Designers creating one-of-a-kind handmade products
By Laura Acosta
I met Jeanette Au only a few days after she came back from New York Fashion Week. She took part of the Graduates show from the Academy of Art University. Jeanette was coming from the knitwear lab, wearing comfy jeans and striped blue shirt and I felt curios as why she would be still working on her pieces having already finished her collection of eight couture-like knitwear looks. “The knitwear department is very small, and everyone helps out! I’m actually here helping out a BFA senior in return to the favor,” said the newly graduate.
Jeanette doesn’t fill the stereotype of the Asian-descent international student that comes to he US for the first time to study fashion. She was born in Michigan, with Chinese-born parents, and grew up in New York, before moving to the West Coast – precisely to San Francisco – about 18 years ago.
Being away from a fashion capital like New York hasn’t stopped Jeanette in any way, in fact she is much more than a fashion designer, having studied Fine arts at the San Francisco Art Institute and worked in New Media as a Web Producer before going back to fashion design school.
Curious about the source of her aesthetic and sensibilities, I wanted to know what made her go into knitwear design. The relevance to handmade, and artisanal fashionable products has grown exponentially in the past years. “I think it was when I saw Sandra Backlund’s work a few years ago. Just because it was really different from what I thought of knitwear, and it was more exciting to me than doing cut and sew fashion. Her work is so much more sculptural. I have a fine arts background, so it kind of drew me more,” explained Jeanette. Her knitwear pieces are definitely in tunes with Backlund’s knitwear sculptures.
Jeanette’s graduate collection was inspired by the aesthetic of the Ballet Russes, and “everything related to that era – the 1920s. I was looking at the different artists’ work related to the ballet – a lot of painters, composers,” like Russian artist and costume designer Léon Bakst. “They created this idea of Orientalism and brought it to the West. And Parisians just kind of ate it up,” said the designer.
The hybrid cultural references of the Ballet Russes seamed to relate to Jeanette’s Asian heritage, and the fact that she has lived her whole life in America. “Being Chinesse American, I’m not quite 100% Chinese, but I don’t exactly fit in with typical Americans. I feel like I’m like in the boundary line of folk culture.” Her collection also brought out the fantasy of the ballet performances of the time, but also of fashion’s showmanship, very much common in the Paris runways. Her inspirations were “pure fantasy – the fantasy that is kind of derogatory, but at the same time it’s beautiful. And I think in fashion there’s a lot of that, where it’s almost hideous, but it’s really gorgeous at the same time.” Talk about avant-garde thinking.
Jeanette’s collection was quite striking, especially having been shown along with a wide range of sober tailoring from other graduate students. The looks consisted in skit suits, sweeter dresses, and great knitwear outerwear over thin tops and skirts. Every single piece was knitted and handmade, in a mix of mohair, wools, stretchy yarns and metallic yarns. The pieces have as much structure as they are embellished, retaining the classic knitwear braids, but looking rather three-dimensional. Embroideries complemented the subtle gradients of colors in the clothes; from rust to gold, burgundy to gold to burgundy, silver to grey, or black going blue going grey. “Some of the mohair I didn’t brush out. And after handling it, it kind of bloomed and became hairier,” recalled Jeanette. Her sweaters did look like fur pieces with the additional knitwear motives, and a modern hoodie here and there.
A girl would certainly look like the coolest, trendiest girl in town wearing Jeanette’s gradient grey sweater with round neckline, and overly embellished shoulders over a pair of jeans. Her clothes do have that commercial appeal, when thinking of street style high-and-lows.
“With this collection I felt like I saw a much older woman. Someone who wears Chanel suits. I was thinking mostly of dresses, sweater dresses.” The gold coat with inserts of rusty-brown brings back images of 16th century fashion, and a refinement proper for Iris Apfel and even Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, (in the burgundy slimmer version) to wear.
Such an embellished collection might be impossible to reproduce for a wider market, but it is the ability to differentiate one self from the crowd that counts in the fashion industry.
Jeanette’s design career has yet to fly off. She has already been featured on local TV shows and the cover of WWD during fashion week. The designer hasn’t left the knitwear lab altogether, and she might slowly move on to a more commercial market, or keep her knitwear as a medium to express her art. “I think, definitely, it would be nice to make pieces that are affordable.” As of now, Jeanette is collaborating with her friend’s “Stelle Flourescent” jewelry and accessories line with some unique knitwear pieces. Her fashion audience can’t wait!
For more information on Jeanette’s designs, follow her website at jeanetteau.carbonmade.com/