A world of pretty dresses: Cathleen Jia

Design, dresses, creativity and all things pretty are in her blood.

As a young girl, obsession with Barbie dolls and creating uniquely ‘designed’ dresses and garments were her bread and butter. Nowadays, Melbourne cocktail and bridal dress and gown designer Cathleen Tan focuses her attention on more lucrative options, but hasn’t lost that childhood pizzazz and enthusiastic raison d’etre.

Her label, Cathleen Jia is a small operation with big plans, all premeditated beyond belief and striving its way forward more and more each day.

Thankfully for Cathleen, her knowledge of retail and the landscape are making paving the label’s way just that bit easier. The past eight years of her young life – she’s only 25 – have been spent in the ragtrade and all its wondrous facets. From working the floor, to trying her hand at visual merchandising to managing a flagship store, Cathleen’s knowledge base is one to be reckoned with.

“At the moment I’m working full-time at Anna Campbell’s Brunswick store, which has opened me up to a wonderful world of bridal gowns and creation, bridal retail and mentoring by the woman herself,” said Cathleen. “It’s definitely somewhere I’d like to take Cathleen Jia.”

Cathleen’s love for the classical 1920s and 40s bodices with elegant and stylish drapery, bold cool colours and unique, delicate fabrics allow her designs to fill a void in what she says is a huge gap in Melbourne’s cocktail dress, bridal and gown offerings.

Cathleen Tan – designer at Cathleen Jia – working her magic with last season’s chartreuse gown

“I like the prettier, girlier garments and adore sophisticated embellishments, elegant silhouettes and little structure, giving way to the natural flow of the female body,” said Cathleen.

The label’s staple lies with her love for what she calls ‘pretty dresses’ which is a passion she has carried through her collections since her label launched in October 2011.

Cathleen Jia is still very young, but I’m a very impatient person so I’m hoping to have it up and running fully within the next six months,” she said.

She began initially with baby steps, offering her design skills and visions to girls from her old secondary school who were embarking on their debutante balls. She noticed the girls loved the prettier, more avant garde offerings in dresses and gowns, so naturally pounced at the opportunity. But, that’s not where she wants to take the label.

“Melbourne lacks contemporary gowns and draped dresses,” said Cathleen. “There are a lot of dresses available with plenty of poofiness and silhouettes girls would wear to their debutante balls instead of a wedding or fanciful occasion.

“I don’t want to be another fish in the pond, so I’m bucking the trend and making something that oozes style, class and structure while sticking true to the occasion.”

Always conscious of using colours and tones to accompany the season, Cathleen’s plans extend so far as to inject colour into the bridal gown market while maintaining her signature stylised, draped and delicately assembled and embellished style.

She tends to gather her inspiration for colours and her next piece from any and every experience she encounters as well as aesthetics and styles of her favourite era, the likes of Audrey Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor. Her staple colour palette consists of black, oyster and coco, which Cathleen says are her necessary colours and quite unique to her collection.

“Black is safe and timeless, while the others address different needs and occasions and draw attention,” she said.

Since Cathleen launched her label, it has grown and has continued to do so. Nowadays, with stockists knocking at her door and the world awaiting the biggest instalment of Cathleen Jia to date, it’s but a matter of time before our the elegance of the early era is reborn through the silks and fine drapery of Cathleen Jia.

It’s a long way from the days of Barbie.

Follow Cathleen and her label on Twitter @cathleenjia and Facebook.

James Banham
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James Banham

Editor at THE F
James Banham is an Australian lifestyle, fashion and entertainment journalist. His writing can be found on these many topics and more in print and online publications around the country.
James Banham
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