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Portrait of a Seamstress: Jovan O’Connor

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Sometimes, the reality of fashion doesn’t match up exactly with your dreams. I’ve been there – I’ve dreamt about what it would be like to show a collection – my collection – at fashion week. For one woman, Jovan O’Connor, that dream is becoming a reality. This week, she is showing at New York Fashion week. She received a B.S. in Fashion Design the same year I graduated high school – 2006. While I was just starting my career, she was designing for Patti LaBelle. No, I kid you not. It was during her senior year while studying abroad in Italy that Jovan was commissioned to design a gown for the Philly native. Talk about a tipping point, right? Since then, she’s been growing her brand the best way a designer can, at least in my opinion, by organically building her clientele. This week marks another tipping point for her. By showing at NYFW, she is taking one step closer to being a bonafide designer.

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TELL US YOUR STORY

My name is Jovan O’Connor and I’m a local Philadelphian. I grew up in West Philly. I knew I wanted to be a designer from a very young age, but as far as sewing is concerned, I was disillusioned by the fact that designers should know how to sew. I thought that as a designer, I would mostly sketch, and could pass off my design to someone who could make it for me. So, I didn’t start sewing until I went to college at Philadelphia University.

My grandmother was a part of Philadelphia’s once burgeoning manufacturing industry. She was a seamstress and worked for many designers. What’s interesting is that I never saw her sew – by the time I was born she was retired – but I feel as if sewing was passed down to me. It’s in my DNA.

I attended Philadelphia University for Fashion Design and during my senior year, I was commissioned by Patti LaBelle to design a custom piece for a charity concert. One of my classmates graduated the year before I did and went on to become her stylist and personal assistant. It shows how important connections are in this industry. It was a huge learning experience because I wasn’t technically wasn’t a “professional” fashion designer, but it gave me the courage after I graduated to start making make dresses for women for a living. “I can totally do this…” it what I thought.

I didn’t take the traditional student route where I worked for a large retailer and then branched off on my own. I became an independent custom designer immediately. Women would come to me for any sort of special occasion – birthday, wedding, party, etc.

I worked out of my home until 2011 until a friend and I decided to get a studio together. Unfortunately, 3 months into having the studio, she fell ill with autoimmune hepatitis. She was an inspiration while she was sick, continuing to pursue her dream despite her health. A little after we got the studio, she said to me after meeting with one of my clients, “You’re not a seamstress, you’re a designer.” She saw what I was really good at, and was challenging me to reach my potential. In October of 2013, she passed away. I had two choices – to stay in bed and mourn or to channel my grief into creating a collection. She was and still is a driving force behind my work.

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WHO IS YOUR CUSTOMER, THE JOVAN O’CONNOR GIRL, AND ARE YOU THAT GIRL?

The Jovan O’Connor girl is myself combined with all my previous clients. She is a young professional with a calendar full of social events from art gallery openings to date nights, girl’s night or wine tastings. I think about the Michelle Obama’s, Melissa McGee’s and other women.

Also, we all have those days where we feel fabulous about our bodies, but on the same token, we also have days where we don’t even want to deal with what we see in the mirror. I want to provide garments that camouflage what you don’t like and accentuate what you do. As for aesthetic, I am very colorful and like to combine clean lines with fabrics with interesting patterns or textures. 

WHAT WAS YOUR EXPERIENCE LIKE STUDYING ABROAD?

I loved it! I didn’t want to come back! Correction, I DID want to come back, but only to get my hair done.

FAVORITE THING YOU’VE MADE

It’s is VERY hard for me to pinpoint one piece I like best because I like everything I’ve made. Each and every item, from the garment I made for Patti LaBelle to the dress I made for Alyssa Vitarelli for the Oscars, comes from a special, unique place. But, with that said, one piece I enjoyed seeing the most was the red dress I made for Cynthia Bailey for Go Red For Women (click through slideshow to see dress). It was a special moment to see her floating down the runway in a dress made by me. Each new piece brings me as much joy as the one before it.

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EXPERIENCE OF SHOWING AT FASHION WEEK

It has been an exciting experience and has taught me to always have a backup plan as well as to be flexible. There are a lot of a lot little things that can, will and did go wrong/change. From models to venue, there was something new to deal with every day.

BIGGEST LEARNING CURVE

Separating from designing for one person to designing for the masses. As a custom designer, my focus was on fit, but when designing for many, you have to let go of some of that in order to fit multiple body types and shapes.

TELL US ABOUT YOUR YEAR AS A PART OF PHILADELPHIA’S FASHION INCUBATOR

It was a year long program that taught me about costing, manufacturing, producing, merchandising. As an undergraduate, I touched on these concepts, but they were geared as if I was going to work for someone else or a company. The program gave me a real world understanding of the business side of fashion as if it was my own. We attended seminars and visited manufacturers, tradeshows, how to deal with sales reps and how to present your line.

follow Jovan elsewhere: website // instagram // blog // facebook

4 Comments

  1. Reply

    Valerie Williams -Mobley

    Excellent interview,I enjoyed reading about your experiences in life and your background,although I know some of it first hand because I am a proud aunt. Jovan I know you’re going to go very far and have phenomenal success in your career,just keep God first in your life and stand firm to your dreams,and there will be no stopping you I am your number 1 fan ,I love you dearly baby keep rocking it…

    • Reply

      maddie

      So great to read a comment from Jovan’s aunt! I agree that she will go far. A super talented lady she is indeed.

  2. Reply

    Wonderland Boudoir

    This was a great interview! I love seeing young women of color really making it their own in business!

    Thank You for Sharing!
    Korin
    http://www.WonderlandBoudoir.com/blog

  3. Reply

    EuniceFola

    Well done Jovan – I’m inspired. Thank you for sharing Maddie

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