At just 19, Olivia Cheng launched her New York-based label Dauphinette, debuting with one-of-a-kind upcycled outerwear featuring hand-painted koi fish and repurposed jewellery adornments. Today, the brand has expanded to include recycled handbags and accessories, while Cheng’s ready-to-wear has been praised for its conceptual yet wearable collections and is best known for resin-preserved flowerheads interlinked into shimmering disc dresses. The result is a breath of fresh air among the serious sartorial offerings in the American fashion capital – ethereal, optimistic, or the “happiest brand on Earth,” as Cheng describes it.
Therefore, it’s no surprise that attendees were mildly alarmed upon receiving their invitations for her Spring/Summer 2024 collection. Entitled Gods, Girls and Monsters, the collection saw the enduringly cheerful brand turn to its dark side. For Cheng, this meant interpreting ‘protection’ into several tangible and spiritual forms, from sea urchins to a Catholic priest and a Wall St. banker.
Last week, Cheng called in from a pop-up event at Paris Fashion Week following the collection’s successful showcase in New York. Her kindness radiates even over the phone, pausing our interview to help a passerby who tripped over and stopping to offer lost tourists directions.
Throughout the SS24 collection, twenty-five looks considered religion, masculinity and physicality as Cheng utilised her upcycling acumen to turn broken doorknobs and haunting depictions of the sacred practices and creature comforts we turn to when we look for support. “Fashion is gluttonous, morbid, scrappy, sexy, enlightened, feral, disturbed, and optimistic. I love it!” she declared following the runway show, admitting this collection had been the “most fun” she’s experienced in her design career thus far.
Below, Cheng shares how she sources broken jewellery from the street, her evolving taste levels and how she balances business with creativity.
Congratulations on your latest show at New York Fashion Week. How are you feeling about the show and its reception now that fashion month is wrapping up?
I felt largely quite pleased with it. I think there have been a lot of developments and evolution taking place at the brand, and I feel like the business of fashion is quite different than the art of fashion, even within one brand. It’s really nice to be able to occasionally get to focus on the more artistic and central components and to put that all together. In the past, there have definitely been collections where I didn’t feel as if I had fully satisfied my own creative needs or desires.
It reminds me of something I read, probably about ten years ago, and I don’t know where it was from but it was for writers. It said that sometimes as a writer, you start to think your writing is bad but you don’t know what to do about it, you keep writing and you feel the same about your output. But sometimes your taste has moved past your skill level, so you have to bring your skill level up to your taste. That’s how you get better. I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and this is one of the first collections where I’ve felt like, for the most part, I’m quite happy with the product itself, regardless of the press reception. And I feel like, equally importantly, we were pretty organised at the show, so there wasn’t a logistical hitch that caused issues for us, which feels like a success on its own.
It’s interesting you say that this collection has explored your creativity as it’s much darker than your previous work, including the title, Gods, Girls and Monsters. Where did the inspiration for this collection come from?
It’s definitely more personal. It always feels contrived when people say something feels reflective of their personality and sense of humour because it can make them seem humourless or uninteresting. However, I started my brand very young, I was 19 and I feel like I carried a heavier sense of expectation of how professionalism should be. I felt very anxious about people finding out my age and thinking, ‘This person cannot be successful in their job’.
For a long time, I felt like I needed to keep the messaging around the brand really consistent and have it be the happiest brand on Earth, very sweet and whimsical and colourful and ethereal. There was a certain point last year where I felt really stuck because I didn’t know what I wanted to make, and I think any semblance of darkness or whatever divergence is happening is a reflection of me caring less about how I think something should be and more about how I feel about it. I think that makes the work better, at least in my experience so far.
This season, I felt that people really noticed the work that we’ve put in, not that that’s the whole point but it is nice when you work at an exposure-based job, that the work that you are personally doing and the effort that you’re putting in to make your work better is visible, you’re not the only one that sees it or wants to see it.
How has working from this altered perspective impacted your design process?
I’m a lot less focused on perception during the design process. Being a very online brand – and I feel that a lot less now, but we got our start on social media – it’s a very robust place for people to share their opinions, so there are always people who have opinions on the way you do things and the materials you use. That used to get in my head a lot and I’d think, ‘We can’t use this because it will create this perception’ or ‘We have to use more of this in order to create this story about the materials we use’. I realised that there were too many cooks in the kitchen.
In our last collection’s show notes, I said that moving forward we would use at least 50% upcycled materials in all of our collections. I think that’s quite an understatement, but using that terminology gave people a way to understand the materials. For me, it’s what I would be doing anyway, and using the terminology ‘upcycled’ is only to try and hopefully encourage people to incorporate some type of upcycling into their lives, even if it’s just in their crafts at home. It’s not about the marketing, and I think washing away some of my marketing brain from the design process has really helped me.
In terms of the materials we used this season and how that influenced my design process, I started by collecting a selection of fabrics, or more like organising the vintage fabrics we already had into areas of the world where I’d bought them. When we designed something new, we’d shop through our existing fabrics to see if we could use something we already owned. Anything we didn’t use this past season, we will use next season. I used to feel pressure that if I’d purchased materials with the intention to use them now, I had to use them now. I feel less rigid about these design components during the early stages of my process now.
Talking of your materials, you showcased a number of embellished pieces in the new collection including gowns, corsets and your signature baguette bag. Can you tell me more about these pieces?
We use a mixture of sourced pieces and some new glass beads. In the embellished dresses you see this season, we used a lot of punched beetle sequins so a lot of the green and blue you see are actually from beetle wings. I also like to buy lots of broken jewellery, mostly from this guy in New York called Larry who sets up shop on the street uptown. I have so many bags from him in my garage, mostly from old and broken jewellery. Sometimes we’ll even buy old prom or Debs dresses and cut the embellishments off to reuse.
Each of those pieces took hundreds and hundreds of hours because we’d bead it ourselves – different people in our office would work on it for stretches of time, then we’d trade.
How do you prefer to present your work – I know you’ve just shown on the runway at NYFW and now with a pop-up in Paris – and has this changed as your brand has evolved?
I think that [Fashion Week] is a time when I truly get to do what I want, which is crazy. I think about this all the time, that you spend five months and so much money or something and you wrangle so many people into this production with you, and then it lasts only 15 minutes. It’s hysterical to me.
Because it’s all intangible, it’s really hard to measure the direct relationship, especially for a brand like ours where we don’t do much wholesale so it’s not like we’re using the show to vet buyers, per se. It’s more about if we’re happy with the expression and if we feel like we’ve communicated correctly, but it is definitely hard to measure [the success].
I do feel like this season, I felt that people really noticed the work that we’ve put in, not that that’s the whole point but it is nice when you work at an exposure-based job that the work that you are personally doing and the effort that you’re putting in to make your work better is visible, you’re not the only one that sees it or wants to see it.
Looking to the future, how would you like to see your work develop and how are you approaching that development?
I really wanted to give myself the time to, at least in terms of the runway pieces, to think about the collection completely apart from my job as a business person which I’m happy about. I think it was necessary for me to do that in order to allow the work to advance with minimal interference from my personal business anxiety, or that side of my brain, moving forward. I think one of my worst traits is that I’m quite one-track-minded so I’m either very focused on the design or very focused on the business, or its my personal life. At a certain point, you need to figure out how to do both – I can’t keep abandoning one side or the other for a year at a time. I suppose that’s more of a personal goal, but one that will directly affect the business moving forward – to balance better.
What barriers, if any, have you experienced in accessing the industry?
I know in the UK there are grants for designers that are partially funded by the government, which is really interesting because in the US our government would never. I think that the organisations who are the most official and have the biggest bandwidth to support designers, do it in a very specific way… I mean, I suppose I’m saying this because I personally haven’t been the biggest benefactor of these types of support. I would not say that if I were the person receiving the most support from the organisations that are meant to uplift young American designers and design talent.
The organising principles for the fashion industry in New York and the US could be much better in terms of distributing opportunities. At the end of the day, it’s a bit cliquey and a bit high school, but I know that the people who are behind driving fashion and the arts forward aren’t like that, so I’m looking forward to seeing that change.
I do think that once I’ve overcome something, I try to forget about it. I feel like there are some people who love to talk about all the challenges they’ve overcome, which I feel like on a personal level is different, but on a business level, I feel like nobody cares as much as you do.
What changes would you like to see in the fashion industry and how is your brand contributing to that change?
Of course, at large there are environmental changes that everybody wants to see and I think that’s a primary focus. On a more individual level, I think there’s been a lot more talk recently about the economics of design – whether it’s worth it to be a designer, what that success looks like and how financial success for designers is so different from the perception. I don’t think there’s a way to support that changing as such, but I find that it’s helpful to talk about money and I like speaking to other designers about it. I hope that sharing this information in the community continues and that we can change some of the rigid and outdated markers of success.
To see more from Olivia Cheng and Dauphinette, follow the brand on Instagram. Olivia is now taking made-to-order commissions of FW23 and SS24 favourites from her website.
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