A Midtown Manhattan office complex that also happens to be a major tourist attraction doesn’t exactly scream “place where you might discover a cool young designer.” But anyone wandering around Rockefeller Center in search of the ice skating rink or the entrance to the Saturday Night Live studio might find themselves pulled toward a storefront near 5th Avenue that looks like a psychedelic powder room kitted out by an eccentric botanist, or a boudoir as imagined by Lewis Carroll.
Through the plate glass window marked Dauphinette, one can see an astonishing array of items fashioned out of resin-encased fruits, leaves, and flowers; 1960s-ish dresses with ostrich feather trims; and velvet puffer jackets covered in a rainbow insect print. A mural featuring dancing cupids covers every inch of wall. On a wet, grey morning in late September, walking into the boutique’s organized pastel chaos cut through the gloom like a glass of fresh pressed juice cuts through a hangover.
“We pulled this store together in like, 10 days,” says Olivia Cheng, Dauphinette’s 23-year-old founder and designer, as she takes a seat on a mushroom-shaped wooden stool. She points out the tree branches that act as clothing racks—her father collected them from a friend’s yard and shipped them to her along with a few spools of twine from the Midwestern hardware store Menards; Cheng then painted the branches baby blue and used the twine to hang them from the ceiling. She painted the mural, too, over a series of afternoons, and brought in artwork and chairs from her own apartment to finish things off. “I wanted to bring together elements of home to a part of Midtown that doesn’t necessarily feel warm or intimate to that many people,” she notes.
Cheng’s DIY approach to building out her store reflects the way she’s grown her business: with a rare combination of optimism, drive, and a willingness to approach process and material with a genuine sense of curiosity. In the three years since she launched the brand while she was still a college student, she has grown Dauphinette, without any outside investment, from an upcycled online vintage operation into a full-fledged fashion and lifestyle brand, opened two brick-and-mortar stores in New York City, and had two of her dresses featured in the Metropolitan Museum of Art—where she is the youngest designer included in this year’s Costume Institute exhibition, In America: A Lexicon of Fashion.
Attempting to describe the clothing and accessories Cheng has become known for feels like trying to recount a dream where a bunch of unlikely things have been blended together by your subconscious. They makes total sense if you’ve seen them, but they sound absurd out loud: A purse in the shape of an oven mitt, embellished with star-shaped cross sections of okra; a chainmaille harness made from delicate pressed pansies, a tiny purse covered in red polka dots that, upon closer inspection, turn out to be thin slices of cherry tomato. A slice of white sandwich bread covered in daisies that turns into a lantern with the flip of a switch. Everything Dauphinette makes is sweet and surreal—the kind of designs that pop and induce desire on a phone screen, but that also invite closer, tactile in-person inspection.
Cheng, the only child of two Chinese immigrants, grew up in Barrington, Illinois, a town outside of Chicago she describes as “one of those very midwestern, very white suburbs.” When Cheng was a teenager, she and her mother connected over thrift shopping and trips to the mall on Michigan Avenue, where they would always park outside of Nordstrom so they could walk through it and examine the wares on their way to run errands, even though they were “definitely Nordstrom Rack people.” (Earlier this year, Cheng’s mother drove over to see her daughter’s collection on Nordstrom’s shelves.)
“My parents gave me so much, but I was raised with an immigrant mindset of being resourceful. I think some people would call it a scarcity mindset,” Cheng tells me over cappuccinos at a café around the corner from her shop. “They taught me to make the most of what we have.”
By the time Cheng turned 16, she was determined to turn her passion for thrifting into a business. “I was very gung-ho about being self-employed,” Cheng says between sips. “I had zero actual confidence in myself, but I was like, This is what I will do.” She started selling her old clothes and flipping her vintage purchases on Poshmark, eventually making enough money to buy her own groceries and establish a foundation for an independent life. “I’d be sitting in class on my laptop, DM-ing with my customers,” she says, laughing as she recalls her high school experience. “I was like, ‘I have to hit my sales goal for the day!’”
At 17, Cheng enrolled in New York University to study business marketing, but found the program less than inspiring: “They really urge you to work at a bank, not necessarily to do anything entrepreneurial,” she tells me. “I think it pushed me to act more like a defiant child.” The inspiration to start her own upcycled outerwear brand struck while she was digging through vintage shops during a solo trip to Paris. While toying with the concept, her parents weren’t afraid to express their skepticism. Cheng remembers a phone conversation with her father, who told her, “Whatever you're brewing up, don’t do it. Just be a good student.” These days, they’re both all in: “Now I get a little annoyed because I go home and all they want to do is talk about work,” Cheng says with a laugh. “And I’m like, I just want to play Mahjong.”
In August of 2018, she launched Dauphinette’s website with the tagline “the happiest outerwear on earth,” with 36 vintage coats and jackets embellished with her own whimsical hand painted designs. In her business account was around $3,000 in cash, $1,000 of which she raised by flipping a mink coat she had bought at Goodwill for $50. “I had no plan after that,” she tells me, matter-of-factly. “I figured the worst thing that could happen is I fail. And if I fail, I’m still in college.”
By the end of that year, an upcycled Dauphinette fur coat ended up on the pages of New York Magazine’s holiday gift guide. Cheng remembers the editor asking her for a high-resolution photo of the coat against a white backdrop, so she lay it flat on her bed sheet and dragged a barstool into her room to photograph it from above, editing the JPEG on her phone before sending it over. She graduated not long after.
A few weeks after the first Dauphinette fashion show, in February 2020, New York went into pandemic lockdown. Cheng flew back home to Barrington, and started testing the limits of resin on her bedroom floor to get through the quarantine doldrums. She had begun incorporating pressed flowers into her designs years before, but in 2019, met a woman who specialized in preserving flowers and paper-thin slices of fruit in the material, fashioning earrings and pendants out of figs, rosebuds, and dragonfruit. “The second I realized we could preserve things in such a way, I wanted to push beyond where we started,” she says. “I wanted to do a resin chainmaille because I was like, Well, what is something that is really powerful, but that doesn’t dilute the essence of this being a real flower?” Then, as she started to furnish a new apartment back in New York, she began making resin dining tables, trays, coasters and more—something she thought would make sense to share with her customers as well.
In addition to experimenting with new natural materials—from beetle wing sequins to corsets carved from a single plank of wood—she’s currently focused on stacking her office (which currently has seven people working in it) and professional network with people whose skills strengthen and complement hers. She doesn’t hand-paint her pieces anymore, but she does draft her own patterns, occasionally layering her own watercolors or drawings with other images, like scans of pressed flowers from Emily Dickinson’s collection she found in the Harvard University archives. Although she now has an in-house sample sewer, she says her obsession with found materials has never really gone away: “Now I’ll just go over to her with a box of paper cranes, and I’ll be like, ‘What if we quilted these into a purse?’”
Cheng has two Dauphinette stores open thanks to a combination of good timing (read: pandemic-era rent deals) and canny merchandising. She opened her first store in March 2021, on a well-trafficked corner in New York’s West Village. The shop’s whimsical window display is the reason she was able to open her second so soon after: One day last summer, a member of the leasing team at the commercial real estate firm Tishman Speyer happened to be biking by and hit the brakes at the sight of it. Around the time Cheng was striking a deal for her new store, a formal loan request from the Metropolitan Museum came in on a Sunday night while she and a friend were watching an episode of The Jersey Shore. She had no idea what the request was for, and was floored to find out that her work would be included in In America: A Lexicon of Fashion.
The Met chose to display two of her dresses side by side: a floaty silk organza number with pansy and daisy paillettes, and a chainmaille dress comprised of floral discs: daisies, hydrangeas, four leaf clovers, fern leaves, forget-me-nots, Queen Anne’s lace, and tea rose petals preserved in resin. The pieces appeared in a section defined by the term “Wonder” that also includes work by Isaac Mizrahi, Anna Sui, Vaquera, and Marc Jacobs. “Dauphinette’s designs recall the awe and preciosity of the natural world,” Costume Institute Assistant Curator Amanda Garfinkel wrote to me, when I asked her why they included her in that section. “[Cheng] is one of many designers featured in the exhibition dedicated to the ethical production of fashion,” Garfinkel added, noting her use of sustainably sourced florals in particular. “Her designs, which often draw from her childhood and cultural background, reflect the exhibition’s proposition that the strength of American fashion lies in the creative expression of the personal and emotional qualities of clothing.”
Cheng tells me that seeing her designs in the museum, in the same room as Bonnie Cashin’s, whose work she cites as an inspiration, was surreal: “It felt like the afterlife and I was a ghost going back to visit. Because that was more of a postmortem goal,” she says. “For once, I felt as if somebody had perceived my work beyond how I might even aspire to perceive it myself.” (Since the Met show, Cheng says she’s seen an increase in sales for her chainmaille tops, as well as a few inquiries about commissioning organza pieces as wedding dresses.
While one might think a breakout year like this one might have visions of global domination dancing in Cheng’s head, she maintains level-headed expectations about her brand’s future. When I ask her to share some of Dauphinette’s biggest milestones, she offers a philosophical response. “I think the biggest breakthrough I have carried with me is that I am in this to learn, rather than to achieve, succeed, or avoid failure,” she says. “When the odds are stacked so highly against you, I think it’s best not to make lofty assumptions about where you might be in X number of years.”
In terms of five-year plans, she’s staying focused. “I’m interested in creating a brand that could be sustainable, not just in the products, but also in its time span. And at the end of the day, I want to build a really good team,” she concludes, as we finish our coffees and both prepare to get back to work. “It’s not a glamorous goal, but it is the goal that will create a solid framework for us going forward. There’s a lot I don't know how to do. I just want to fall on my face some more and experience those things.”