The Fabric of Life
Jean Mason ’11 has worked for some of the biggest brands in fashion, including Eileen Fisher, Lilly Pulitzer, and Urban Outfitters. Today she’s a designer in the kids’ department at San Francisco-based Stitch Fix, and she runs her own business, jeanmasonPRINT, designing commemorative tea towels. Mason spoke with DAM about her artistic inspiration, the importance of saying yes, and developing a side hustle.
When did you become interested in textile design?
I moved to New York after college, and I was working at Condé Nast and didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I had a basis in printmaking coming out of Dartmouth, and I was doing my studio work on nights and weekends at a little studio space in Midtown. Thea Stusman ’13 had a friend who was starting a fashion label. She approached me and wanted to do a collaboration for her capsule collection. I hadn’t done a textile design before but I feel like the name of the game is just say yes and figure it out. I figured out how to do a repeat pattern in Microsoft Word, which seems really funny because I now use all this advanced textile design software. So I just sent her a little line drawing that she turned into a sweater. After I saw what was just a doodle on the back of a napkin become a product, I was like, “Holy sh*t, this is an actual job.” From there I quit my job and got a couple internships, just to confirm that was what I wanted to do. Then I got into a fibers program at the Savannah College of Art and Design.
Why did you feel it was important to do a grad program?
I knew that I wanted to be a textile designer, but I just didn’t understand how you get from something scribbled on a piece of paper to a fully finished product. How do you digitize work? How do you clean it for production? How do you know how many colors you’re allowed to have in a design? All those technical things were a huge gap in my education. I went back to grad school to kind of pump the brakes. I guess you can learn that stuff on the job, but I wanted a more intensive training.
You’ve worked with a wide range of major brands. What lessons have you taken from those companies?
I didn’t really realize until I got into those jobs how truly different the approaches to design are. Those different environments gave me a good sense of the values that were important to me as a designer. How much is a big name-brand important to me versus how much is developing business acumen important versus how much do I really want to put my pen to paper every day? And how much do I want to be involved in the production-related aspects of my work?
How do you like working within a brand’s specific design constraints?
I actually enjoy constraints—having them helps me separate my personal work from my 9-to-5 work. With Lilly Pulitzer, the prints are very painterly, with super bright colors and animals. So when I’d be doing my own work, anything I had that fell into that bucket, I’d save for my job. And then any other ideas I had, I could get out of my system in my own work.
Stitch Fix is a little different because it’s a data-driven company. Originally we sold third-party brands, but now they’ve gotten into designing their own stuff based on data from customer feedback. That’s definitely a constraint that I have now—is this design decision that I’m making backed up in data? It’s definitely a very Silicon Valley approach to design.
What’s your artistic inspiration?
I really soak in the culture and the visual cues and the environment of wherever I’m living. Recently Ive been drawing more succulents because I live in San Francisco. My work shifts every time I move.
You also design tea towels as a side hustle—how did that start?
My mom works at an interior design store in Philadelphia, and she thought they needed a tea towel that describes the Main Line, which is the little cluster of suburbs outside of Philadelphia where I’m from. She asked me to make something, and I printed 300 Main Line-designed tea towels and sent them to our store. Those sold out really fast, and I thought I should do a New York design or a Philadelphia design. Now I have custom clients—a lot of brides who want custom tea towels for their weddings and the Savannah Bee Co. commissioned towels for its stores. It’s been a nice side project because it’s grown slowly with me and I’m gradually expanding my number of retailers and learning how to register a business, pay taxes, and all those little things.
How has Dartmouth influenced your path?
Having a combination of fine arts with a liberal arts foundation and understanding how to write and present your ideas—which you learn in your freshman writing seminar, basically—has been something that’s served me pretty well when I was writing my thesis for grad school,and in daily interactions trying to explain my work to buyers or people who are critiquing my work in a more fine art setting.
What advice would you give someone who wants to pursue a career in art?
My approach was just saying yes to everything, even if I wasn’t sure that I could execute.
If you fail, you fail. But if you don’t fail, you might discover a new career path for yourself. I also think getting a breadth of experience is important. There’s no shame in doing internship after internship if you feel like you’re still learning. I wasn’t sure how I wanted to use my art—did I want to be a fine artist? Did I want to be at a large fashion company or at a smaller studio? You kind of have to try it all out in a relatively low-commitment way until you can understand what lights your fire.