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Meet Jessie Dugan

Today we’d like to introduce you to Jessie Dugan.

So, before we jump into specific questions about the business, why don’t you give us some details about you and your story.
I grew up in Houston, TX on the west side of town (I went to Stratford High School). Then I went to college at Southwestern University in Georgetown, TX and got my BFA in Studio Art, specifically painting and printmaking.

Even though I had majored in art in college, my dream has always been to work as a fashion designer. So for my last semester of college, I participated in an art and design internship program in NYC. I lived in a dorm in Chelsea and interned for Polly Apfelbaum, a studio artist that is known for her fabric installations. I also interned for Jes Wade, a fashion designer who worked for Ralph Lauren for a number of years and now had her own small collection. They were very rewarding internships and I fell in love with NYC. During this time, I applied for the fashion design grad program at Parsons The New School for Design and was accepted! I moved up to NYC officially that summer and hit the ground running. While in grad school at Parsons, I worked for rag & bone, Tory Burch and then got a good job freelancing for Henri Bendel as a handbag designer. After a few years, I went back to Tory Burch as a designer for runway accessories and special projects (it was my dream job to work as a runway designer!). That job at Tory Burch was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life but I learned so much so quickly. My boss Gary Wong was a genius – he always was pushing me to make my designs better, stronger, more impactful. Being able to work alongside him, present to Tory Burch on a daily basis, watch my designs walk the runway and be reviewed by Women’s Wear Daily are professional memories I’ll never forget.

I met my now husband when I was in grad school. He is born and raised in Brooklyn and really made NYC feel like home for me. We got engaged and lived in Brooklyn together when I was working at Tory Burch. When I met him, he was working as a freelance writer for Baseball America and then went to law school in NYC (right across the street from Parsons!). When he started looking for jobs, he was offered a position here in Houston. Tired of the snow and the F train to Brooklyn, we decided to make the move back to my hometown, Houston.

When we first moved back to Houston in 2015, I continued to freelance for Tory Burch and got a few other design freelance jobs (most notably I designed a sterling silver capsule collection for the Smithsonian). I also got a part time job a West Elm as a home stylist, it was the closest job I could find to “designer” in Houston. I became friends with David Peck (of Miles David) during this time as well. He knew my background as a runway accessories designer and requested that I make some “couture” jewelry that could be sold through his atelier. I did a lot of product development research and found out that I could get my hands on a lot of the same materials here in Houston that I had access to in the Garment District in NYC. I’m lucky that Houston is so big and so culturally diverse!

Working through David Peck is how I started my business. I was able to custom design pieces for his clients and started to develop a client base of my own. In 2017, I quit all my other freelance and part time jobs to just focus on the jewelry business. Last spring, the business was getting a little out of hand. I was making all the jewelry myself and wasn’t able to keep up with the demand. Also, my clients were telling me that they wanted me to make more wearable, every day pieces as well as the big, over-the-top couture pieces I was making. So I decided to listen to my clients (you should always listen to your clients!!) and take some time to develop a line that could be reproduced and sold both online and in more stores across Houston and the state. That’s what I’m doing today.

Great, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
The biggest bump in the road so far was the online store launch date: it was during Hurricane Harvey! Lol! Some of my pieces got held up in a mail facility that got flooded and they arrived soggy (ew). So I had to launch only about half of the collection. Small businesses really took a hit after Harvey, no one was buying what we were selling. Needless to say, it was a rough start. Luckily, the holidays arrived soon after and all my customers were really excited about the new line! I shot the look book in Marfa early January and now I’m having the official launch party later this month.

Please tell us about your business.
Launching the collection online has been a huge endeavor. I had a lot of demands on what kind of fashion brand I wanted to be. Not only did I want my product to be well designed, I wanted everything to be sustainable too. Fashion companies are big polluters and known for their “churn and burn” culture. I knew I didn’t want to re-enter into that kind of environment but how would I make my brand different?

First, how would I manufacture product? I decided it was time to explore 3D-printing. Although I’m professionally trained creating 2D-cad specs that are handed off to an outsourced factory, I didn’t really know how to work the 3D-cad programs needed to connect to the new stateside factories’ 3D-printers. After many YouTube tutorials and diving many open-sourced 3D-cad programs, I’m starting to get the hang of it. All my pieces sold online have some aspect of 3D-printing. Some have 3D-printed molds: the hot metal is poured into the mold then polished once cooled. This process is updating rapidly, some of the metals are able to skip the mold step and are able to be heated up and printed it layer by layer. I think most jewelry will be 3D-printed in the future, and I’m proud to be on the forefront of this process (I think I’m the only designer in Texas following this model right now). It’s also way more cost efficient. I just print what I need, I’m not beholden to factory product minimums, and I can follow a made-to-order model that is way more sustainable. The whole process is made in the USA and creates new types of manufacturing jobs of the future.

Secondly, what would my brand represent and how would I get it there? The road would’ve been a lot more bumpy if I didn’t have a good team of individuals in place to help me along the way. Although I don’t have any employees, Houston has so much creative freelance talent that I’ve been able to grow my brand through these relationships. Houston is such a “yes!” city, especially when working with other creative individuals. There would be no way I would be able to grow this brand like I have in any other city.

Some of the individuals I’ve worked closely with include:

Lauren Tennet, a business coach and brand consultant helped me develop my values for my company. We focus on well-being, sustainability, roots-awareness and forward-thinking through casual luxury products and accessories.

My jewelry ambassadors include Andrea Simmons of FaceForward makeup and tanning, Mellie Baxter, model and health and well-being expert, and Robin Beltran, model and private vegan chef. They have been instrumental in spreading the word about my business. Never underestimate the power of word-of-mouth: I’m planning to grow more this way through a local muse program I’m developing through social media.

My assistant, Vincent Guerra, works visuals at West Elm (we met when I worked there!) and he helps me with my own visuals: setting up booths for market, directing photo shoots, choosing color palettes, etc. Without him, I would still be selling jewelry out of a dirty white tray.

Do you look back particularly fondly on any memories from childhood?
Both my grandmothers were very stylish. I think it was one of the reason I became interested in fashion as a kid. My grandmother, Mary K (aka Grandmary), would babysit me when my mom was at work and we would dress up and have tea parties. She would always bust out her most gorgeous dresses and jewelry. My other grandmother, Jean (aka Mimi), taught me how to sew. She was a master seamstress and one of the most creative people I’ve ever known.

Contact Info:

Image Credit:
Runway photo provided by Fashion X Houston. Dress by David Peck of Miles David.
Look book photos shot by Dominique Beltran (Instagram: @domsquiat).

Getting in touch: VoyageHouston is built on recommendations from the community; it’s how we uncover hidden gems, so if you know someone who deserves recognition please let us know here.

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