Fashion design has been a dream of Jeannine Cavallo’s since she was a child, raised by three generations of seamstresses in Detroit. But it wasn’t until three years ago, at the age of 42, that her fantasy became a reality.
“At one point, I thought I was going to study design,” she says. “But life happens, things happen.” After studying for the LSAT with the intention of becoming a lawyer, she became pregnant and put her career on hold. In 2007, her husband’s job brought them to Minnesota. For a couple of years, Cavallo studied medicine at the University of Minnesota until her mother fell ill and she left school to become her full-time caretaker. She says it was during that time that she rekindled her passion for designing clothing, using it as a way to cope with the stress of her mother’s deteriorating health. Her mother’s death in 2010 became the catalyst for the designer to launch J. Cavallo.
Despite being born in the Midwest, Cavallo’s line has a decidedly worldly perspective: It’s manufactured in New York City’s garment district and incorporates prints made by female artisans in the Congo, by way of the organization Women for Women International. Cavallo began sponsoring women through the nonprofit more than seven years ago and realized their patterns would look great on richer fabrics—and that she could help support the artisans at the same time. (Ten percent of sales from the collection benefits the organization.)
J. Cavallo’s debut collection, an 18-piece line for fall/winter 2015, includes scarf-neck blouses, elegant dresses, slim-cut pants, tailored jackets, and sculpted bustiers that are covered in the Congolese women’s gorgeous prints, digitally printed onto silk-organza and silk-wool. Dubbed Congo Night and Congo Garden, the patterns evoke a nighttime constellation and a lush garden, respectively, and were created through a traditional tie-dye process.
The collection is currently available on a made-to-order basis directly from the designer’s website, though Cavallo hopes the line eventually will be picked up by upscale department stores and give the Congolese artisans the international exposure their beautiful patterns deserve.