Designer Spotlight: Stitching Together a Bright Future

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Purple dress by Ottawa designer Amy Scarlett Donovan, worn by singer Michelle Treacy. Photograph by: Matthew Treacy, Handout photo

Ottawa’s Amy Scarlett Donovan creates bright, sculptural pieces

Ask Amy Scarlett Donovan about what sparked her interest in fashion design, and she won’t talk about sewing dresses for her Barbie dolls or making her own prom dress.

“I was always an artist, painting and drawing. Fashion is like art using a different medium,” says Donovan, who graduated from A.Y. Jackson Secondary School in Kanata, then studied communications at Algonquin College with an eye to working behind the scenes in television, but soon realized it was not for her.

“My favourite thing about drawing is how you can draw absolutely anything, there are no limits or restrictions”, she says. “My favourite artist is Gustav Klimt because he used so many shapes and colours and patterns, he chose an interesting way to tell stories.”

Born in London, Donovan, 22, moved to Ottawa with her family in 2000 when she was 11, and still spends almost every summer in England. She learned to use a sewing machine only two years ago in the summer leading up to the first of two years she spent at Richard Robinson’s fashion academy. “I loved it so much, it wasn’t difficult.”

Much of her first year with Robinson was spent learning all of the kinds of hand-stitching that forms the backbone of couture fashion. The second year, Donovan produced a winter coat entirely using haute couture techniques — every single stitch done by hand — and a collection that would win her at spot at Montreal Fashion Week last February.

Ottawa fashion designer Amy Scarlett Donovan Photograph by Chris Mikula, Ottawa Citizen

She was also named among Canada’s top 25 up-and-coming young fashion designers in the competition for “breakthrough designers” sponsored by the Canadian fashion textiles company, Télio. The competition pitted Donovan against the top graduates from fashion design schools across Canada. Her piece for the competition was a burgundy above-the knee dress complemented with stiffened strips of braided fabric on one shoulder to create a sculptural effect.

“I really like to add pieces of structure,” says Donovan, whose student collection for Robinson includes a gown of white and gold accented with velvet ribbon stiffened with shaping wire.

Donovan was an excellent student, says Robinson. “She has a wonderful personality and she works hard.”

Donovan was also one of only two of Robinson’s students to be a finalist in the competition. “When you enter a competition, you want to win,” he says. “It stimulates creativity.”

The Télio competition focuses not just on presentation, but also on technique. Among the most nerve-racking moments for Donovan: Toronto-based designer Joeffer Caoc, who was a member of the jury for the competition, inspecting the inside seams.

Meanwhile, her career was also going in other directions. She created a performance wardrobe for 16-year-old Ottawa singer-songwriter Michelle Treacy, who is also a model. Among the pieces Donovan created for Treacy’s Kiwanis Idol appearance at Scotiabank Place was a “skeleton” bustier made with hand-painted bones and flowers as well as a show-stopping purple skirt with a gold and black bustier and a pink skirt for Treacy’s cover of Amy Winehouse’s Valerie.

Donovan is currently working on two collections. One is a 10-piece collection for an Art Child fundraiser later this month, inspired by Japanese origami cranes, which she learned to fold by watching a tutorial on YouTube.

The second collection, which she is producing for the Angie’s Models showcase in May, will be entirely in peach and black with bead and feather accents.

Meanwhile, she is also custom-sewing wedding gowns and prom dresses and fine-tuning designs for a ready-to-wear line that includes sleeveless dress and a vest that can be cost-effectively mass-produced under her label, Amy Scarlett.

Donovan likes to add appliqués and beading for subtle impact that doesn’t go over-the-top. “Small details add so much,” she says. “It has to be wearable and versatile.”

For more information about Donovan, visit

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