She’s 18 years old. I’m certain I’m not the only one shocked when I learn that. How can an 18 year old design and construct a dress of feathers so meticulously, so perfect?
Julia Chew is this year’s Harriett’s Park Avenue Fashion Week Emerging Designer champ. I’d never heard her name until about three weeks ago. I believe many others in Winter Park, others far outside Winter Park, will know her name in the future. I’m certain of it.
She is an amazing talent, has a wonderful story of creativity and commitment, of family, of the type of coincidences which when they come together make me believe a bit more in that thing we elusively know as fate. When lots of things occur to produce something which stands out, is exceptional, it can seem as if a divine hand has been at work to make it so.
Several weeks ago Emerging Designer contestants for this year’s Harriett’s Park Avenue Fashion Week showed pieces at Maxine’s On Shine. During the intermission designers mingled with the crowd, along with a model or two wearing their creations. I remember Julia Chew passing me with her model as I leaned over to tell her I expected her to win. Yeah, I got a bit ahead of things, but her clothes were impeccable, and one was of peacock feathers! I’d followed the model to the back from the stage, was initially told I had to leave. But I had to get a better picture. Hello, impeccable plus peacock feathers in Winter Park? Turns out I was right in what I told her.
As I spoke with her very briefly that night I remember trying to figure out how old she might be. I thought late 20s at the time. She is at once young and girly, then much older as she describes her clothes, refuses to share construction secrets for working with feathers I seek to pry away from her. The quality of what she was showing, I thought, wouldn’t that require someone at least in their mid-20s? On that I was obviously very wrong.
Julia’s Chinese name is Xiaolin, which means “dawn jade”. She was born in southern China, adopted by Lenny & Cheryl Chew, has grown up in Tampa with both an older and younger sister. She tells me her story and at many points I consider that hand of fate in her young life.
Is there such a thing as fate? I know there are a billion plus people in China and this infant with so many as yet undiscovered gifts ends up in a family which seems ideal for nurturing them. Cheryl is a confessed perfectionist, like her daughter. I use the term “proud as a peacock” with her too many times, but it surely fits, she endures me. She has homeschooled Julia and her sisters, included them in a program called Keepers of the Faith, which seeks to broaden each child’s skills with specific training in things such as sewing and leather making, etc. “Everything that I’ve learned from this group, little things, go into what I’m doing now,” Julia tells me. She’s brought a sash to show me, filled with pins from each new skill she’s learned as part of the group. I joke about it having exercise possibilities, curls or bench pressing, as it is covered, heavy. I LUVed the idea of it, the sense of accomplishment a child must feel with each new pin, not unlike those used in scouting.
Lenny Chew, Julia’s father, is an outdoor enthusiast, often takes his daughters backpacking and camping. Julia says she can remember the first feather she ever found herself at a farm, speaks of ones on a shelf at home where she keeps those her father brought her from hiking trips. She designs with more than feathers, but they are “kind of like my special thing,” she says, “If I did everything feathers they wouldn’t be special. When people think feathers they think they’re very delicate, which they are, but they can also be very strong, very durable, good with movement, which is why I think are a very good thing for clothing, because they move with the body. They flow. They really are quite strong.”
Cheryl’s parents live in Wisconsin and own a business called Leather-Rich, Inc. “They have a whole sewing department there,” explains Cheryl, sitting behind Julia. “It’s a cleaning business, so they clean leathers and suedes, they take in wedding gowns, purses.” Julia frames this as another “thing I am blessed with, being young, I have seen lots of interesting things”. She tells me of tours her grandparents would give to her and her sisters, specifically mentions Alexander McQueen as an example of designers whose creations she saw there.
This, as she says, was surely “a kick start” for her imagination. As we talk she sits with her laptop, pulling up images, often from facebook, as she tells me about stages in her life, how she developed over the years. She shows me a sketch she did in first grade, minute detail around the edges, defining the interior of the dress she’d drawn. I ask if they’re feathers, but, no, the intricate detail here was to be bead work. She often invokes history into our discussion, telling me of “plume masters” in the French fashion industry, speaks of a book on birds given to her by her parents, of having a strong work ethic.
“My grandfather taught to me a lot. He’s very proud that I’m starting my own business, because he sees that as a legacy, you know? I’m not doing the same business as him, but his business ideas,” says Julia. From behind, adds Cheryl, “He’s always a cheerleader.” “Oh yes,” Julia agrees, “He’s always a cheerleader, always encouraging. And (he’s) very excited that I’m going to be an entrepreneur. So it’s very good to hear his advice on things. He’s always told me about how people should be treated, if you have employees, this is how you build a good business, just general things, good principles that he’s taught me. He’s been a very good person to have on my side.”
We have an interesting conversation, as mother and daughter tag team a bit. Cheryl starts to answer a question before Julia has a chance, as Julia turns to remind her of a discussion they’d had on the drive over, her desire to answer more questions on her own. “We talked about this in the car so it’s funny,” says Julia, as her mother quiets a bit. For me it’s an interesting moment which must be a glimpse into the evolution of their relationship, as Julia gains increasing attention for her talents, enjoys a growing confidence, a mother feeling tremendous pride, wishes to share stories of her daughter cutting in straight lines at age 2, using ‘sewing cards’, the quilts she made, her first sewing machine, the more elaborate one she inherited from her grandmother, Cheryl’s mom.
It’s all happened quickly, I think. Julia shows me two dresses she made when she was 13. They were nice, cute. But, I don’t think too terribly surprising for a 13 year old. There was some wonderful detail in one accessory, I saw as she pointed it out. But what she’s doing now, it’s pretty incredible, defies her age. Earlier this year Julia constructed a custom full length version of the peacock feather dress I LUV for a wealthy woman in Hong Kong, shipped it to her, was the start of a year when her star has truly begun to rise.
Then, in February, “I did a show called Christian Fashion Week. And how I came to that is that I’m a Christian and I was interested in doing clothing which reflected more modesty. I just Googled ‘modest fashion designers’ and didn’t find anything. But then I found this thing called Christian Fashion Week that my model friends were auditioning for and I thought, what is this?” She’d missed the deadline but after sending in photos of her work she was immediately contacted and added to the lineup. The Associated Press did a story on the show, included a photo of “what I call my raven dresses,” though she says actual raven feathers are not for fashion, too “stiff”. It’s actually made of dyed rooster feathers. As Cheryl says, the photo of that dress “went viral”.
This Saturday evening that dress and others will take to the catwalk for the big show for Harriett’s Park Avenue Fashion Week. What I’ve already seen from Julia is stunning, but as I seek to pry away details of what to expect, she says, “I rate my dresses just to my taste and I’d have to say my finale piece will be my biggest accomplishment so far. I can’t give away anything yet, but in the Park Avenue Show I will be bringing something no one has seen. My finale piece will be a show stopper. I will guarantee it. ”
With clothes now carried in a boutique in Hyde Park in Tampa, and now at Tuni on Park Avenue, I ask where she’d like this all to take her, be 10 years from now? “I don’t know specifically about 10 years,” she responds, “but my lifetime goal is to eventually own a fashion house that has the standards of the old fashion houses, with seamstresses who work in fashion because they enjoy it, creating beautiful things that people actually will wear.”
“The House of Xiaolin?” I ask.
“Yes, The House of Xiaolin. That would be awesome.”