When it comes to bridal brands, we tend to skip ahead and go straight to the dresses before learning anything about the people who create them.
So, we’re doing things a little differently at Cathleen Jia (a running theme you’re sure to spot), and letting you get to know the woman behind this bridal brand.
Everything from how she ‘fell’ into the wedding industry, the first gown she designed aged 7 and how the original Cathleen Jia studio was in fact a tiny shed in her parents backyard.
So, without further ado, it’s our absolute pleasure to introduce you to Cathleen and share the epic origin tale of Cathleen Jia Bridal.
Before starting Cathleen Jia Bridal, what did you do?
Before I began my label I worked in a few different fields but all related to fashion. I knew from a young age I wanted to be in the fashion industry. So while I was studying, I worked a few retail jobs, then became a Flagship department manager. Did a bit of safety gear product development, and by complete chance I fell into bridal.
My first job in the wedding industry was full on. I was barely 23 years old and was entrusted to rebrand an old school bridal boutique, and got sent overseas on a buying trip. I learnt so much so quickly I basically had bridal whiplash.
What drew you into the world of wedding dresses?
When I said I fell into the industry, I meant I was given unbelievable opportunities and that led to me falling in love HARD with wedding gowns. And, to be honest, what girl doesn't love the idea of being surrounded by pretty things all day?
The thing that really drew me in was the human connection in bridal. Fashion has moved into such a fast paced space, so a lot of the connections between maker and wearer are completely lost in the rapid turnover - which is really sad.
I can say for sure bridal is one of the last remaining places where ‘the customer’ still craves that emotional connection between her, the dress and the designer. For that reason, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to give up this game.
What was the first wedding dress you fell in love with?
Okay, confession: I love so bloody many. But, if I had to pick my most memorable gown, it wouldn’t actually be a wedding dress. Instead it’s Keira Knightly's emerald green gown in Atonement. I remember seeing it and just immediately fell in love with the cut, the elegance, the colour... everything!
I even designed a gown inspired by that look and she went on to become our best seller for over three years!
Do you remember the first wedding dress you ever designed? What inspired you? What roadblocks did you hit? Did it look good?
So, I can't exactly remember the process of my first ever wedding dress because I was probably 7 years old. I have been sewing since I knew how to hold a needle.
I can say I have been and always will be inspired by fabrics. I am a very tactile designer and I love the way materials naturally fall, and I just let that guide me. I think maybe that is why the Cathleen Jia style is always very elegant and not contrived.
As for roadblocks, it does happen but only when I am being stubborn and trying to force something. Most times I would just walk away and "let it marinade", before I return with fresh eyes and way less of a grump!
Do you remember the specific moment you thought 'f**k it, i'm gonna start my own bridal business'?
Surprisingly I do! I was 25, and putting some veils away and then it just hit me: That feeling that I can do this on my own. I definitely had a lot of experience for my age so I thought let's just do it! I am a very intuitive person, and most of my decisions and designs are based on vibes - and this was by far the biggest ‘vibe’ in my life.
What was it really like setting up your own business? And how did the first year go?
I was so young, I was just happy to learn as I went. I am a literal sponge when it comes to new information and am a pretty quick learner, so I was able to adapt to business life quite easily.
Honestly, the first year went by in a big old blur. I remember I didn't have any capital saved, I was still working full time and I would use that money to build the business and sew after a day of work. My first studio was a 3m by 3m garden shed in my parent's backyard. My then boyfriend (now husband) had to put flooring down for me as it was literally mud. I saw my first client and stockist there. It’s hilarious thinking back to those days now that Cathleen Jia is what it is.
What was the mantra of the Cathleen Jia brand when it started and how has it changed?
I knew from very early on that I wanted to create a different kind of bridal and I love vintage designs. So for that reason, the beginning of Cathleen Jia was heavily influenced by this style and I was definitely known for making vintage inspired wedding gowns.
I think we are still influenced by those elements at Cathleen Jia today, but we’re much more modern and refined now. Our designs are now focused on timelessness and ease, we really want to encourage brides to be creative with their wedding day look and even think about wearability beyond her big day.
How does the brand look now vs. back in the days of the garden shed?
So, I have mentioned a bit about my 3m by 3m garden shed situation when I first started… Luckily we moved a few times since but we are now in an even bigger ‘shed’! No, it's a warehouse with a proper mezzanine, where we see brides and they can overlook the production of our gowns.
We are still a tiny team, but have done multiple collaborations and made so many amazing friends in the wedding industry. Since 2017, we've expanded internationally and we are now also stocked in Hong Kong, Malaysia, Netherlands, Germany, Belgium and the UK. Look out US, you are next!
If you could describe your Cathleen Jia Bridal journey in one sentence what would it be?
A forever learning experience with lots of ugly cries, then happy tears, tanties, laughter, happy dances, love, hard work, resilience, learning about yourself, anxieties... but I would do it all over again in a heartbeat. Because I am so proud of what we have created.
Now you know the woman behind the brand, be sure to check out the stunning gowns she has created for brides worldwide. Shop the collections here and have a peep at the breathtaking campaigns just here.