I sewing in high school? Everything made from a Vogue pattern. I was firmly caught in the web of influence.
Style note #4: Brand Identity
The most important skill that I learned in pursuing a college degree in Fashion Design was how to work around the limitations of my own personal style, to create designs that would appeal to other people. The message that someone else was trying to convey with fashion would likely be different than my own. Most people prefer to be understated in dress and I had to learn the art of subtlety. Designing simple shapes is still one of the hardest challenges for me. I also learned to include colors that I personally hated, like brown and orange because those might be my customer’s favorite colors or a brands signature colors. I never wanted to work for myself and had no desire to put my name on anything. It’s rare, I know.
Ultimately in my career as a designer, I earned the nickname ‘the chameleon’ because my wardrobe would always shift to reflect the tastes of my target customer. Sometimes the identity aligned more closely to my own vintage influenced history (Betsey Johnson), and sometimes it was a whole new playground like portraying the new luxe bohemian (ále by Alessandra at Revolve). However, the way I mix clothes together will always be mine my own, which is my definition of ‘personal style.’
Jennifer - You have a large array of varied interests & talents, what my friend Heidi Bennet, calls "Multi-Creative". In addition to fashion illustration, you do photography, painting & dancing as well. Does one of these mediums call to you more than the other? or are they each something that sing to you in an equal way?
I was not always “Multi-Creative.” When my partner of 18 years, ended our marriage, it tipped my world upside down and sent me into a long journey of self reflection. I asked myself the age old question of ‘Why am I here?’ Or more importantly ‘What will I do with my life now that I have the freedom to do anything I choose?’ I realized then that my most joyful moments or the times that I felt the most elated were when I was being creative or artistic. There were so many things that I still wanted to learn (photography, swing dancing) and that I had let decay (drawing, ballet), so I decided to take action and do something about that. I remembered that there was a chap named Cecil Beaton that had once inspired me by his creative output. If he could do all of these fun things in one lifetime, then why couldn’t I?
Also during this time of transition, I read ‘The Artist Way’ by Julia Cameron (I highly recommend this book. It is full of exercises for all creative types, especially if you are experiencing a block.) and gave myself permission to not only be an artist, but to be a creative being. Fully. I pretended to write the headline of my obituary and it said ‘Designer, Artist, Dancer, Photographer.’ Only the first one was true. The act of writing these worlds down was very powerful because it created a record of accountability with myself.
So, I took my first ballet class in 18 years. I got season tickets to the ballet, and the opera, to support other artists. I took painting and ballroom dancing at my local community college. I joined a photography group without even owning a ‘real camera.’ I watched endless YouTube videos on vintage hair styling and started practicing on myself. Each time I learned something new, it gave me the confidence to try something else. My Lindy Hop teacher encouraged me to try out for a vintage dance team. Being the oldest active member of the Atomic Cherry Bombs was the cherry on top of my late forties. I just kept trying new things, exploring new avenues, meeting new people and going where life took me. I have been on this new artistic journey for twelve years now.
This is a very long way of saying that I don’t have a favorite medium. I love drawing. I love dancing. I love painting. I love photography. It’s all expression. It’s all creation. In the beginning of learning something new, it’s easy to fall into the trap of ‘imposter syndrome’ and think that you will never be good enough to show your work, or perform, or whatever. To solve this, I just decided to be the student. I’m always learning and will never be an expert at any of my interests. That’s ok. I have experiences to share. So do you. It doesn’t matter if I use a brush and you use the computer. Putting our voices out into the world makes it a more interesting place for all of us. Together we make magic happen.
Thank you Julie Ann! I’m so pleased to get to know you a little bit more and know my readers will enjoy as well.
Until Next Time, Happy Fashion!