Photo by Carlos Felix
Julia Weems is the fashion director at Istituto Europeo di Design Barcelona
Julia Weems’s journey to fashion director at one of Barcelona’s leading design schools was anything but straightforward.
After working from a young age in fashion in New York, without any formal training, she moved to Barcelona with her Spanish husband; however, he had been out of the country for 20 years and was told by authorities that he no longer had Spanish citizenship. With Julia’s own status here initially dependent on that of her husband’s, she took the decision to apply for a student visa to be able to stay with him while he sorted out his paperwork and started studying at the Istituto Europeo di Design Barcelona (IED). She also freelanced as a stylist, created a T-shirt line and organised shopping and cultural tours based around the Barcelona fashion scene. When her course was finished, she stayed on at the school as a teacher, later taking over as director of Fashion.
How did you get to where you are today? I actually started as a student here. I have a bit of a backward story. I’m from the States and I started working in fashion in New York in 1999 as a freelance fashion stylist and costume designer. I worked at style.com as a market editor, styling for glamour and paper magazines and many celebrities as well. Then I worked with a performance artist, Julia Mandle, organising street performances and designing costumes. So I started by working. At the same time I was working, I was studying at New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualised Study, a school where you design your own major. My thesis and studies were on 'Non-Verbal Communication and Clothing'. I studied how we communicate with our bodies, our dressing, social codes, etc.
And then I came to Spain, well, because of love. My husband is from here. We found ourselves in a bit of a strange situation when we came here. He had lived outside the country for about 20 years, and when he came back, they told him he wasn’t Spanish. So, it was a bit of a difficut situation to be in, because obviously my permission to be here was attached to him being Spanish, and being legal. So all of a sudden, we’d made this big life change, we’d saved as much as we could trying to come here, and they tell us we have to re-register him like a baby and it took a year to get the papers. We were making the decision of 'what do we do?' I couldn’t stay here legally; he couldn’t work; I couldn’t work; he couldn’t leave the country, so he was kind of stuck here without being able to do anything. So I said, "look, I’ll study, get a student visa, we can rent an apartment, we can open a bank account, and you know, we can live our lives." At this point, I had worked in fashion for over six years, but I had never actually studied fashion design. I ended up signing for the course at IED Barcelona. I continued working while I was a student here. I worked as a freelance stylist at Circuit, a catwalk in Barcelona Fashion Week, as part of José Castro’s team during the years that he was showing in Paris Fashion Week and 080 in Barcelona. It was a bit strange for me to go back to school actually. But it was great, you know, I met everyone here and then immediately after I stopped studying here, I started teaching. And then I went from teaching to co-ordinating the BA programme so I co-ordinated the validation process with the University of Westminster and then for the first year of the programme I was the co-ordinator of the course. Then the fashion school director of the school left, and they offered me the position.
What’s your role at the school? It’s the full co-ordination of the courses, both in Spanish and English. I teach classes that are related to materials, so all of the fabrics, fibres, anything the students use to make their garments. I co-ordinate experimental projects. I also control all of the students, anything they’re unhappy with, making sure we’re following the direction we want as a school. And it’s quite an exciting time with both of our programmes now being validated. Moda, taught in Spanish, is a titulor superior 240ECTS and Fashion, taught in English, is a BA Honours validated by the University of Westminster. There’s a lot of potential and a lot of changes and improvements and ideas that I have, and now's the time to do it. We are really focusing on each student developing their own creative potential and style.
Describe the school’s outlook and approach to its work. To begin, IED is part of a network of schools that includes locations in Italy, Spain and Brazil. This international culture mix is inherent to the IED student experience. In terms of IED Barcelona, I think that even in terms of the architecture, it’s a space that lends itself to being a community. We have a lot of big open space that can be shared between all of the different areas and all of the different students. We have a large percentage of international students, nationalities and languages at the school; around 70 percent of our students are foreigners. This is a very important part of studying at IED. We feel that not only are the programmes coordinated for the students to learn [and], the teaching staff as working professionals, but the students mixing between cultures and languages really opens up the mind and provides inspiration and understanding that wouldn’t exist otherwise.
We invite alumni back to discuss their work and what they’re doing. We do things within the fashion school between teachers and students. There’s always special guests coming in, who do master-classes and seminars.
We’re always involved. The school very much has a presence in Barcelona. The design department did an installation on one of the streets for the Festes de Gràcia last year. We’re always present at The Brandery and 008 Barcelona. We really try to give students as much exposure as possible. We’re always trying to promote their work and give them some publicity. We travel internationally with students’ final collections to different international fashion weeks, for example Dubai, Russia and Colombia.
Tell me about your other projects outside of IED. I had a T-shirt line, MYBS, but then I had a break when I had a baby, and now I’m actually working on a new personal creative project, on juliaweems.com
I also organised shopping and cultural tours based around the local Barcelona fashion scene. Depending on the group type—design students or tourists—there would be more or less shopping involved. For the design students coming and travelling through Barcelona, I’d take them to different local boutiques, and also studio tours of designers and their workspace. The tourists generally wanted more of a shopping tour, but by visiting more local and underground boutiques, and tienda-tallers (store-workshop spaces that are quite popular with local independent designers).
What is it about Barcelona? For me, Barcelona is the perfect balance of big and small. There’s the small-town feel, people talk within neighbourhoods, get to know each other, at the market or in a bar. I’m originally from a small town in Louisiana. I came from the small-town life, but I don’t want too small. As soon as I could, I moved to New York. But New York was stressful. I worked 15 hours a day, seven days a week. It’s hard to continue to live that way if you want a life. Here in Barcelona there are tons of events, mixture of cultures of people coming in and out. At the same time, everything closes on a Sunday, people still have a siesta, and the slow lifestyle still exists. It’s a quality of life.
You’re close enough [to other places] to meet creative needs. My husband is a musician and he sometimes has this sudden urge to go to London when he needs to be overwhelmed with inspiration. You can travel to London, to Paris, and you can get your injection of consumption and materialism and you can come back,
What inspires you? Positivity and everyone having a personal journey and wanting to feel and wanting to experience different things in life, and how people achieve that. I think with new technology, certain generations are losing the personal touch. Technology is creating experience. Actual contact with people is important, not just digital life.
Being surprised—you can’t be surprised in New York. You used to walk around and almost every other person would make you think, "what an interesting looking person". Here in Barcelona, the unexpected isn’t so expected. You never know what you’ll find. Every day you’ll see people in a different routine.
Where are your family? I have family in Texas, also in Chicago, and my husband’s family are in New York. So when we go to the States, it’s a bit mad. You know, when I lived in New York, I lived in New York. The only place I would vacationally travel would be to go back and see my family in Texas. And now, I’ve been to London and Paris so many times. I travel all around Spain. You can travel around so much here. Whenever I travel, I always find the local designers and the local stores. Finding the culture but from that creative side, not from the tourist market.
Would you say that you follow fashion or you create it? I’m aware of all of it, the trends and the silhouettes. But in terms of my personal style and what I create, it’s mine. I buy a lot of vintage pieces; I take items and completely manipulate them into mutants, almost. For me, to go shopping in Zara or places like that, I could shop there easily, but instead of buying one garment, maybe I buy four of the same shirt and I sew them together to form another kind of mutant, and then that’s how I’ll wear it. So in that sense, I don’t really follow trends.
What are your views on sustainable fashion? Actually, the new project that I’m working on for my website is going to be all about recycled or sustainable materials. In our culture, I think we’ve probably produced everything that we could ever need in our lives for the next thousand years. We should close all the factories. But definitely in terms of my own creations, creatively, I find it much more interesting to use things that have already been made and give them a new life.
What changes have you noticed in fashion? There’s much more attention to detail. People are starting to value quality; the more human and the more personal, rather than the mass-produced. Little by little, clients want quality over quantity. People are shopping less, spending more on something more special. Little by little, it’s starting to change.
What’s your youngest fashion memory? I actually have it all in my house in Louisiana. My collection of Barbies is completely cut up, taped together, mixed and matched. My mum saved it all and was like, “Oh my God! I should’ve known!” They all have tattoos, I cut their hair; I mixed and matched their limbs and skin colour. There is not one outfit untouched. Everything was changed around; nothing is the original.
I was about 12 years old and told my mum, “Buy me a sewing machine, I can sew.” I’d never had a class or anything, so she just bought me the cheapest sewing machine she could find at WalMart. I think it was $30 or something. She thought I couldn’t sew and it wouldn’t last. It was just a phase. And I don’t really remember this but the day she brought it back, she said she remembers giving it to me, and I’d picked up some black sequined fabric. She said I was really quiet in my room for a few hours, but she could hear the sewing machine. And when I came out, I’d made some pants. So I definitely had the structural and visual creativity from flat to 3D from an early age.