Couture jewellery designer Jenny Mercian honed her creative skills at UTS, and today her resume includes designing for the Victoria's Secret annual shows, adorning some of the world's most beautiful women.
When Jenny Mercian's jewellery creations are shown at the Paris and New York fashion shows this year, she'll be able to do better than simply claim they are genuine Aussie designs: they were actually designed and made in her parents' garage, in Sydney's western suburbs.
"Dad converted the garage to a design studio when I was at uni," says Mercian, a graduate of the UTS School of Design. "It's my oasis – it's where I can think and create."
Mercian, 33, is now married and lives in a home of her own. She has worked in London and New York and has designed for labels such as MAC and Jaeger London. Yet she is still designing and creating from that same garage.
"In this garage I know where all my stuff is," says the woman who can make a garment from hundreds of beads and jewels. "And believe me, I have a lot of stuff."
Mercian is one of the success stories of a UTS course that has produced many talents. Designing under the label Manik Mercian – a blend of her middle and last names – Mercian has been designing for Victoria's Secret annual show since 2005 and has worked in-house at Jaeger London. Originally known for her fashion garments either made of jewels or heavily embellished by them, she is now shifting her attention to pure jewellery for the European and Asian markets.
Her interest in design began early in her high school days at St Agnes, Rooty Hill, but not in fashion and jewellery.
"I studied drafting and art at school. Dad thought I'd be an architect and that's where my interest was: sketching buildings and making models of them."
As a sideline to her school studies, Mercian would sketch clothes but never seriously. "I became far more girly [heading into] the HSC," says Mercian of her Higher School Certificate years. "I started leaning towards fashion and I majored in art and design technology."
She excelled in her studies and her marks were strong enough to apply for and be accepted to the UTS Bachelor of Design in Fashion and Textiles.
"I really liked the practical skills the students were being taught when I went to orientation. I instantly wanted to be in that course."
A fortuitous meeting
After four gruelling years Mercian passed with distinction, and by the time of the final year students' Showcase, her contribution was a high fashion men's collection, distinguished by the use of beads and other jewellery embellishments on the fabrics. The collection at Showcase caught the attention of Australian designer Gabrielle Scarvelli, who Mercian worked with for a year, embellishing designs with stitching and beading, further cementing her reputation in clothes made out of jewellery. In 2005, with a few shows under her own name, Mercian – then aged 25 – decided on a bold move. Spending all her savings, she paid $10,000 for a stand at the Australian Fashion Week and stocked it with a collection of her jewel-embellished clothing.
"A scout for Victoria's Secret came by my stand," says Mercian. "He told me I should be designing for their show and he took some photos. Two weeks later I had a call from the Victoria's Secret head stylist, asking if I would contribute to their show."
The underwear label wanted six signature looks from Mercian, developed around the underwear collections. Having sent the looks and had them accepted, she was whisked to New York for the November 2005 show.
"It was amazing," says Mercian. "It's a really big event, held in a big arena and screened on American TV."
Her looks consisted of detailed crystal couture pieces, using Swarovski crystals.
"I was nervous to begin with," says Mercian. "I was seeing people I'd only seen in the magazines: Tyra Banks, Heidi Klum and all the big fashion editors."
Her looks were a hit and she has now done seven Victoria's Secret shows, only taking off the 2012 show to concentrate on her summer wedding. That first lingerie show put the designer from western Sydney into a new league and led to design gigs with Swarovski, MAC Cosmetics and Jaeger London, as well as her signature designs being splashed in magazine spreads for British GQ, Vogue UK and French Playboy, which featured Dutch model Lara Stone in Mercian's wearable jewellery.
"I've been very lucky," she says. "I get to do what I love and at a high level, with some really talented people."
Where to next
However, Mercian is always looking to the future and her next step is to concentrate on her jewellery design, under 'Manik Mercian'
And while she is currently selling via her website and a few selected boutiques, her appearance at the Paris and New York shows this year should seal some international distribution deals.
Mercian is a successful, self-assured young woman with the world at her feet and creative energy to burn. But she is always mindful of the grounding she got at UTS while completing her course.
"Some of the things we learned in the UTS degree seemed rather unglamorous at the time," says Mercian. "But everything I was taught has been useful."
She particularly singles out being able to work under pressure as something all graduates of the degree have.
"Being a designer is never about waiting for the inspiration – you're asked to come up with ideas on Monday and you're presenting on Thursday.
The UTS course put me under pressure, but it gave me the confidence to work to a brief and to present professionally."
And how has that love of pressure played out in her personal life?
"Well, do you think I settled for a simple wedding dress and got someone else to make it?" she asks with a laugh. "That dress was one of the most complex things I've ever done – I finished it at 2.30am on the day of my wedding!"
Words: Mark Abernethy
Images: Kasia Werstak