Julia is the remarkable, yet always humble, woman behind independent retailer Dagmar Rousset, and French language school Chouchou.
Tell us about your experience in the fashion industry and your love of the French language / culture. How have these two passions intertwined?
Approximately seven years ago I opened a clothing boutique called Dagmar Rousset. To say that I had no experience in the industry is certainly not an understatement. I had no idea what a raglan sleeve was, I’d never heard the word ‘lookbook’ and I couldn’t even thread a sewing machine (still can’t!). I had been teaching French and working as a translator at the Alliance Française and Monash University for quite a few years at that point, but that old existential chestnut of a question—’is this it?’—kept tormenting me. Although I loved teaching and the French language, I craved a reason to be creative and teaching wasn’t really giving me that. It wasn’t just a subtle craving—by early 2009 it had become a constant, distracting background hum in my brain that I was almost too afraid to ignore.
I don’t think it’s a contradiction to say that Dagmar was both the worst and best thing I’ve ever done. It was terrible in the sense that I put so much into it that it became my alter ego, or ‘me’ transmuted into a retail space, as odd as that sounds. I took every customer rebuke like a bullet to the heart, and felt personally targeted whenever customers would shoplift items made with such care by people—most of whom I knew personally—who barely made a living wage from their work. This probably sounds overly dramatic to anyone who’s never run a business, but it will no doubt be all too familiar to those who have.
On a more uplifting note, Dagmar was life-changing for so many reasons, not the least of which was the opportunity to meet ‘my people’, which was such an unspeakable relief for someone who has felt like a weirdo loitering on the periphery of ‘normal town’ for most of her life. I have made some firm friends, both staff and customers, who I probably never would have crossed paths with had I not opened Dagmar.
I wouldn’t say that my love of the French language and fashion have intertwined in any meaningful way; rather, the combination of the two gives me a balance of both the intellectual and the creative that I need in order to not feel emotionally lopsided.
How have your personal values shaped your work?
I love the idea of the ‘little guy’, the maker who toils away in their studio for hours on end, fuelled by endless cups of tea and a strong commitment to their own artistic vision. I met so many people like this during the Dagmar days, and their belief in their practice was so moving to an old sook like me. I tried to support these kinds of makers as much as I could while I had the shop, and I hope that this commitment to the small and unique was apparent to my customers.
Has your attitude towards fashion changed as you’ve aged?
Definitely. I have intellectualised my attitude a little bit, and now ask myself why I feel the need to buy certain clothes. Is it because I am desperate to convey something about myself that I need others to know? Being an introvert and not always allowing myself to open up to others, I now realise that I have long let my clothing do the talking for me. I am trying not to rely so much on my appearance to tell my story these days, because not only is amassing a stack of statement outfits a costly enterprise, but relying on them to let other people know who I am is not the best way of forming connections. I still plan to keep dressing in my own little way—which I have dubbed ‘elegant nutjob’—but I don’t want to let my style take on a role that my personality probably should be occupying.
“Hopefully bragging about how little you paid for a top from Cotton On is no longer a cool thing to do.”
What does the Slow Fashion movement mean to you?
It’s about curbing the—very human—impulse to constantly refresh, renew, and rejuvenate. I sometimes feel tired of myself, and my thoughts will inevitably wander to that new jacket that will tie my whole wardrobe together, or the jeans that will make me look effortlessly cool (something I’m yet to pull off!). Slow fashion is about loving what you already have and only purchasing items that you honestly feel you could wear forever. It’s a bit like the difference between a bag of Skittles and a hearty curry—one will give you a quick buzz followed by an inevitable crash, and the other will sustain you. You need to train yourself not to go for that quick sugar rush when it comes to buying new things.
You have such a remarkable personal style; what has inspired this?
You are very kind! I honestly sometimes wonder if I even have a particular style or if it’s actually just a confused pastiche of different moods and emotions thrown together in sartorial form. People sometimes tell me that they love what I wear but wouldn’t have the confidence to pull it off. And I think therein lies the answer: I have no fear of looking stupid, or weird, or different. I don’t care if people don’t like it, which is a strange thing to say as I very much care whether people like me! The older I get, the more I become convinced that personal style is about matching the inside, or who you are, to the outside, what you wear. As long as these two elements are not at variance with each other, you’re going to look and feel pretty good. Oh, and you need to develop a healthy ‘gives no fucks’ attitude to the people who don’t like how you look. Last year someone told me I looked like a member of Bananas in Pyjamas, and not in a complimentary way. I still wear that outfit with great pride!
We have been encouraged for years to separate ourselves from those behind our purchases; do you think there is a growing interest in the stories of makers? How do you generally choose which brands to support?
I would hope that people are becoming more interested in the people and stories behind their clothes. A few years ago there was a television show called Gok’s Fashion Fix where the host, Gok Wan, would try to replicate luxury clothing with high street knock-offs from places like Primark and H&M. The aim of the game was to spend as little as possible, buying crappy clothes that looked like expensive ones. I don’t think a show like this could exist today, as people are far more aware of the nefarious impact that fast fashion chains have on both workers and the environment. Hopefully bragging about how little you paid for a top from Cotton On is no longer a cool thing to do.
I like to support brands that have a heart. One of my favourite labels, 69, is headed by a designer in Los Angeles who has no interest in the narcissistic side of fashion and no desire to reveal their identity. 69 is a truly non-demographic label in the sense that it is made for people of all genders, ages and sizes. As I’ve become older, I’ve realised how pervasive ageism and body fascism is in the fashion industry. 69 uses models of all ages, ethnicities and body types. This, to me, is true progress, as fashion has long been about exclusivity and a ‘you can’t sit with us’ mentality. I love what 69 is doing to change this. They are a part of the re-definition of what fashion is and could be, if only we stopped using it as a tool of exclusion and a rather pathetic way of asserting our status.
What have been the greatest lessons you have learned since beginning your career?
I’ve learnt that it’s okay if not everyone likes what you do, and that there’s no point trying to be all things to all people. Some people will dig you, others won’t. I have made my peace with that, but it took a long time.
"I love the idea of the ‘little guy’, the maker who toils away in their studio for hours on end, fuelled by endless cups of tea and a strong commitment to their own artistic vision. I met so many people like this during the Dagmar days, and their belief in their practice was so moving to an old sook like me."
Has there been any progress over the past few years (throughout the fashion industry or society as a whole) that has been heartening to you on both a business and personal level?
I am very excited about the increasing focus on people who used to be pretty much invisible in fashion: people of colour, women over 40, anyone larger than a size 10, transgender people, and those of us who didn’t win the genetic lottery. Growing up in the 80s I was a pasty, chubby kid with wonky teeth who was convinced she would forever be unloved because the only role models the fashion world had to offer were tall blonde ladies with perfect skin and taut bodies. It’s definitely changing now, thanks to models like Winnie Harlow, Linda Rodin and Robyn Lawley. And it’s no longer magazine editors who get to decide who’s worthy of attention and who isn’t—the democratising effect of the internet and social media has flipped that on its head.
I love that it has now become very uncool, especially on social media, to pick on others for their size, sexuality, religion or race. It’s not about being PC, it’s about not being an arsehole. I like that people are calling others out on their backward views, and guiding them towards empathy and kindness. I’m not saying that we should hound anybody who has less enlightened opinions than our own, but we should never miss an opportunity to let people know that picking on others for things they cannot change is not going to help anybody or advance the human condition in any way.
When looking at the current fashion system, what do you believe needs to change and why?
I think that we have to dispense with this whole bi-yearly (Autumn/Winter, Spring/Summer) collection paradigm. I hate the fact that unsold clothing has to be reduced at the end of the season, as if it no longer has the same value because it didn’t strike as much of a chord with customers as other pieces in the same collection. As the kid who was always picked last for sports teams, I feel great sympathy for these clothes!
I still have a couple of pieces at home from the Dagmar days—I call them the ‘unsellables’—that are lying around unwanted and unloved. Thinking about the poor unsellables puts me in a morose state of mind, because I think about the designers who put so much skill into their conception, the people who sewed them, the shipping costs, the environmental impact of their production, the numerous try-ons—and for what? So they can sit in a dusty box in a storage locker?
Melbourne-based designers Elizabeth + Birgitta are incredibly inspiring to me, as they are part of a growing number of labels who only make to order, ensuring that there is little waste at the end of the season. In a perfect world, all designers would operate this way. We just need to convince people of the benefit of waiting a few weeks for their clothes to be made, as opposed to expecting to take them home right then and there.
What excites and/or daunts you about the future of the fashion industry and why?
I am very excited by the focus on made-to-order, ethically-produced clothing, which I believe is the future of fashion. Although we still have a long way to go to convince people of the benefit of spending more on individual items while buying fewer of them, I honestly believe that there will come a day where this will become the dominant way of thinking. I just hope I’m not being too idealistic in saying that.
Photography Claire Summers
Production Sigrid McCarthy
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