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The life of a dress
With ties to Milwaukee, Julia Chew explains the production of her raven queen dress


December 2014

With a list of accomplishments that includes her very own clothing line and participation in multiple fashion shows and events nationwide, fashion designer Julia Chew’s career is nothing short of impressive. And what’s even more remarkable? Chew is just 19 years old.

Born in China and raised in Tampa, Fla., Chew has ties to Milwaukee, too. Her paternal grandparents live in Oconomowoc, and she credits her grandmother, who gifted Chew her first sewing machine, with jump-starting her interest in fashion design. Chew wasted little time turning her passion into a profession, teaching herself how to sew via online courses and eventually creating an entire clothing line and a full-time business.

A combination of couture-worthy gowns and cocktail dresses, her line, Xiaolin, is sold online and in-store at four boutiques throughout the country. One is Merle Norman Cosmetic Studio in Oconomowoc, a business relationship formed through her grandparents’ local connections and Chew’s frequent visits to Lake Country. Chew was introduced to the store’s owner, Bethany Frost-Peters, through her grandfather.

Ever the business-minded entrepreneur, Chew analyzed her prospective buyer and market before choosing which garments to feature in Frost-Peters’ store. "I asked myself, ‘What can I bring to Milwaukee?’" she says. "Something a little different — flair, edge, high fashion." And thus a partnership with Merle Norman was born.

Here, Chew takes us through the the creation of her Raven Queen Dress, a process that took two and a half months.

Finding Inspiration

Drawing inspiration from nature, art and music, Chew approaches each new piece as if she’s "writing a novel for a character." Chew collaborated with one of her favorite fashion photographers, Zhang Jingna (whose work has appeared in Harper’s Bazaar and Elle), when brainstorming ideas for the Raven Queen Dress. Like Chew, Jingna is of Asian descent, and both women regularly identify with their heritage in their creative work. The dress’ shape was inspired by the Mandarin collars and elegant silhouettes often found in Chinese dress designs.

Textile Selection

When selecting textiles, Chew gravitates toward darker colors and natural materials like feathers and silk. Much of the selection process, she says, is experimental. "I always consider what type of fabric best brings out the character of the dress," explains Chew. For the Raven Queen Dress, Chew wanted to evoke the feeling of a "gothic romantic fairy tale," so her textile selections included black silk fabric and black feathers to reflect her vision.

The Mock-Up

Before starting to work with the actual dress fabric, Chew creates a preliminary mock-up of each dress using muslin fabric and her initial pattern. "I then drape the mock-up over a dress form," she says. "Seeing the template on a dress form allows me to see its design flaws, its length and how it will lay on a person. I make adjustments from there."

Chew hand sews on feathers at the second fitting.
Photo: MP Studios, Tampa, Fla.

Sewing and Fittings

As with all of her pieces, Chew sewed the dress’ base with a sewing machine and then sewed on its finer details (i.e., the black feathers) by hand. The sewing process required not one, but two, model fittings. The initial fitting, where the model wore only the black silk base, ensured that she could properly walk, sit and stand in the dress, and the second and final fitting, which occurred after Chew had sewn on the feathers and other details, prompted only minor alterations.


On the Runway

The completed Raven Queen serves as Chew’s finale dress when exhibiting her line at major runway shows. The dress has closed her collection at both Park Avenue Fashion Week and Christian Fashion Week and was presented at several smaller shows and events, too. Chew says her ultimate dream is to show at Paris Fashion Week, and her short-term goals include continuing to build her name as a designer and selling her line in more retail boutiques, further expanding its presence.

To see more of Chew’s designs or to contact her directly, visit




This story ran in the December 2014 issue of: