Her styles, linear and clean, belie the path that Eden Prairie’s Jeannine Cavallo took while launching her design career. It was a circuitous route, which took her from a childhood hobby to the work of some of England’s best authors and into a university science lab, finally coming back to an art that ran deep within her bloodline.
The Detroit native spent her childhood at the hem of three generations of seamstresses. “It was just something I grew up with,” Cavallo says. She knew her apple didn’t fall far from the family tree when, as a young girl, her grandmother gave her a sheet, and Cavallo made herself a white dress. “It was my Holly Golightly moment,” she says, referring to a scene in the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s when Audrey Hepburn’s Golightly festoons a bedsheet into a chic cocktail number. Cavallo continued to sew. “It was something I did as a hobby,” she says. “It was something I did to relax.”
Cavallo eschewed her hobby for a decidedly more serious endeavor, attending the University of Michigan to major in English literature with a minor in biochemistry. She intended to work toward a dual degree in medicine and law, but Cavallo had to rescind her application to medical school after her husband, Malik Cavallo, was relocated to Eden Prairie. Shortly thereafter, Cavallo’s mother’s health took a turn, and she cared for her for three years until her mother’s death from kidney disease in 2010. Cavallo turned her grief into a life-changing decision. “It was after that I decided to use what (my mother) had given me to start this business,” she says. “I felt it was something I should do—needed to do. It helped me through the grieving process.”
J. Cavallo Designs began in 2012 and is based in Eden Prairie. Cavallo uses pattern makers and a sewing contractor in New York City to assist in production. Ranging in price from $1,500 to $3,100, the collection’s price point calls for a buyer’s commitment, rather than a one-season relationship. Fortunately, designs are created to transcend, not only seasons, but years. “We’re going against the grain,” Cavallo says, noting that most collections are seasonal. Cavallo considers her pieces timeless.
The 2015 fall collection, her first, is a success. “The response to it has been very well received,” she says. The 21-piece collection is classic with a modern twist. Cavallo is inspired by old Hollywood style—think Hepburn and Grace Kelly. “When I shop, I look for those types of pieces,” she says. The clean and tailored items come with an element of surprise. Cavallo employs draping down the back of a dress and printed fabric to up the “wow” factor. Wardrobe pieces feature ¾-sleeve jackets, an hourglass bustier, pencil dresses and skirts, scarf-neck blouses, slim leg pants and the staple of every woman’s fashion repertoire—the “ultimate blouson-back, little black dress.”
Customer Monique Lurry says a Cavallo wardrobe can go from boardroom to nightlife, and she is attracted to the line’s bold colors and classic cuts. “Her designs make me feel more feminine, if you will,” she says. “Her designs are just classy pieces. When I decide on pieces to buy, they need to transcend time,” adding the clothing is “almost vintage in nature.”
While customers may purchase items through her online store, Cavallo accepts private appointments. Clients may request some made-to-order pieces, but the designer prefers to add or subtract elements to her ready-to-wear line to make the clothing unique to the buyer. Cavallo considers her customers to be working and well-traveled women between the ages of 25 and 50 years old, who shop online. “She enjoys giving, and she cares about good craftsmanship and style,” she says of her clients. She enjoys giving—that’s an unusual descriptor for a designer to use, but it’s apropos when one considers how Cavallo conducts her business.
“What I really, really love about her company is the philanthropy part of it and her celebration of artisan women,” Lurry says. Cavallo partners with Women for Women International, a nonprofit organization that works to sustain businesses and opportunities for women living in eight countries affected by war and conflict. Since 1993, nearly 420,000 have participated in the program. “We bring women together in a safe space to learn life, business and vocational skills,” the website notes. “Once enrolled, each receives a monthly stipend—a vital support that enables her to participate. Women increase their ability to earn an income with new skills that are in demand. They learn about their legal rights, and they become knowledgeable about health and nutrition. The result—stronger women, stronger families and stronger communities. This ripple effect is profound.”
“The story is about the women,” Cavallo says. “We really believe in what they’re doing.” Her design business is connected to about a dozen women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, who have received training, business guidance and education about their human rights. The women created tie-dye fabric, which was developed into a print used in the fall collection. The fabrics thematically represented Congo Garden (brown, orange and green) and Congo Night (black, dark blue and purple). In turn, 10 percent of Cavallo’s sales go back into the program. “The industry is a woman’s business,” she says, adding “It’s not a slave business. It’s their talent. I feel it’s important to honor that and support that,” she says. “If it helps break the cycle of poverty, that’s what we’re all about.”
Continuing to Create
Like any creative, Cavallo continues to dream up more ways to infuse her style into the fashion landscape. "There are many things I’d love to do,” she says, including adding more couture pieces, bridal wear and a junior collection. In the meantime, Cavallo has tossed her hat into a contest. (Not Lifetime’s Project Runway, which people have asked her about joining. “It’s just not quite what I want to do,” she says.) Last fall, she competed in Martha Stewart’s “Made in America” contest.