“When I design, I want to do it on my own terms,” said Gail Chovan, designer and owner of Blackmail on South Congress avenue.
This New Jersey-born, Paris-educated woman certainly has been doing it her way, overcoming a series of personal tragedies to ultimately flourish as an independent clothing designer at a time when most of what we wear is mass-produced in Indonesian and Chinese factories. In March, Chovan decided to close up the retail shop she’d overseen for 13 years and transform it into something unique for Austin.
“I turned my shop into my atelier,” she said over coffee in south Austin. “We made the decision that the women’s clothing being made is going to be designed by me and made right there in front of people.”
Indeed, Chovan is always behind her sewing machine, dark-rimmed glasses perched at the end of her nose, diligently working away on some new frock. Although she admitted that she’s not making quite as much money as in the past, she’s thrilled to be done with the production costs and trade shows that are requirements in a traditional retail shop. For this matriarch of the Austin fashion scene, it’s about loving each step of the process.
“I love to sew, and I get to decide if one day I’ll sew, or make jewelry, or cut fabric,” she said. “The reactions of the people who buy it are amazing. They like that I make it right there in front of them.”
She discovered her passion for clothing and design while studying in Paris (she earned her master’s in French literature) and subsequently studied at ESMOD to receive her degree in fashion design. A realization that the design of clothing is itself an art form, and the fact that she could excel creatively, led her to return to the U.S., sell her belongings, and later, work for several years in Paris as a dressmaker and designer to learn every aspect of the business.
Chovan moved to Austin with her then-husband in 1995 after doing makeup for political types on the Chris Matthews show in Washington, D.C. She blogs regularly about her designs, posts pictures of her work online, and gives each customer a handwritten thank-you note. Although she’s part of what can be called the old guard in SoCo, having moved her shop to South Congress in 2001 after four years on South Lamar, Chovan said she’s never felt more gratified than at the present moment.
Although she doesn’t consider herself to be athletic, she served as the co-chair of this year’s Mamma Jamma Ride, a recreational bike ride that has raised more than half a million dollars for women in Central Texas living with breast cancer. “There are so many women who come off of a breast cancer diagnosis and decide to get fit,” she said. “Any way I can support them, I’ll do it.”
It’s an issue close to her heart. She’s battled the disease herself and has seen her mother and sister fight it. At the time of our conversation in late summer, Chovan had just had a mammogram and been given the all clear. However, as she noted, the tests are often wrong. Because Chovan tested positive for a particularly aggressive genetic strain, the doctors recommended that she undergo a double mastectomy in the fall. Her sister has already had the procedure and was in the midst of reconstructive surgery. Chovan, who finished her final treatments in July of 2009, was at ease over the latest diagnosis, though still anxious about the next step. “I still battle depression, at times, with this upcoming surgery.”
Her children, twins who are almost five years old, Creedence Paul and Zelda Nicolette, are her biggest inspiration. She’s constantly amazed at their resilience. The twins, who were born prematurely with a condition known as congenital toxoplasmosis (a parasitic infection that can affect organs such as the eyes, heart and brain), have had 20 different surgeries in their young lives. Although Zelda is blind, she plays the keyboard and is enrolled at Casis Elementary School to learn braille. Creedence plays the drums and is the higher-energy, storyteller of the two.
“When I was in the throes of chemo and feeling miserable, my kids were stars,” Chovan said. “They’ve been through so much more, physically. I’ve got nothing to complain about. We’re so lucky.” Shortly after Chovan, her sister and her mother finished treatment, her father died. Then her mother fell and broke her hip and, at the time of our chat, had just been transferred into rehabilitation. With the demands of running her atelier, taking care of her children and making sure her mother is recovering well, Chovan said she enjoys checking out with “a glass of wine and stupid television.”
She’s been keeping up with orders at the store and making adjustments to the new environment. Some days the demand is higher and other days it’s lower. She’s adamant about having Saturdays and Sundays with her children, no matter what. “People say we choose how we run our lives,” Chovan added. “I choose to kind of focus on three things. The biggest one is my family, then my business and the fashion community. And the third is breast cancer.”