Julian Eli Robaire is a fashion designer already making waves while still in school. His approach to his work through political and social change is both interesting and intriguing. His designs were recently featured in an editorial in Papercut Magazine’s September 2011 issue, and his garment covered a French design magazine called Khube. Julian was kind enough to share his story with our ARC audience.
Angel Alzona: Can you give us a little background about yourself? Where you grew up? Etc.?
Julian Eli Robaire: I grew up in Agoura Hills, CA. It’s on the border of LA and Ventura county. It was pretty much a big suburban bubble. And I wasn’t really exposed to a lot of art stuff unless I went into the city, which is luckily where my grandparents lived and my brother lives. And my whole dad’s side of the family lives so I did spend a lot of time there growing up on the weekends. That is where I was able to gather inspirations and materials. It’s not like it was in the middle of nowhere but growing up in this little suburban city 45 minutes outside of the actual city, we didn’t really have fabric stores or really anything arts and crafts wise except Michael’s and stuff like that so it didn’t really harvest.
AA: How old were you when you really got into fashion?
JER: I was always really into the arts in general. When I was really young I was into performing arts, but then I realized that I was more of a visual artist so when I was in 5th grade I got really into photography. My Mom, for my 5th grade graduation bought me, this was before nice digital cameras were big, so she bought me a really sick film camera that I just adored with all my life. So I just saved up enough money and bought a starter kit of like a darkroom set and she actually let me turn my bathroom into a darkroom, and so I spent tons and tons of hours developing my own images and fooling around with it not necessarily traditionally. I was really interested in how the image got onto the paper and manipulating the image. I’m a really big explorer. I love to travel. Most of where my creativity comes from is interests and culture. So after, 6th or 7th grade I started to shift away from photography and moved onto architecture, but then I just remember being in math class in 7th grade and not paying attention at all and I just started drawing these pictures of dresses.
AA: That’s a very interesting progression.
JER: I know it was really weird too because photography was a year and a half. Architecture was super quick only like a couple months. But fashion I remember exactly what I was doing, where I was sitting, and who the teacher was and exactly what I was drawing, but I dunno it just sort of really quickly became a passion. So I just bought tons of fashion books and it wasn’t really about trends or what people wanted people to wear or buy, but it was more of an art for me. This is going to sound really tacky but it’s kind of like painting but instead of paint its fabric and instead of a canvas it’s the body, or like a sculpture even. It’s this three dimensional canvas that moves and to me that is such a cool medium to experiment with because when do you get that sort of interaction with another medium.
AA: Would you say that you went into fashion as a hobby at first? When did you decide that you wanted to pursue it as a career?
JER: Umm well I think the second I started drawing dresses in that math class but you know I felt the same way about photography initially. And I thought maybe this could be a really cool career path but then I sort of felt limited on what I can do especially with the development of digital cameras and whatnot. It just became to structured for me so I wanted something that I could be a little more creative with.
AA: Was art always a part of your life? Did you have an artistic background?
JER: Yes absolutely. Both of my brothers are performing artists so that’s like a whole other thing. Daniel is an actor and my other brother is a musician. So I was always around that. I acted for a little bit but found out that performing arts just wasn’t my thing. But my Dad is a visual artist. He’s a creative director in advertising and I was always really fascinated by the way that his mind worked. He would take me to paint on the weekends. My parents got divorced when I was 8 or 9 years old and my mom went and moved on very quickly. However, my dad it was just him by himself so when I would go over to his house because I split my time up evenly between the two, we would do whatever would keep me entertained, but mostly what we were doing was painting or collaging or anything really that was visual. It was almost always all painting. We would paint all day long on the weekends. It was really fantastic. I totally credit him with a lot of my interest in it. I think having not been raised in the same background, I feel like I still would have realized my passion for fashion.
AA: Did your schools have programs to cultivate your creativity?
JER: Yes. I was really lucky. In high school, it was really awesome that we had to take three elective classes. So we had a woodshop which I did and I thought that was pretty cool because it was sort of three dimensional form building. But really what I was stoked about taking was 8th grade before I went off to high school we were given a whole list of electives and told to think about it over summer what we’re going to sign up for. So I was so stoked that there was a class kinda like home economics or whatever our parents had back then. There wasn’t that much creativity in it because we had to use patterns but it was totally fun. I taught myself how to sew when I was in middle school. I bought a machine off eBay. And it didn’t come with a pamphlet or anything so I taught myself how to sew and then in that class I was really able to learn how to sew rather than the makeshift things I learned myself. I spent so much time in that classroom on my lunch break and so and so. And I just loved it. That was really helpful.
AA: Would you say that helped you build your foundation?
JER: Yes for sure. Absolutely. I mean again, I think I would still be in the same position I am in today without it, but it definitely fostered the ability and the desire. I don’t know if I would have been able to maintain my interest in the field had I not been exposed to that on a daily basis.
AA: Do you have any certain influences? Who or what? Where do you get your inspirations?
JER: I’m really surprisingly not inspired by fashion, hardly. Sometimes i’ll see something that I think is so interesting and i’ll kind of take it and rework it and kind of show it from my point of view. But so far I’m really inspired by social and political happenings in the world.
AA: Can you elaborate on that?
JER: Yeah. Ok so for instance this dress of the Indian girl with the gold on top and it’s really flowy on the bottom and really restricted on the central part. So for instance when I was designing that, it was right around the time that the oil spills had happened in the Gulf and I’m in Georgia so we weren’t very far from it. That’s where I got the inspiration for that piece because it is restricted and kind of hidden. And then just explodes and one day everyone is talking about it. So basically how one day no one knows about it, and then the next everyone is talking about it and it’s super exposed and released. So that’s sort of where the drapiness came into the dress. And another thing that inspired me on that dress was Arab culture and women’s rights in the Middle East. So I drew from those political restrictions for women and I decided to not have arm holes in the dress to sort of imply that restriction. Inspiration all together, I called it “Destructive Beauty” and that’s just one example of how I get from point A to point B.
AA: Is that pretty much the basis for your inspiration?
JER: Yes, usually I pull from certain social aspects. It might reach way back when Black rights was an issue and play on that. Or I definitely look into human rights for a lot of my inspiration. I dunno if it has to do with the fact that I’m an openly gay guy and we’re kind of going through that whole movement right now. I mean that was something I was very passionate and involved in when I was in high school during the Prop 8 stuff. I’m sure it plays into much of my work and it’s really interesting because it’s subconscious and I don’t really realize how frequently i’m pulling from the same sort of ideas until I was doing an interview with a company just a few weeks ago and they were asking me what was this inspired by and I was like “oh my god wait a second.” I’m really keen on human rights and issues so that is definitely where I gather a lot of my inspiration from, but it’s always different the way I interpret it and it’s never literal. So it’s not something you can really see unless I explain it, but I think that’s what keeps it interesting and keeps people interested.
AA: So what college do you go to?
AA: What made you choose that school?
JER: Um it was kind of a fluke actually. Ever since I was little I wanted to go to Parsons because it’s the most well known for fashion design in the state. I was even considering Europe, but I didn’t really follow through on that too much. So I finished high school when I was 16 after my junior year. I was trying to take the GED but in California you have to be within 2 months of 18 to take the GED so I took this other test. It’s called the California high school proficiency exam so it’s like a California administered test that if passed gets recognized as a diploma in the state of California. The federal government doesn’t recognize it so I guess to the federal government I’m a high school dropout I think. The state of New York had issues with that, or at least Parsons did. They were like we can’t educate you if you don’t have a high school diploma so that kind of sucked. Anyway I was not going back to high school. I needed to get out of my house and experience the world on my own. So Daniel [my brother] helped push me to that actually which was pretty cool. Then, I just sort of applied to that school on a wimb and I knew it was a really good school but never in a million years did I ever think I was going to be in Georgia. Like are you kdding me? Especially coming from California. No way. It was sort of last minute ordeal but everything just fell into place and I’m so fortunate for that because this school is amazing and the professors are fantastic. They are super industry trained and all of that so that’s really cool for me.
AA: Are you currently still in school?
JER: Yes. I’m a junior right now.
AA: Are there any classes that really impacted you?
JER: Well first, I would highly highly recommend going to a design school. An art and design school where you get your Bachelors because in a program like that, for instance in my program, I had to take color theory, two dimensional design, three dimensional design and drawing one and two. Those were most my foundation classes. We have to take one math class and an English class. Where as in places like FIDM, it’s solely a fashion curriculum, and I think that’s a really big mistake. I think it’s the biggest mistake anyone can make because I have learned more in those classes than I have in my fashion classes about design. My fashion design classes are purely a means to create my designs, but in my three dimensional design class is where I learned how to analyze and create form. And what’s more important than that in fashion? So I think that’s the biggest mistake anyone can make.
AA: Do you think school is important for fashion design?
JER: Absolutely. Yup. I definitely do because it gives you a whole new perspective, and I’m scared to finish school to be honest. My closest friend is a sound design major and my other one is a film major and the other one is a fashion merchandising major. And a lot of my friends are photographers or motion media people and animation so I think it’s really important to be presented with all aspects of design. Because if you’re a good designer you can design anything but you don’t just become that overnight. You have to be exposed to it and be able to understand how other people think.
AA: What’s your advice for aspiring fashion designers?
JER: I think it’s really important to work your way up in the industry. I know a lot of kids come out of school and they try to start their own label and that doesn’t happen. It can’t happen no matter how talented you think you are, you have to work in another aspect of the industry. I mean of course I’ve wanted to have my own label and my own store and all of that but as I’ve been in school, I’ve really realized that you really have to work your way up in the industry to gain the amount of experience that you need in order to start your own collection or something of that magnitude. Otherwise, you’re just going to fall flat on your face if you don’t know what you’re doing. I think education in terms of internships and working your way up and actual education in general is the most important thing for the designer.
AA: What 3 things would you say you would advise as a 3 piece designer kit?
JER: Oh that’s a toughie. A 3 part designer kit. Well number one would be a book on fashion illustration which focuses on line quality and proportion. A history fashion book and probably an art history book of some sort.
AA: What has been your work experience thus far?
JER: I’m always working with photographers in school. All my stuff on my website has been shot by photographers that go to school with me. Those are very important relationships to build because those are the people that will be taking the fashion photography at the same time you break into the industry. So definitely keep good relationships. I did an internship at Elie Tahari, and I was really fortunate to do it because I had a professor at school who totally believes in me and gave me that opportunity. It was really amazing. I felt intimidated to sort of break into the industry and how the hell I was going to get an internship, but it was so easy. I mean I worked for free for 3 months. What more could they ask for you know. You really have to be confident in your work, but also have a confident attitude about the industry and know that you’re going to make it in. Making it in isn’t the hard part, staying in is. So I worked at Tahari all summer and while I was there I was working with the designer. They had an in house sample room where they had a whole bunch of people sewing samples and making patterns. Most companies do that in China now so I was really fortunate to be at a company that has one in house. I would just walk by the pattern maker and just say “hey what are you working on right now?” I was really interested in bringing something two dimensional to life. And that’s really rare that companies do that in the States anymore. They outsource. So there was one week when I was working there where the buyers came and all the designers I was working with were preoccupied with the buyers and I couldn’t sit in on those meetings so they said “well why don’t you work with the pattern maker for that week?” I was like “oh my god are you serious?” That was amazing that they gave me that opportunity. So I went to the pattern maker and she handed me bolts of muslin which is the initial fabric that people drape in. She handed me a whole roll of it and then she handed me a sketch from a designer and she said “why are you still standing in front of me?” And I was like “oh my god ok.” I made a dress from the sketch that I was given and it came out perfectly. They were super stoked that someone in my generation was interested in pattern making because it’s pretty much a dying art in the United States. I kept in contact with the pattern maker after my internship and I said “what are the chances of me becoming apprentice for you over my winter break?” She said “no matter what anyone else in the company says i’ll make it happen for you.” So that was really awesome and I’m going back to apprentice with her. Keeping relationships is really important.
AA: Can you describe what pattern making is to someone that doesn’t quite know?
JER: The job of a pattern maker is the designer will go to the pattern maker with a sketch and they have to turn it into a dress. So they’re the ones who drape the initial dress and from what they drape then you take it off the dress for them and you lay it flat on paper and that becomes the pattern. From there, that’s what you send to China for production. So it’s like you have to make the dress into something three dimensional and then take it apart and put it back in together. It’s kind of hard to describe, but hopefully that helps.
AA: What are your plans after graduating?
JER: I’d really like to start as a pattern maker since I’ll have this experience under my belt. I dont know what the chances of that happening are because no one really ever hires pattern makers anymore. They still do have in house pattern makers at the big companies in Europe for instance at Dior. So that would be really cool, but you kind of have to be beyond amazing. It’s just sort of a matter of seeing what happens in the next year. Our senior year we take Senior 1 first quarter, Senior 2 second and senior 3 third. At the end of senior 3 they take about 20% of the senior class to show at the fashion show, and they invite all these editors. I’m excited for the show because you never know who’ll be down there and who’ll be giving you a call. I’m certain I’ll be on it. [Laughs]
AA: What do you have going on at the moment?
JER: Im really excited to go back to Tahari. I did just get a paid internship at Kohl’s for the summer in New York. They came and interviewed in school. They flew a whole bunch of students that they picked from the initial interviews to go interview at the corporate offices in Milwaukee, and then from there they either made an internship offer or they didn’t. They made an offer to me. They take 90 interns in Milwaukee and they actually have a really small office in New York where they take three interns and I was fortunate enough to be selected to work at the New York office so that’s pretty exciting for me to do especially since it’s paid because no one really does that anymore.
AA: So what will you be doing?
JER: I’m not entirely sure yet. I’m still waiting for my assignment but at that office what they do is all the name brand collections. So I know I’ll be on those and working with one of the designers. But I haven’t been assigned yet.
AA: How do you go about getting an internship?
JER: Pretty much it’s all through school. I actually don’t know how I would have done it without school. I don’t think I would have been able to to be honest. I was sort of hooked up through my professor and recommendation. One big issue that people have is money since these internships are not paid and housing is not provided usually. Like when I was at Tahari I’m so fortunate that my Dad was able to pay for my cost of living. I stayed at the NYU housing and it was $2500 for the summer. And if you don’t have the money to do that you kind of have to know someone that you can stay with or do one where you live initially so that you’ll have that on your resume. Then go somewhere with a paid internship. A lot of the bigger companies like Target and Kohl’s offer paid internships and provide housing. Target actually offered me a paid internship the same time as Kohl’s and they pay for the housing as well but it’s in Minneapolis. It might be a good idea to try at one of those. If you’re working for the smaller ones you’ll have to be self sufficient.
AA: What’s your end goal?
JER: I want to work in Paris. That’s my end goal for sure. Paris or Italy. And I’d really like to work for a company like Valentino.
AA: Is building an online presence like a website and social media important?
JER: I’m not into social media at all. I think a website is most important because number one being able to access it easily and number two to have all your information in one place. So to have my resume, all my work, and a biography all in one place to see what you’re all about is the most important part.
AA: Thanks so much for your time Julian. Here goes the final question. Fashion design is your craft and you’re the craftsman, what three things do you have in your toolbox?
JER: 1 – a book about painting. 2 – confidence. 3 – confidence again.
Check out more of Julian Eli Robaire’s work here: http://www.julianelirobaire.com/