Not many of us can say we discovered our life’s calling while on the floor of a public restroom—desperately clutching onto a toilet whilst taking deep, heaving breaths during some sort of stress-induced breakdown—but that’s exactly where RozeMerie Cuevas realized she wanted to pursue fashion full-time.
First, some much needed context. The year was 1980. Cuevas—a crafty, self-taught seamstress who enjoyed making clothes for herself and friends in her spare time—was asked by her cousin to participate in a locally produced fashion show at the now defunct Richard’s on Richards. The budding designer, then just 18 years old, agreed, but was soon overwhelmed when she arrived at the downtown-Vancouver nightclub with her handmade threads stowed in garbage bags. “All the real designers arrived with their clothes in garment bags,” she recalls for the Straight by phone. “And I just thought, ‘Oh my God, what am I doing here?’ ”
Nevertheless, Cuevas powered through, showcasing a collection of sophisticated mens- and womenswear that accentuated the drama, structure, and big, boxy shoulders rife in ’80s fashion. The women’s line was dominated by black-and-white jackets and sexy, business-inspired evening apparel—each piece with an haute couture edge—while the men’s side consisted of tailored suits in softer, more muted hues.
The range was well received—a fact that was confirmed when Cuevas, overcome by a mix of strain and exhilaration in a bathroom stall after the show, overheard two women praising the “black-and-white scene” she had presented on the runway. “I thought, at that very moment, ‘Yeah, I’m gonna become a real fashion designer,’ ” says Cuevas.
The feeling was strong enough for the Vancouver native to ditch her plans to study commerce at Langara College in favour of a fashion program at Paris’s esteemed École Supérieure des Arts et Techniques de la Mode, otherwise known as ESMOD. Thirty-five years later, and with two successful womenswear lines under her belt, Cuevas is one of Vancouver’s most respected and forward-thinking designers. She now splits her time between Canada and China, where her brand, JAC by Jacqueline Conoir, has seen exponential growth—think 100 brick-and-mortar stores and counting—since entering the market a mere four years ago.
“Every woman has multiple personalities inside—it’s just a matter of bringing them out,” notes Cuevas, who describes the JAC woman as “modern, urban, edgy, and confident”. “And I think clothing has a way of giving us a voice to show what we have inside. Sometimes we feel sexy, sometimes we feel cool, sometimes we feel feminine. And the JAC brand allows us to bring that character and personality out.”
An evolution of Jacqueline Conoir—Cuevas’s first label, which was named after the designer’s late mother and produced and sold for over 25 years at Cuevas’s now shuttered South Granville boutique, Esmode, and a Mount Pleasant studio—JAC takes the quality and careful construction that made its predecessor so beloved in the city’s most stylish professional circles, and applies them to apparel for a new generation. Whereas Jacqueline Conoir emphasized feminine, formfitting suits for the everyday businesswoman, JAC draws inspiration from three fashion capitals—Paris, Milan, and Los Angeles—to craft light and airy garb that’s designed to be lived in and layered.
JAC’s summer 2018 collection, for example, features effortless shirtdresses, ruffled tops, and sheer cardigans in fabrics such as cotton, silk, and chiffon that glide over, rather than cling to, the body. Like most JAC creations, the line is coated in a palette of earth tones—everything from dusty blue and lavender to the always-
reliable black and white—which offer more versatility for the modern woman and, as plant-based dyes, are easier on the environment.
Even the moniker JAC—an acronym for the names of Cuevas’s mom and two daughters, Andrea and Celine—signals a new direction and more youthful demographic for the brand. “After 25 years, our existing customer base had really grown up and was now out of their careers, and retiring or doing other things,” says Cuevas. “Also, fashion changes a lot. So in order to stay fresh and innovative, we needed to do a refresh and rebrand.”
In addition to JAC’s rising presence in China, Cuevas has re-established hometown roots with a flagship at Oakridge Centre, where new and long-time fans can shop the locally designed label’s full array of contemporary womenswear. Vancouverites can also see JAC’s spring and summer 2018 collections at this Sunday’s (June 10) Italian Day on the Drive, where Cuevas will present three fashion shows—with footwear provided by East Van institution Kalena’s Shoes—at East 3rd Avenue and Commercial Drive, an intersection that will be dubbed Piazza Moda for the alfresco affair.
This will be Cuevas’s fourth time participating in Italian Day; the multiblock cultural extravaganza is a perfect fit for JAC, given the line’s Italian influence. “Italy is where I’ve always travelled to find inspiration and fabrics,” says Cuevas.
After a significant amount of time spent in China, the designer is looking forward to reconnecting with the city that first offered a platform for her ambitious, thoughtfully hewn fashions nearly four decades ago. “I have customers who have been with us 25, 30 years, and they still show up in the vintage, 20-year-old Jacqueline Conoir dress,” she says. “And that’s so rewarding. That is one of the reasons I love what I do.”