How I became a designer

How I became a designer

I can’t exactly pinpoint when my desire to design clothing started, it's just something I’ve known since I was young. Growing up in the 80s, watching movies of newly empowered business women in their suit/stockings/heels, big shoulder pads and bigger hair, I wanted to be one of them. Working Girl anyone? International Business was my dream, and what a shiny idea that was at the time. To fly around, make deals, be important, hit them with my sass and smarts, speak 5 languages, stay in fancy hotels, cross shiny lobby’s in my clickity-clack shoes. I remember being 10 and role playing on the living room couch having a hard conversation with my employee and then firing them. I was devastating. 

But equally, I was pulling images from Vogue and covering the horrid wallpaper my mother hung in my room, laying on my bed and dreaming about how it would feel to wear that gown, to have fun with those people, to be looked at like that. I loved designers, their stories, the models, and it was all only two hours away from my suburban Connecticut hell. Looking back, I think the dream of being a designer and creating beauty was a much-needed escape from my actual reality of divorced parents who hated each other, a mostly empty house where I figured stuff out on my own, and the confusion of friends and social interactions at school. 


That bedroom

When my mom, whom I never felt wanted the best for me, offered to send me to fashion school out of high school, I declined assuming if she supported it then it wasn’t smart enough. For however I view that assumption now, I believe if I had become a designer at that point, I would have been unbearable. The designer stereotype you think of – that would have been me. Although my path to get here has been long, I have learned so much about what being a designer means to me.

In college, while studying to be a biologist for environmental causes, I spent all my free time as an activist. I co-led a non-profit to support traditional Navajo’s who were being forced to relocate off their ancestral land, to make way for coal mining. We would raise money, purchase much-needed supplies, solicit donations, and over spring break we’d caravan down to the reservation, deliver supplies and stay for a week to help with whatever needed to be built, fixed or planted. For me, to be able to do something to help someone else fight injustice felt like a meaningful way to spend my time. It’s also when I got my first grey hair.


A fellow conspirator and I heading to a protest.

Straight out of college, working as a biologist on recovery of endangered salmon populations in the Pacific Northwest, I knew I didn’t fit but I was determined to make it work. I remember one day I showed up to my biology job in a tight midi length pinstriped pencil skirt, silk blouse, leather boots, hair done. NO ONE dressed like that in my office. At best, everyone wore jeans and Patagonia jackets. I would even tell them when we were in the field that someday I wanted to be a fashion designer, and they’d look at me like huh? It was so far from the realm of biology. I realized I wasn’t happy around people that would rather be in their office alone working, then be together talking/working on something. I loved collaborating and creating things, especially if it involved color and design. How could I combine these passions with a meaningful cause?

A friend suggested advertising and I found my way to an agency. Then to brand strategy, then to working freelance on branding fashion businesses and as a business manager, then to teaching how to launch your fashion brand at the University of Washington, then to styling and art directing photoshoots; until I finally found the courage to accept myself as I was and do the thing I really truly wanted – enrolling in fashion design school. Because this time around I wanted to know everything, instead of figuring it out as I go. 

Through it all, being a designer kept whispering to me. I’d look up design schools in London, Italy, NYC, request catalogs and consume every word, imagining what it would be like to go. Every couple years I’d do the intro tour at Seattle Central’s Apparel Design Program (where I eventually went), look at the other people there and think, I’ll never be as good as them, who do I think I am.

When I was an activist/biologist, my biggest risk was getting arrested. Today, my biggest risk (bigger than all the obvious risks of running a business) is putting my design ideas into the world. For everyone to see, and to critique. This is the scariest thing to me because I must be vulnerable for my work to be true.

If I have a cause now, it is this: to create a space where women can feel beautiful and comfortable, that clothing can be effortless and interesting, that we can accept ourselves for how we are, love our bodies at all the sizes we are – free from the confines of our culture’s definition of a ‘fashionable sexy woman’. That is why I created Juliette Fabbri.

When we connect to that state of mind, everything else is just that much more possible. My first collection of spare and voluminous dresses began as an exploration of sleep clothes. The shape is generous and adaptable; you can layer over and under it, or wear it with nothing at all. I sourced premium crisp cotton shirting because I love how it feels and the way it gets better and better over time. It’s also a nod to everyone who has slept in someone else’s button-up.

Looking back, I realize all my detours were where I learned how to create a fashion brand, what it feels like to work hard for something you believe in, that the people you’re in it with matter more than the cause. I see now I was building a strong foundation all along. It wasn’t time wasted, but time well spent.