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Alumna talks breaking into fashion business

Published: Friday, April 26, 2013

Updated: Friday, April 26, 2013 00:04


Ellen Van Dusen (LA ’08) received the call of her career earlier this year when a friend pointed out to her that Malia Obama, one of the most fashionably-tracked 14-year-olds in the world, wore one of her Dusen Dusen dresses. The 26-year-old Brooklyn-based clothing designer knew from the get-go that fashion was her passion, and thus created her own major at Tufts in order to study the neurological responses the brain has to colors, shapes and patterns. The Daily talks to Van Dusen about her time at Tufts and beyond.

Tufts Daily: What did you study at Tufts? How did you create your own major?

Ellen Van Dusen:  It was crazy. I think my year, three people did it. You have to really fight for it. They don’t do a lot to coach you through it. You have to get three advisors on your team who want to push for you. You need three disciplines, which is hard to get those professors to vouch for you. I’m glad I did it because I had to figure out what I’m interested in and it put things in perspective.

TD: How did that shape your current career?

EVD: I kind of knew when I was in my second year at Tufts that I was really into fashion. I very briefly considered transferring, but wanted a more well-rounded education. In the fashion world, it’s been an asset that I didn’t go to fashion school…[and have] a totally different perspective on clothes and people wearing and visual stimuli. I think about that every season when I’m designing prints. It gives me a really unique perspective on clothes. I get a lot of resumes of people from Parsons and it’s hard to tell the portfolios apart because they draw the same way and have the same teachers.

TD: Tell me about moving to NYC and setting up shop in Brooklyn. 

EVD: I had done internships in the city over all the summers after school was out. I knew from the first time I spent a summer here that I was going to live here. I lived with my parents for a few months and then moved to Brooklyn. I worked for Proenza Schouler and then Marie Meyer for a year. And then I stood out on my own. While I was working for Marie, for I was selling stuff on the side and that took off, a write-up in Time Out New York, then I got a write-up in Nylon. That was when I was making one-off pieces by hand. Then I realized I couldn’t ignore the moment. At the time, I was living in a weird loft that was part of an elevator shaft. The people who lived there before me built an extra floor. I was spending every waking moment sewing.

TD: How would you describe your clothes?

EVD: They’re easy wearable shapes in fun bold prints. Everything is really print-focused and color-focused.

TD: I love that you use real women in your lookbook online, not some waifish models.

EVD: I see [myself as making] “lowercase-f” fashion. I want my clothes to be super relatable. A lot of the girls I use for the lookbook are friends of friends. I do a lot of the fitting for the clothes on myself or the dress form, which is a size 4. I want somebody who actually has boobs to fill out the dresses. I find the really tall scary girls really unrelatable.

TD: Malia Obama wore your dress. Did you know that was going to happen?

EVD: No, I had no idea. Someone emailed me and said, “Hey I saw this video, is that your dress?” It was pretty exciting. It was from an Anthropologie collection. I’m glad someone caught it because I never would have known.

TD: What’s your advice to Tufts students who might not know exactly what they want to do post-grad and how they plan to use their degrees in the future?

EVD: That’s hard for me to answer because I knew what I wanted to do. Go with your gut. If you’re interested in something, make your career do something you love. I went into it, because everyone had that attitude that fashion is not for smart people. I work really hard. To be successful in any field, you have to be smart and a hard worker. As long as you bring that to the table you will do well. I would recommend to everyone going out on their own to take ELS [Entrepreneurial Leadership Studies]. That was one of the most important classes I took at Tufts.

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