I’m a firm believer in the power of clothing. Whether it’s a compliment from a stranger that brightens your day or a garment’s literal visual optimism, one positive moment can start a chain reaction. For New York-based designer Olivia Cheng, that process of thought is ever present in her brand ethos. Dauphinette, the self-proclaimed line of the “happiest outerwear on earth,” is a collection of clothing and accessories informed by the lives of her garments, both past and present.
Each piece is one-of-a-kind and handmade from repurposed vintage, from a gold brocade coat with fuchsia feather trimming to a leather moto jacket hand painted with koi fish. It’s hard not to feel good when looking at Cheng’s designs—and the women who wear them. Plus, Dauphinette’s collections are heavily informed by sustainability, requiring Cheng to source vintage garments while also paying attention to how to incorporate natural elements (like wood, sea glass, and stone).
Below, we sat down with the designer to talk what goes into launching a brand, what it takes for a company to be sustainable in 2019, and what happiness means to her.
What led you to start your own brand?
Olivia Cheng: “My idea for Dauphinette was born in Paris almost exactly two years ago. I saved up and booked a solo trip, and while I was there I discovered these incredible furs and coats from the ‘50s and ‘60s while shopping in a tiny vintage store in Le Marais. I noticed how everyone else shopping there was so focused on buying ‘90s Nike sportswear, which is cool, but in that moment I felt deeply compelled to re-contextualize this incredible vintage outerwear and share its history in a way that could hold a defining place in modern fashion.”
What have been the biggest challenges? Successes?
OC: “Time management is a continuing challenge, although I definitely wouldn’t say that issue is exclusive to Dauphinette. There are many unique aspects of running this particular brand, however, that really can’t be rushed—hand painting, and most of our other processes are done in a very involved, emotional, and consequently time-consuming way. Everything is a labor of love! Balancing that against the various other demands of creating/operating a business can be very difficult, although I’m definitely not complaining.
“The greatest moments have been when someone who’ purchased a piece reaches out to say that they love their new coat, that it enhances their feelings of confidence or joy or whatever else. We just launched a few months ago, and already being able to have those conversations sends me over the moon, because isn’t the entire point of fashion (and art) to invoke emotion with what we can see/wear?”
You describe your pieces as “the happiest outerwear on earth.” What design elements represent happiness to you?
OC: “Vibrant colors, rich textures, and whimsical embellishments represent happiness and joy to me. I’m not saying we should rely on clothes to feel happy, but we can use them as a way to signal optimism to ourselves and to the world around us. That is what I hope my pieces can create—an opportunity to approach our real, complex lives a bit more cheerfully.”
Most of your designs are constructed of vintage-sourced pieces. How do you make the old feel new again?
OC: “I think it’s important not to put too much stock in what people already expect from vintage, and it’s equally important to not trend-chase. I always consider the materials and colors used in the original piece, because these are the things that make something timeless. From there, I just follow my gut and think about how I would want my clothing to feel. I like to bring in unconventional components, such as Sicilian sea pottery and quartz crystals for buttons, and create colorful, layered stories by using these artisanal products alongside our handcrafting techniques.”
You have an amazingly diverse range of casting. Who are these women?
OC: “For me, it has never been about showcasing diversity for the sake of seeming diverse—the notion that beauty comes in all forms should be obvious. I also shoot most of our imagery myself, so I’m luckily able to really get to know our models. One of our models is an incredible painter, another a thought-provoking linguist. I believe the friendships we develop inform the types of photographic moments we create.”
What inspires the different designs of each one-of-a-kind piece?
OC: “While there is rarely a single specific inspiration for each piece, I love French impressionism, Warhol, and Georgia O’Keeffe. The Lille and Halles jackets were partly inspired by Mark Rothko. I’m also fascinated by my mom’s perspective—she has been collecting antique Chinoiserie porcelain wares for years, and those pieces inspired our Jane jacket and Koi Koi bags.”
What’s next for the brand?
OC: “This year, I am extremely hopeful that we will be able to take Dauphinette into physical, interactive spaces. Being able to see a piece in person, touch it, and try it on takes the experience to an even more exciting place—one that I aspire to create for more people this year.”