At age 18, Jillian Lenae Hackett is already an award-winning fashion designer.
Like every fall, thousands of first-year students arrive at Texas Tech University with big dreams. Some want to become standout athletes. Some want to conduct groundbreaking science. Some want to be prolific authors.
One student is already making her dreams a reality.
At just 18 years old, Jillian Lenae Hackett is an award-winning fashion designer whose work has been chosen for New York Fashion Week.
"Everyone tells me I'm mature for my age, and I handle myself more like older adults," Hackett said. "And I understand. I'm not going to be like, 'No, I'm just a normal teenager!' I try to be professional because I know the earlier you handle yourself in a professional manner, the more doors will open for you."
A passion for fashion
Hackett grew up in the small North Texas town of Collinsville, where she became interested in fashion through 4-H competitions.
"Everyone just assumes it's all livestock," she laughed. "I did different events, like sewing, and entered my projects at the State Fair of Texas. I won a handful of awards for different garments I'd made.
"Going into high school, I started trying more difficult projects, and I kept succeeding, so I just kept going from there."
Her junior year, her family moved to the city of Montgomery, near Houston. At age 17, she won third place in the Family, Career and Community Leaders of America's state fashion design contest. In 2019, she established her own brand, Lillian Jenae Designs, to publicize her plans and share her creative work.
For her senior year, she was chosen to be a Nordstrom Fashion Ambassador at the Houston Galleria. The program helped her learn the ins and outs of the fashion industry, gave her behind-the-scenes access to industry projects and events, and connected her with expert advice and tools to develop her budding career.
All The Rage
To stay up to date on formal fashions, Hackett followed Virginia Beach-based formalwear boutique All The Rage on Instagram.
In December 2019, she learned it was hosting a dress design contest for high school and college students, and winning designs would be produced and sold in the store.
When Hackett's friends encouraged her to give it a shot, she decided to make the most of the opportunity. She sketched a handful of evening gown designs and entered the contest.
In early January, she learned she was a finalist and had to submit a new sketch. She took inspiration from the Texas sunset.
"We were driving one evening, and the sky was turning this really pretty magenta color," she remembered. "Through all the buildings in Houston, you could see in the glass of the windows, the sky reflecting back. I took a picture of it, and later on, I thought, 'That would be a really pretty dress.'"
Her final design was a sparkly magenta-colored gown with a fitted bodice, high slit in the skirt, and roping around the collar and sleeves.
"I really like doing neckpieces and overskirts in everything I design," Hackett said. "They're my two biggest things I try to keep consistent. I also wanted to add something that could change the look and give it multiple options without having multiple dresses. I also like things that are really, really sparkly without having to commit to that with the whole main piece.
"Personally, I really like how versatile it is. Because the sleeves are detachable, as well as the neckpiece, there are three different looks in one piece."
After voting by All The Rage's social media followers, Hackett's dress design was named the winner on Jan. 24. It will be made and sold for the 2021 prom season exclusively by All The Rage stores.
"I'm so excited about that," Hackett said. "I have always wanted to have something produced – by the time I was 25 was my main goal. But now, I'm 18 and I'm already going to have something that I've designed sold in the store!"
Over the coming months, she will have meetings with the store's production team to see what materials the dress could be made from and who could produce it. She will be working closely with the New York-based brand Faviana and Los Angeles-based SCALA to bring the design to life.
"I have in mind for it to be a magenta and gold sequin blend," Hackett said. "For mass production, I could see it possibly being more of a holographic magenta polyester blend. That's a fabric that has a woven texture, almost, and it changes colors based on how you look at it. It's very popular this prom season. But initially when I designed it, I had in mind sequins.
"I definitely want to keep it budget-friendly. I like to shop on a budget, and I know not everyone has so much money to spend on a dress."
Building the brand
Hackett describes her brand, Lillian Jenae Designs, as an elegant and contemporary, ready-to-wear brand inspired by and created for all women.
According to her website, each garment is made to order and designed to enhance a woman's natural beauty by inspiring playfulness, a sense of adventure and confidence. They are constructed using high-end techniques and materials to ensure a perfect high-end product.
The brand name, Lillian Jenae, flips the L and J from her own name and simultaneously pays homage to her great-grandmother, Lillian, after whom she was named. The family connection is extremely important to Hackett, and she says the name allows her to keep her family close, no matter how far she may go.
But the brand name is not purely sentimental; it's also practical and forward-thinking.
"Should I ever decide to branch out into children's clothing, I could modify the name to Lillian Jane," she explained. "I was trying to position myself to change my brand name if I needed to."
New York Fashion Week
Not long after launching her website and posting some of her designs, Hackett received an unexpected email.
"I actually opened it during lunch and my friend said that either something very bad happened or something very good happened, based on my facial expression," she laughed.
It was something very good.
A London-based company called Oxford Fashion Studios, which seeks out independent fashion designers and helps them gain recognition, found her website and was impressed by one of her designs.
"It was my black Onyx piece, a black, high-collar top with an overskirt I made, that they said caught their attention, and they wanted to see more of what I could do," Hackett said. "They sent me an invitation, saying they wanted me to develop an eight-look collection to be a part of one of their shows in New York that features five-to-six different designers."
To add to the surprise, that show is going to be part of New York Fashion Week for the Spring/Summer 2022 season. It will take place in the fall of 2021, but Hackett is OK waiting. After all, her progress has come much quicker than she ever anticipated.
"Not in a million years would I have expected this," she said. "I used to tell people when I was 5 or 6, 'I'm going to be a fashion designer.' But I never actually thought I would get this far this fast. That is probably the most surprising thing.
"I always hoped I'd get to this point. I thought, maybe by the time I was 35, I'd be showing at New York Fashion Week."
'From Here, It's Possible'
When it came time to pick a university, Hackett had it narrowed down to two options: the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York and Texas Tech.
Lots of factors played into her decision, but it certainly didn't hurt that when she came to tour the campus, she found personal interaction, including a tour from the department chair herself.
"I went to the Texas Tech preview day in October," Hackett said. "I wandered into the Human Sciences building with one other girl, and Sharran Parkinson actually showed us through the fashion facilities. It was wonderful!"
As she begins the next chapter of her life, Hackett is looking forward to growing as a fashion designer and knows she picked the right place to help her do that.
"At Texas Tech, I can learn more from my peers and have a very good relationship with them," she said. "I'm really excited to get to work in an environment where people share the same passion as I have, where I can learn from other people who are growing at the same rate as I am, and where I know I have instructors who can help me develop and learn, as well as peers around me who can support me.
"I know there are always going to be opportunities here. My favorite thing about Texas Tech is the idea that 'From Here, It's Possible,' because that is so true. That's one reason I'm so excited to get to college."