Reviving Style: Remnants to Runway

Redding Upcycle Fashion Designer Julie Kong…

Anderson resident Julie Kong calls her current incarnation as an upcycled fashion designer her second act, but there were hints of it at her previous job. As a librarian at Boulder Creek School, she was the cool adult in multi-colored skirts and blouses who would mesmerize children with her outfits as well as the stories she read.

“I’d get calls from mothers telling me their daughters wanted skirts like I was wearing,” she says with a laugh.

Photos courtesy of Redding Buzz

Kong has been upcycling clothing for decades, but has recently made the work her main focus. Her Sugar Cane Sweet Designs have been garnering much attention, as well. In April, she won the Redding Fashion Alliance’s SewCiety: Earthday Fashion Challenge and Runway, which challenged participants to create from found materials.

“They wanted to call attention to upcycling,” she says. “It’s getting pretty trendy right now. It’s taking something old and making it new again. It was a fantastic show. It was like Project Runway with the judges. There was just so much talent, it was unbelievable.”

Photos courtesy of Redding Buzz

Using a pattern she’d held onto from the late 1970s, Kong used a tablecloth and table runner she found while thrift shopping as well as her own embroidery designs to create a stunning halter wrap dress modeled by her daughter, Alana Kong. “One of the judges called it a naughty apron dress,” she says. “I grew up in the ‘70s. That’s what we wore!” While both she and Alana thought the comment meant a sure loss, they were both delighted when she won the competition.

Even more delightful was the camaraderie and talent of fellow contestants.“Theirpointofviewonupcyclingwasamazing,”saysKong. “There’s so much creativity up here in Northern California.”

Photos courtesy of Redding Buzz

Kong grew up in Redding and attended Chico State. “They didn’t have a fashion design major, so I made my own major,” she says. “I took any creative class I could find.” She’d honed her talent from an early age, having learned to sew from her mother, who made clothes for her family. “Ialwayswatchedmymomsewing,”shesays.“Icouldhearthevroomof the sewing machine at night. It sort of put me to sleep.”

Despite encouragement from a college professor to stay in the area and develop her career in the North State, Kong took off to Hawaii to explore the heritage of her father’s family. She enjoyed an early career as a flight attendant for Hawaiian Airlines and lamented the shapeless muumuus that served as uniforms.

Photos courtesy of Redding Buzz

When she returned to the North State with her family, she brought her continued interest in upcycling fashion. “I started upcycling when I was in my late 20s,” she says. “I’d sew doilies onto the backs of dresses.” As a librarian, she still sewed her own clothes, to the great delight of her students. “I make things to bring joy to others,” she says. “I love people feel great. A dress I make, I make to make a woman feel beautiful and unique. It’s a challenge to make something out of nothing, and sometimes you don’t have a pattern. You just wing it.”

Photos courtesy of Redding Buzz

While she delights in her win with Redding Fashion Alliance, it wasn’t her first award. Kong placed third in a nationwide competition during season 5 of the Renegade Seamstress’ online Refashion Runway competition, which put contestants through a series of themed challenges. “I was amazed that I was even picked,” says Kong, noting that the competition required an application and portfolio.

Photos courtesy of Redding Buzz

These wins have been encouragement for Kong to keep going, despite losing some of the local retail shops she has been consigning her creations to due to fluctuations in the retail industry. “Life takes you in all sorts of directions, but I’ve always had that longing to create,” she says. “It was such a push to keep going by winning. It was such an honor to win. It really was.” •

Find her on Instagram @sugarcanesweetdesigns

About Melissa Mendonca

Melissa is a graduate of San Francisco State and Tulane universities. She’s a lover of airports and road trips and believes in mentoring and service to create communities everyone can enjoy. Her favorite words are rebar, wanderlust and change.

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