Podcast S3, Ep2: Jane Austen hits the runway with NYFW designer Jennyvi Dizon
Emma, Lizzy, and an over-trimmed Mrs. Elton head to New York Fashion Week
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If you are part of the universe that resides in the vicinity of NYC you are aware that tomorrow kicks off that little thing known as NYFW.
That’s: New York Fashion Week - it’s back in-person this season.
And why are we talking about this?
Because this year, friends, the Janeites are repped!
Designer Jennyvi Dizon is premiering her latest collection this weekend at NYFW - and it’s made up of pieces inspired by the characters of Jane Austen.
That’s right - there’s an Emma Gown, a Lizzy Gown, and the Augusta Gown, involving about a hundred ostrich feathers to evoke Mrs. Elton - famous for her fake horror of being over-trimmed. Jennyvi Dizon is taking it all to the runway.
And in this new podcast conversation, Dizon says she’s been sewing since she was a child and it’s how she speaks to the world. Every design she creates, she says, contains a narrative. A story.
In this episode of the Austen Connection Dizon breaks it down for us - how her designs incorporate not only Austen’s complicated characters but also their stories.
Dizon says, for her, even becoming a fashion designer in the first place meant standing up and using her voice, rather like Elizabeth Bennet to Lady Catherine de Bourgh - and actually, that’s also a gown: The Lizzy Gown, something that might be worn for a time that you need to muster all your confidence in life.
Here’s our conversation with designer Jennyvi Dizon about how fashion tells a story - and how the experience of loss, for heroines like Anne Elliot and Emma, and also for Dizon herself, can be part of that story.
Enjoy this conversation - and hey if you are anywhere near NYC and want to attend the debut of the Jennyvi Dizon Jane Austen Collection on Saturday, there’s a handful of complimentary tickets available for Austen Connection readers. You’ll see info about that at the end of this post in the “links and community” section.
Here are excerpts from our conversation with designer Jennyvi Dizon:
I know that you're working on the Jane Austen collection by Jennyvi Dizon. Do you want to just start by telling me how this collection came about?
I mean, it came about because I was rereading all of Jane Austen's work from the publication date. So I started with Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, Northanger Abbey, and then Persuasion. And while I was reading it, I was thinking, “You know, I am imagining them in modern clothing.” And I wanted to bring the characters out in a fashion-forward way where it's relevant to now and you can wear a Jane Austen-inspired piece, just around New York City on the casual.
And that's kind of how it started. And then I signed up for JASNA, which is the Jane Austen Society of North America, in July. And I wanted to celebrate the occasion of getting back into the groove of fashion. Because I took a little bit of a break during the pandemic … And so the creatively, I was looking for a new chapter of my life. And usually when I start a collection there's a lot of research that goes into it. I had come back from France in 2019, and I thought, “Oh, maybe I'll do a Marie Antoinette-inspired collection. … And then suddenly, I just picked up a Jane Austen book. And I was like, “You know what? I never thought about using literature into my work.” It's always based off of history, and historic figures, again, like Marie Antoinette, or Empress Josephine. And I was like, no, let's do it based off of characters in the book.
Because when I read a book, the vision in my head is always what they look like facially, and then it goes from there to their personality, and what their personality would wear.
That's cool. That was my next question: When you read the novels, how do you envision the clothes?
Yeah, it's really based off of their personality. For example, when I was reading Emma, I was thinking, “Oh, she's a little snooty,” not to be mean or anything.
And the thing is, like, I relate to [Miss] Bates. Because I'm just always grateful for any support that anyone gives me. And I know I can probably come across annoying in that way where I'm, like, very thankful all the time. Very grateful all the time. And I can probably never just stop thanking people. …
So cool that you relate to … Miss Bates. I can completely understand that. Because I think a lot of the annoying characters in Jane Austen you read and you're like, “Ooh, there's a little bit of me there. There's a little bit of me in Emma.” And then we all hope that there's a whole lot of us in Lizzy Bennet. Or, you know, God forbid, maybe we're Knightley. I think Jane Austen is herself in all of those characters as well, which I think can kind of free us from feeling like we're too annoying or too judgy or too whatever, you know? …
I think .. she takes real life and she puts it in her books, and makes a happy ending. I did discover Jane Austen in high school. But in my adulthood, I would always have to summon up my Lizzy for for when I had to stand up to my mom when she said, “You know, Jenny fashion is great, but you should really go into accounting because it's a stable job.” And I'm like, “Oh, that broke my heart.”
So you had to stand up and be a headstrong obstinate girl. When it came to design versus accounting. That's interesting. So I want to ask you about that Jennyvi because I know that you have the Lizzy Gown. But you were starting to say something about Emma and how Emma's personality, even though you've felt like you were being a little bit mean about Emma, but go ahead. What were you going to say about Emma and her personality and clothes?
I guess I don't know how to exactly explain what happened with Emma. But in my eyes, Emma was, like, a status-oriented character. And I wanted to show that.
Okay, interesting. So how do you show that …?
Well, I think after seeing a little bit of other people's adaptations, I think it's the 1996 portrayal of Emma and Gwyneth Paltrow. I just always thought of Emma in a light, soft pink. And so when I was doing the gown I did the light, soft pink. But the modernization is that I don't think a lot of people would use black lace for the trimming, but I was thinking, “Well, black goes with everything.” And I trimmed it up with a silver ribbon.
Because to me, I was thinking there was a silver lining with Emma. She redeemed herself. She was more kind to Miss Bates. She saw the error of her ways. And then for the top, I actually beaded it with beaded applique and I think it all kind of came together.
So it's a gown with a silver lining for Emma. That's so cool. Well, okay, so while we're on the topic of, you know, the characters inspiring you, the personalities of the characters, inspiring you and then coming out in fashion and clothes and gowns. Why don't you go ahead and tell us about the Lizzy Gown, which is something that I knew about - the headstrong obstinate girl. The “Here's how you talk to people of authority” gown!
Yeah, well, again, because I took from another adaptation of the 2005 Pride and Prejudice, I did actually like the color that they use, which was kind of a teal color. And I researched the actual color meaning because there is meaning behind colors as well. And so, the dark teal color signifies a uniqueness, a special quality of standing up for yourself. And so I was thinking, I just see this dark teal gown, in front of Lady Catherine de Bourgh when [Lizzy’s] being questioned about coming out into the ball when the the youngest are all out or everyone is out in society. And there was no governess and she had to stand up for herself when Lady Catherine de Bourgh asked her how old she is. And also, you know, it was a dinner time event. And so I combined the special occasion along with the event and then the meaning of the color. So that's how the Lizzy Gown came about.
That is awesome. Okay, so let me get the timing, Jennyvi: You started rereading Jane Austen novels in 2021. So was it sort of pandemic inspiration, having a little bit more time on your hands and just wanting to go back and reread the novels?
That was exactly it. I do like how, in every gown I do make there is a narrative. And when I was I was thinking of the narrative. You know, I had read probably only about 15 to 18 books in 2020. And we weren't really going to the library in New York City because I don't think it was actually open to the public. But in 2021 I absolutely ran out of books and I was thinking, “You know what, we're just going to reread Jane Austen once again.”
Great idea. I did the same and I have definitely not regretted it. So you say something really interesting, Jennyvi, and in one of the write ups about the Jane Austen collection, that it's about your idea of story and the impact of story on design. You say, “for most fashion designers the process goes beyond putting together a mood board. We put together a story much like writers and musicians do.” That's a quote from you. How do you put together a story that channels into your fashion designs?
Well, after designing for this year, I'm - and I'll tell you the truth, I'm going to be a little vulnerable here. If I start getting a little choked up it's because I was getting over the death of my mom. And so, you know, I needed something to make me feel like myself again and to be renewed. And so that was another reason why I started rereading Jane Austen, because I just remember the feeling of just going to my happy place whenever I went into a story. And so it was almost like creative coping in a way. And so I was trying to figure out, should I take more walks? Should I exercise more?
But as far as grieving goes, the mind is a powerful thing. And so if you can't get over the grieving in your mind the other physical aspects of your life kind of take [precedence]. It's like, “Oh, I can't go to the gym. I want to stay in bed all day and just cry.”
And so, at that point I decided to do this. I guess I could call it creative coping. And then I started reading Jane Austen. And then it just played out from there because Jane Austen actually did save my life, or my creative life, for sure.
And then I joined JASNA. I put it out there to the world that I was making a collection - and people at the Annual General Meeting show up in the gowns! And seeing them in person … was just invigorating for me. And now I just don't see myself not designing a collection that's not Jane Austen-related. From this point on, I feel like this is going to be a lifelong project until the day I die.
That's incredible. Jennyvi, thank you so much for for sharing that. And, you know, creative coping is such a great way to describe what you're doing and then also, you know, what is going on in Jane Austen's stories. She's using story to do things that she was not aware of at the time. I'm sure and would not be aware of how much impact it would have 205 years later, right?
So creative coping, I mean, women and other people who identify as women and others in the world often feeling marginalized, often coping with difficult things. And do you suppose you really feel that in Persuasion?
Yes. I did mention Emma because Emma starts off where she is 21. She lost her mother at a young age. So she never really felt that loss of a mother. She did, but she didn't. But when I started rereading Emma, during my grief, I was like, “Oh, she lost her mom, too.”
And then you get to Persuasion. And [Anne] loved and lost her mother at age 13. And the correlation is actually my mom got breast cancer when I was the age of 13. And I related with that, and so when she when I read Persuasion, and her mom dying, and she's the one who has to pick up the pieces for her family, I felt the same way. Because … when my mom got sick I started being a people-pleaser, doing more chores so my mom didn't have to do it. When I was able to drive, I actually started picking up my sister from school, dropping her off at school, picking my mom up from chemo or radiation. And kind of just making my life about my mom. And so when that presence is gone, it's like, what do you do with yourself?
And so the collection is a narrative - of loss, and redemption, love. Throughout it all. Because I have gone through some major issues with that. And my husband has been there throughout all of it.
And it's just been a great way for me to cope, but also realize how wonderful my life really is here in New York.
I love that you point out the loss and Emma. … The loss in Emma is interesting. We don't think about Knightley, you know, both the Knightley brothers also, not to mention Jane Fairfax, Frank Churchill - everybody is orphaned in that story.
And I feel like there is something going on - whether Jane Austen meant to consciously be showing this or not - but in the character of Emma there does seem to be a lack of strength and a lack of direction. She's just, you know, kind of drifting and bored and very talented and very smart. So it is something that you can relate to - the loss and just that sense of not having a touchstone, you know?
And so the collection is a narrative - of loss, and redemption, love. Throughout it all. Because I have gone through some major issues with that. And my husband has been there throughout all of it. And it's just been a great way for me to cope, but also realize how wonderful my life really is here in New York.
With Emma, and then certainly with Persuasion, where it's really felt deeply.
I'm really glad that you found it. And it sounds like from the caretaking role that you took on so young, you need joy, you know? You need the creativity and you need the joy and you need the celebration, and you need some fun, right?
Yes, exactly. And … I think, being a people-pleaser, I think Jane can relate to. Because, obviously: People are reading her story. She wants to please them. She wants to have that message come across and have it be accepted by people. And when you're entertaining people there's a lot of people-pleasing going on. And so my life has always been about people-pleasing. And I just realized in 2021 I was thinking, I need to please myself first. It's crazy to think that I don't prioritize my needs first. When I'm thinking about my husband's needs, or my dad's needs because he's ailing now too.
And so it's just like, when you are faced with a lot of things going on in your life that your family is going through or are your friends are going through, you kind of just forget: I had all this writing or or sewing to do but my friend really wants me to come over and have a shoulder to cry on. So, you know, sometimes your creativity is affected by other people's needs.
And so this project during a pandemic, where we had to isolate, it was a perfect time to prioritize myself.
Great! You go. I'm very glad to hear that. Everybody should listen to Jennyvi right now and do that!
Jennyvi, let me ask: How important are the screen adaptations? You mentioned the 2005 Pride and Prejudice and the Gwyneth Paltrow, Emma. How important are the screen adaptations to these inspirations? Or is it more coming from your head as you read the stories? Or both?
I think it's because I found Pride and Prejudice in high school. That was one of the first novels that I read of Jane Austen. And … I think it was the 1995 version of the Pride and Prejudice adaptation with, I think it was Colin Firth.
What you think it was with Colin Firth?! Yeah, everybody else listening here's like watched it 25 times!
I think I watched it one time.
You have so many more watches to look forward to!
Exactly. And yeah, I think it's, it's because, you know, the 1996 version of Emma was when I was in high school. And so I think, you know, the first adaptation I was familiar with was the 1996 Emma. And I think that's how I got inspired by it, because then Clueless came out. I know this is like, … most Jane Austen fans would cringe when I say I actually like Clueless and thought that the version of Cher was kind of like Emma. And I actually have a dress that are fabric that … was inspired by the plaid 90s miniskirt outfit that Cher has.
Yeah, I don't think you're going to get much complaint about Clueless and Cher. … I feel like Clueless is universally … really championed as a great retelling. Like the sort of retelling that makes you see the original in even a new light and is very much in conversation with the original. I feel like there's a lot of approval for that. But plaid! Very cool. You have to tell us more about how you're using the plaid?
Oh, yeah. In the movie she wears the yellow and black plaid, has the vest and the jacket, along with the miniskirt and the high socks.
Yes. I'm just thinking of her school presentations, as soon as you're saying that, I'm just seeing her … in front of the classroom with her bubble gum, you know, and like: “The Statue of Liberty does not require an RSVP!”
Exactly. And so I reimagined that in a Regency-style gown. And I think it's a nod to to both Emma and Cher at the same time, because I actually feel like Emma would wear yellow and black, bright-colored Regency style.
And you know, I am in New York City and the yellow taxi cabs is a thing.
That's awesome. So a Cher, New York City, Highbury mash-up.
What about the more recent screen extravagant extravaganzas? Are you paying attention to Bridgerton for instance? And if so, what are your thoughts on the fashions and the the concepts being put forward in the Bridgerton costuming?
I'm actually in a Facebook Bridgerton sewing-inspired group. And so I actually check in on that. Occasionally. I'm not able to check it religiously every day. But when I do, what I see is people are just so excited to see what fashions they're coming out with. And what struck me with one of the previews was a kind of gold, rose gown ensemble and it was it was so funny that I actually had just ordered gold-sequined fabric for one of my my dresses for the runway. And so I feel like maybe subconsciously my brain is in tune with what Bridgerton is actually [bringing] out.
I actually just finished what I call the Augusta gown, which is Mrs Elton.
So you know how she's always saying something about her brothers barouche …
Right?! Yeah, she's always talking about the fancy brother. And then also a favorite sort of Janeite quote that's always pulled out is… something about, “I have a horror of being over trimmed.” She of course is rather over-trimmed and probably not scared of anything and definitely not of being over-trimmed!
Yeah, exactly. And it's funny that you say that because the quote that inspired the gown with me is “very little white satin. … Very few lace veils - a most pitiful business.” And this is a quote to her husband after hearing the details of Emma's wedding, because she wasn't in attendance.
That is really snide, isn't it?
Yes. And so I created her dress, with - oh, gosh, it was 100 - more than 100 ostrich feathers that I had hand cut and sewn into the trim of her hem, and the trim of her ruffle around the neckline.
And I used a silk satin for the fabric and it has a bubble gown effect on the bottom. And because of, like you said, your quote and then my quote, and I combine those, her attitude and her personality into this one dress.
Can you tell us about New York Fashion Week and Paris Fashion Week and the larger fashion community - and how your Jane Austen collection has been worked in or accepted into the larger fashion community? Or how do you see it fitting in, in these big fashion weeks coming up?
That's a great question. Actually, I don't think - I don't want to be egotistical and say that this is probably the first time a Jane Austen collection is on the runway, but I haven't heard of anything. And so I'm not exactly sure how the normal fashion industry will accept it … What I'm actually doing is hoping that consumers and Janeites alike can accept it along with the fashion industry. But at this point, since I've done other fashion weeks and have been in fashion as far as working for other people, I know that it's a lot of work to just have a fashion company. And so I've actually manufactured a collection domestically and internationally, and I know how much work that is.
And with this collection I'm actually going back to my roots and sewing everything myself. … But as far as fashion, I just have this dream of introducing Jane Austen to maybe people who didn't know who she was, maybe saw what they liked on the runway, google Jane Austen, and then maybe collectively buy a dress from me. And then also fall in love with Jane Austen.
I just have this dream of introducing Jane Austen to maybe people who didn't know who she was, maybe saw what they liked on the runway, google Jane Austen, and then maybe collectively buy a dress from me. And then also fall in love with Jane Austen.
I actually never thought about how my designs will affect the fashion industry because I design - this is going to sound cliche, but - from the heart. Because everything I've gone through, everything that I want to accomplish in my life, is going into my fashion.
And so I just don't think about the collective fashion industry.
I think about “Oh, how is this going to make someone feel? How is this gonna affect someone's day?” Maybe they do need to summon up their inner Lizzy, and they need something to wear when they're standing up to their mom telling her that “No Mom, I'm going to college for fashion. I'm not going to college for accounting. I'm going to do what I want to do!”
And they need that: the Jane Austen silhouette print skirt, or they need a Jane Austen something inspired dress.
I actually never thought about how my designs will affect the fashion industry because I design - this is going to sound cliche, but - from the heart. Because everything I've gone through, everything that I want to accomplish in my life, is going into my fashion. And so I just don't think about the collective fashion industry. I think about “Oh, how is this going to make someone feel? How is this gonna affect someone's day?” Maybe they do need to summon up their inner Lizzy …
The stick-it to-Lady-de-Bourgh-dress. I love that. … And I so love what you're saying. And I could sense that even as I was kind of asking you about how your work is fitting into the fashion community. It shows that you're following your heart and you're doing what you want to do, what you have to do. … The world needs to know about Jane Austen!
Yes, she was just so underrated. And whenever I come across somebody, and they don't know who Jane Austen is, and I'm kind of … disappointed that they don't know who she is, or don't know her work very much.
Yeah … I'm getting at what you're getting at, which is: yes, she's underrated. And she and so many brilliant artists have been put into a corner. And … these are women's stories, and yes, this is powerful in itself. But it's also about humanity. And it's about loss, and it's about struggle, and it's about navigating your way through life. And it is about the human experience. It is great art with a capital A. And so it makes sense that you are driven by that to create your art.
Yeah, exactly. And I do consider my fashion designs art. Because that's how I actually send out messages through the world, is through my art.
I was actually a very shy child. I just didn't have many friends and books were my life and fashion as well. I started sewing when I was 5 years old. And it felt like whenever I sewed something, I was telling the world something without saying a single word.
It was it was like I was putting out my creativity and my messages through my sewing, and through what I made.
I started sewing when I was 5 years old. And it felt like whenever I sewed something, I was telling the world something without saying a single word. It was it was like I was putting out my creativity and my messages through my sewing.
I mean, I made dresses for Barbie dolls. And most of the time I actually played by myself. But there's always a narrative, like: Barbie needed to see Ken, at the skating rink, and she needed this miniskirt … And so I would make a little miniskirt for her just for her date with Ken.
You're actually answering a great question, which is how you got started in fashion. And it sounds like you had a difficult conversation at some point about doing fashion, as opposed to accounting or law. How did you get started in fashion? From the age of 5? And how did you keep going in fashion? How's that journey been?
My dad actually was a tailor in the Philippines. And actually, I followed in his footsteps because he had a job in the computer programming world. And also he was a newspaper editor.
And I had a strong sense of storytelling when I was a child. And I would always write short stories or what I call just random plot lines. … And along with the sewing and along with my stories and along with playing with dolls, I just mash them all together and there was always something to do because I was always either sewing something for a story with my dolls - and that's probably how I got started.
And then from there, I was actually starting to make money off of sewing nurses’ clothes for my mom's friends. And then in high school, I started making homecoming and prom dresses. And then after that I started making wedding gowns. And then I started my business in 2003.
Well it sounds like you just needed to sew and you sewed. And I love it that this combination of storytelling with sewing is something that's been passed down to you from your father, who was doing it in the Philippines first and then coming to America and doing it. And you're picking that up. … Does he ever talk about that combination of story and sewing?
He actually stopped doing the newspaper editing when he [came] here to work for a major corporation because the major corporation ended up taking most of his time. But he was still sewing for clients as far as tailoring. And most of his clients were his friends. And in the Filipino community, in Arizona we belonged to probably 10 Filipino groups, and he was always busy sewing.
It's funny because there's a sewing joke of: “Yes, I sew. And no, I will not hem your pants.” That's a rule for me at least.
But for my dad, it was like: “Yes, I sew. And yes, I will hem your pants.”
Thank you, Austen Connection friends, for engaging with us and with this conversation featuring Designer Jennyvi Dizon and her stories about art, loss, designing Jane Austen, and all about the Emma Gown, the Lizzy Gown, and the Augusta Gown - inspired by Mrs. Elton and about a hundred ostrich feathers.
New York Fashion Week is this weekend - and Jennyvi Dizon’s designs, with Emma, Mrs. Elton, and Lizzy Bennet - are all being featured at the Saturday show. If you are interested in attending, see below for details about an opportunity to be there.
Thank you for being here with us at the Austen Connection.
Stay in touch, stay tuned for more podcast episodes on the way, and see you soon.
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Links and Community
And are you close to NYC and would you like to go?! Jennyvi Dizon has a few complimentary tickets to the show at New York Fashion Week, this Saturday, Sept. 10 - and members of the Austen Connection community are invited - on a first come, first served basis. If you are interested in attending the show, you can reach out to Jennyvi Designs at Jennyvinewyork.com for a ticket - but act quickly as there are only a few left.
JASNA-NJ is hosting historian and author Robert Morrison talking about his book The Regency Years, on Saturday, September 17. You can register here. And you may remember, the Austen Connection recently riffed for an entire post about this book - so we suggest you check out the book and discussion. Obvi.
We discovered this recently: BookTalk - it looks amazing, that’s all!
One of our fellow Substackers, Emily Rhodes, runs a Walking Book Club - some of you might enjoy subscribing to it. Here’s a BBC Radio 4 piece on it, and here’s how to subscribe: