Words: Charlie Elizabeth Culverhouse
Calling yourself ‘the happiest brand on Earth’ may be an ambitious statement for some, but for Dauphinette, the sentiment couldn’t ring more true. The brand’s founder Olivia Cheng has built a whimsical world with her focus on positivity working to create fanciful floral creations, dream-like accessories and playful garments unlike anything else on offer.
The unique name comes from the French word, Dauphin, meaning the king's eldest son and heir to the throne, mixed with the traditional feminine suffix ‘-ette’. This combination, while also sounding brilliant as a brand name, symbolises a change; a modernisation of the old ways, i.e.where only a son could be heir, to bring about a new sense of agency and possibility. And that’s just what Dauphinette is about.
In 2018, with just $2,000 in the bank, Olivia Cheng launched Dauphinette, debuting her design skills with a small collection of one-of-a-kind upcycled vintage coats. At the time she was still studying to get her business degree at New York University and cramming in her side hustle in her spare time. After painting Andy Warhol-esque flowers onto the thrifted outerwear and sewing feather cuffs and hems to others to build her first collection, her online store launched with 36 pieces of outerwear. When those three dozen pieces sold out, Cheng saw her chance.
In the next three years, Dauphinette would grow to include handbags, accessories, extravagant runway garments, homeware, and a highly distinctive selection of ready-to-wear pieces. Each and every piece lives up to the brand’s tagline “The happiest brand on Earth,” with dreamy collections inspiring feelings of optimism and hope with their inherent playfulness. Mixing the sweet with the surreal, Dauphinette bring designs fashioned out of resin-encased fruits, leaves, and flowers; handbags stitched in the shapes of oven mitts and high heeled boots; mod-inspired dresses with extravagant ostrich feather trims; a slice of white bread covered in daisies that in fact turns out to be a lamp. The designs may seem steeped in novelty, but the quality and impeccable attention to detail present in each item cements Dauphinette’s pieces as timeless seeped in fun and unbridled joy.
With the perfect balance of cool and classic, whimsy and fantasy, Cheng’s collections consistently sell out, only heightening their appeal as fans fight to get their hands on a coveted piece. However, while the brand offers a whole host of designs, there is one style that stands out as their most popular by a long shot.
Today Dauphinette is best known for their garments made using nontoxic resin-dipped flowers. Pressed botanicals appear to float in the clear, hard resin that preserves the delicate material inside. The now iconic design style became part of the brand in 2019, a happy accident opening Cheng’s eyes to the possibilities offered by resin casting. After meeting an artist who worked with the material by chance, she began experimenting with resin and testing its limits. Around a year after introducing her first resin pieces, noticing the reaction they received, Cheng experimented further. Anything that could be preserved was cast in resin discs; slices of fruit, rosebuds, Anthurium. Her parents’ home in Illinois, where Cheng spent the first weeks of lockdown in 2020, became a laboratory for the young designer, opening up new and wild ideas for her growing brand. The end product of this creative time is truly astonishing. The designs, which Cheng sells under the group term ‘Chainmaille,’ see hundreds of real preserved botanicals intricately assembled, their resin casings linked together with silver-plated stainless steel jump rings. The overall look is one of feminine armour, a soft, whimsical look juxtaposed by hard textures and tactile materials - something completely new and exciting.
The resin dominated designs have since appeared on NYFW runways, on the bodies of celebrities like Keke Palmer and Gigi Hadid, on characters in shows like the Hulu reboot How I Met Your Father, and last but definitely not least, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s In America: a Lexicon of Fashion collection, making Cheng the youngest designer to be featured in the exhibition.
Sustainability is a major factor in Cheng’s creative process. From her origins selling upcycled secondhand pieces, she has continued to ensure all her materials are not just sustainable, but are the most sustainable they can be, with the designer taking time to fully understand the impact various materials have on the environment. “I put a lot of time into researching and finding better, more sustainable alternatives,” she told Teen Vogue. “Before deciding to incorporate by-product leathers, I did a lot of research on what exactly a ‘by-product leather’ entails and how the impact of the leather industry to the animal’s life can differ, depending on the part of the world and the culture the material comes from.”
The process is one of continuous education. As well as working with eco-friendly and vegetarian materials, she also aims to source them sustainably and works with a facility that gathers the majority of its stock from historic Italian tanneries that have closed down or have seasonal leftovers that would likewise be discarded. “They also focus on using vegetable-tanned products,” Cheng further shared with Teen Vogue, “which is an ancient, eco-friendly tanning process that uses only natural materials, such as tree bark.”
As if she wasn’t busy enough already, last month Dauphinette launched their little sister brand, Meyfleur. A sweet link to her roots, the brand sells a host of upcycled and vintage pieces curated exclusively by Dauphinette, promising quality and authentic gems from across the decades. The move just goes to show how passionate Cheng is about fashion and her love is infectious. In all her designs, the joy that shines through has come from her; it feels incredibly personal. That passion has to be the ultimate driving force behind Dauphinette. At just 23-years-old, Cheng has grown her business without any outside investment into a full-fledged fashion and lifestyle brand whose boundaries currently seem endless. In three years, she has gone from a college student with a side hustle to a business owner with a series of successful collections, two brick-and-mortar stores in New York City, and she’s even made it onto Forbes coveted 30 under 30 list. Impressive is an understatement.