My first exposure to designer Blanquita Sullivan’s fashion was at her PechaKucha presentation last year. (If you aren’t familiar with PechaKucha, please check it out.) I was smitten. Her line, Bonjour Biqui, is fun, chic and original. I want her to start a line for men, but she’s a very busy person with a full plate; balancing her business making womenswear with her full-time job putting together all the cool and creative displays at Anthropologie. Oh, and raising three daughters with her husband, Michael.
Blanquita was born into a creative family here in San Antonio. Her father is local jazz legend Jim Cullum, and her mother, Blanquita Cullum, worked as a rock DJ before transitioning to a job as a political commentator in Washington D.C. After receiving her degree from Virginia Commonwealth University, Blanquita began working in the crazed, cutthroat world of New York Fashion. She spent a decade working as a buyer, merchandise planner, and retail director for the likes of Betsey Johnson and Anna Sui. Five years ago, her family moved back to San Antonio, where she launched Bonjour Biqui. Her business currently occupies a pop-up store in Hemisfair Park, but she’s currently looking for a permanent space. You can see her work at bonjourbiqui.com.
What sparked your interest in fashion?
My grandmother Blanca, who taught me to sew on her old 1920s sewing machine. She made sculptures out of papier-mâché and all sorts of fabulous costumes. She let me play in her costume jewelry and dress up in her clothes. I usually went for the nightgowns with matching robes. She was very glamorous and had a collection of autographed photos of silent screen stars covering one of her walls.
Are you self-taught?
No. I learned most of it in school and from different people, such as my grandmother, and [local pattern maker] Sylvia McPherson. I went to VCU in Richmond and learned a lot about costume construction and research there, but then took painting at the Art Students League of New York City.
Your work is so much fun. How would you describe your brand to someone who hasn’t seen your clothes?
Each collection is inspired by a story, and very romantic. It’s also inspired by travel, and my fantasy idea of adventure. The dresses sometimes incorporate large floral prints, and can me mixed with graphic prints, like stripes. Some pieces are reversible, and all have pockets … The fit of the dresses is fantastic. I spend a lot of time trying them on all shapes and sizes to get the best fit, and they really do look good on all different types of women. I’m working to expand my size range, but for now I’m doing custom garments for women who don’t fit into what I offer at the moment … Some pieces are handprinted and one-of-a-kind. For the handprinted garments, I paint the garments on the form after they are sewn up, in order to shape the paint on the garment it will lay on the body.
Who inspires you?
My family. Especially my mom and dad. My former boss Betsey Johnson. Painters of all kinds, especially portrait painters. Authors. JK Rowling is a good one. And all kinds of storytellers.
Inspiration seems to be a big part of your work. Walk me through your research process.
Before I research, I usually make up some kind of story in my mind. I come up with a main character and supporting cast. Then I add the location and details. Sometimes I create a love interest or conflict, and maybe a tragedy gets mixed in. Music can be important, too, depending on what the theme is. I will eventually choose a color palette, and start sketching — and then a lot of this ends up on the wall of my studio.
Does creativity come easy for you, or do you struggle with new lines?
Creativity comes pretty easy most of the time. I found that if I don’t give up, and trust that the creative ideas will come, they usually do. Though I’ll admit that I’m always a bit worried that they won’t show up!
What’s the best advice you have for young designers?
I love this quote by Ira Glass: “Nobody tells this to people who are beginners. I wish someone had told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple of years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase. They quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work does’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out, or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal, and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline, so that every week you finish one good story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close the gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s going to take a while. It’s normal to take a while. You’ve just got to fight your way through.”
I think I can claim that I took longer than even Ira Glass! Are there any style types that you avoid wearing yourself?
I usually don’t wear things that are very loose. I tend to like more fitted dresses with some sort of waist emphasis. I also don’t do low-rise pants anymore — I can’t imagine why we ever did that to ourselves. Most women couldn’t even sit down! I don’t wear lots of silk because it is too hot for that here, and you can’t really throw that in the washer. I wear cotton, and things that I can get paint on that look better with paint on them anyway.
How do you balance creativity with commerce?
Working with people and making things that are flattering for them is really fun for me, so commerce seems very natural and easy. I think the hardest part is finding the time in my life to sell and create. Since I work for Anthropologie during the week and have three daughters, I usually have to choose carefully how I want to spend whatever time I have left over. Honestly, everything takes about 10 times longer than I want because I am just so limited on time, so I just have to hang in there, and eventually I get it done.
What’s the most valuable lesson you’ve learned in business?
Keep going, even when you don’t want to, and even if you think your work is no good. It is more important to be nice than right. Attitude is everything.
Who would you want as your celebrity spokesmodel?