MU graduate's hat designs a hit in New York

Monday, October 12, 2009 | 5:11 p.m. CDT; updated 6:52 p.m. CDT, Monday, October 12, 2009

COLUMBIA — MU alumna Jennifer Ouellette says you have to be obsessed and perhaps a bit crazy to survive as a successful fashion designer in today’s economy.

“I can’t say it’s been dreamy. I’ve sacrificed a lot for this career,” said Ouellette, a 38-year-old hat designer from St. Louis. Ouellette became an entrepreneur at the age of 24. This month marks the 14th anniversary of her company’s kickoff.

On Monday, she gave three speeches on different topics at MU, where she acquired some of the skills she’d need to set up her headband and hat design business, JO Inc.

Her interest in fashion was first inspired by her mother’s vintage clothing store. When she was young, her mother collected hats, sold vintage clothing and participated in clothing shows. She grew up learning the styles of different decades, and this sparked her interest.

“Every button or trimming you can pick up from an antique store has got a story,” she said.

Ouellette reached college and figured out a way to mold fashion design into her major, textile and apparel management. She said people in the textile and apparel management department never shied away from discussing how few design jobs the real world has to offer, and that the department is more focused on business and manufacturing.

“I think it’s pretty unusual that I have survived,” Ouellette said.

Realizing the odds were against her, she took advantage of every opportunity Columbia had to offer. She spoke with business owners on Ninth Street to ask how they got started and found inspiration from professors in her major as well as other departments.

“I thought, if I wanted to become a designer, and the department didn’t stress design, then I will sort of make my own major,” she said.

Eventually, the London College of Fashion gave her the opportunity to get experience. She interned in London for a European milliner, Stephen Jones, who took on a mentor role in her life as a designer. Jones’ work stood for everything Ouellette had ever dreamed of: the perfect mix of theater, fashion and three-dimensional fiber arts.

Ouellette was then given the opportunity to work with another English milliner, Marina Killery, as well as other designers in New York. After gaining this experience, she felt she was ready to begin hat designing.

She then thought up a way to make her designs popular. “In England, they understand the handwork involved in hats," she said. "But here in America, we’re more involved in disposable fashion and tend to buy new items more often.”

The comfort and style of Ouelette's headbands and hats acquired attention from fashionistas all over the world. Celebrities such as Britney Spears, Angelina Jolie and Lindsey Lohan have been seen wearing her hats and headbands. Her designs also have appeared in many fashion magazines.

Ouellette’s creations include hats for men and women, pony-tail holders, barrettes, bobby pins and headbands. She also has a collection of handbags.

Her Web site has helped her grow her a worldwide customer base. She said her customer base in Japan is growing the fastest, and this segment will become more of a focus for the future of her company.

Ouellette has become attentive to the people of Japan and their love of detail, vintage fashion and nature. “I’ve put a lot of these elements in my designs, because I know the Japanese see something special in what I have to offer.”

Ouellette stays in touch with her staff and 15-person production team to find out if there are any problems. She said a lot of times there are details that only she, the designer, can only answer since a lot of her techniques have roots in old couture.

This means overseeing the quality of the products every day, talking with her clients, staying in contact with the magazines and constantly creating new ideas.

Ouellette said that she must push herself to create a balance between social life and work and says if you don’t have any kind of balance between work and fun then you can’t add anything to your design.

She enjoys Latin salsa dancing for exercise in her free time. “I think you function better when you have fun,” she said.

Ouellette said the fashion industry is an industry that gets harder and harder every day, and it’s very difficult to start a business doing something from the ground up that is done very well in other countries and much cheaper.

She said she had been looking forward to the opportunity she was given to speak at MU to share her adventure with the professors to whom she is grateful and the students who may hope to follow her lead into the world of fashion.

Her advice to these students: “Get ready, because it’s not easy.”

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