Tools in hand, Tian Justman scavenged in a local junkyard. She trekked through a field of crashed cars, searching for older models that had seat belts with hefty chrome buckles. She filled her arms with a harvest of red, gray, gold and blue straps and pulled hood ornaments from rusted hulks like trophies.
The junkyard dealer thought she was crazy.
“He didn’t know how to price my pile,” she said. “My seat belts were not functional, as I wasn’t taking the whole mechanism, just cutting out the belt and buckle part.”
What on earth was she doing? The junkman wanted to know.
Justman was foraging materials to craft an outfit for Laura Turner Seydel to wear to a holiday party.
Tian Justman is a fashion designer.
Back in her studio in West Midtown, Justman assembled the salvaged parts into a conversation-stopping dress. Seydel, chairwoman of the Captain Planet Foundation environmental group, had asked her to create something with “a reduce-reuse-recycle-reclaim concept.” Sewn to a black dress base, the seat belts aligned into colorful stripes, cinching around the waist and crossing the chest like a harness. Heavy metal jewelry, including a BMW medallion bracelet, completed the tough-chic look of an eco-warrior.
For the past six years Justman has custom-designed clothes for women seeking one-of-a-kind attire for the charity circuit or other social events. Now the 31-year-old is preparing to introduce her first ready-to-wear collection, which she hopes to place in boutiques nationwide. It’s an extraordinary achievement for a four-time cancer survivor.
On March 13 her Fall/Winter 2014 collection will premiere in what could be one of the most dynamic cultural events in Atlanta this spring. Justman is teaming up with Théâtre du Rêve, the Goat Farm Arts Center and Dinner Party Atlanta for a night of fashion, theater and fine dining. The setting is a haunting 19th century factory building at the Goat Farm, the 12-acre art complex where Justman lives and works.
Titled “So Coco: A View Behind the Runway,” the extravaganza will feature a runway show between scenes from “Coco,” an unfinished play about Coco Chanel by the late French playwright Bernard-Marie Koltès. Performed in English by Théâtre du Rêve, the play will offer “an irreverent but loving portrait” of the famed French fashion designer, said actor Park Krausen, who plays the title role.
The event is a fundraiser for Théâtre du Rêve, Atlanta’s French-speaking theater company.
“The audience will see not only what comes down the runway but also what happens backstage,” Justman said. “It’s a very chaotic experience with models changing in and out of garments. The behind-the-scenes perspective is almost voyeuristic.” It’s akin to social media, she added, “where you’re constantly peering into other people’s lives.”
The concept for the event evolved when Krausen and Christof Veillon, co-artistic directors of Théâtre du Rêve, envisioned a conversation between theater and fashion.
“One of the impetuses of this party, especially when we pulled in Dinner Party Atlanta, was to create a dialogue between art forms because we so often work in our own corners and rarely intersect,” Krausen said. “The larger this event has become, the more artists are jumping on board.”
Composer Sylvain Jacques will fly in from France to create music for the event. Filmmaker Jessica Imoto Harney will videotape live action – of the play, the fashion show and the kitchen — and project it onto giant swaths of fabric.
Three weeks before the big night, the mood was upbeat in Justman’s sunny studio, where her designs are executed with a crew of three assistants and an intern. Vintage French pop music played in the background. Justman’s dog, a Chinese Crested named “Kymo” (rhymes with chemo), ambled in from the kitchen.
“Those ties look really good,” Justman told technical director Anecia Davis, who was smoothing some leather strips dangling from a leather bodice. Justman gently spun the garment on a mannequin. Sewn to a mustard linen skirt with a subtle blue plaid, the dress was inspired by an antique Samurai fencing outfit she saw in a book.
“I sort of like taking the spirit of another time or culture and transferring it into an aesthetic that we can relate to now,” Justman said. Another outfit recreates harem pants in a classic English tweed.
Justman considers her 20 outfits as an “ode to time” and titles her collection “Time of Release.” The time-themed concept has multiple meanings, not the least of which is her journey as a childhood cancer survivor.
“There have been a lot of ups and downs in the past. I’m healthy now. It’s time to do this,” she said.
A native of Conyers, Justman was 16 when she was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a malignant tumor on her left femur. Surgery and chemotherapy did not prevent her from rejoining the varsity swim team at Heritage High School, and she even competed in state finals the year of her treatment. During her sophomore year in college, the bone cancer returned, requiring more surgeries. In the next five years, she battled two bouts of leukemia and endured two stem cell transplants.
Justman was a pre-med student at Georgia Southern, with dreams of becoming a molecular geneticist, when she made a 180-degree turn into the fashion industry. In a sense, she was following her own genes. Her mother was a buyer for J.P. Allen and Macy’s, and her father designed fashion accessories.
We will never know what Justman might have accomplished as a geneticist, but her contributions in fashion are substantial and varied. She provides costume design for local theater and dance companies and works as aesthetic director for the Goat Farm, designing events.
Justman is also the fashion director for Eidé, a national lifestyle magazine available at Whole Foods and Barnes & Noble stores. For the latest issue, she paired folk art fashion with the plywood sculptures and mosaics at folk artist Howard Finster’s Paradise Garden in Summerville.
So is Tian Justman Atlanta’s Coco Chanel? It depends on who you ask.
“She has become that in Atlanta,” said Park Krausen. “Tian is a rising icon. She is very much in her ascension.”
“She is very Coco Chanel-ish,” said Seydel, although she likens the seatbelt dress to Franco Moscino.
“It was high fashion but poked fun at it,” she said.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.