People of the Year 2013 | Gail Chovan

Fashion Designer

She’s fought for her life. She’s fought for her childrens’ lives. And now, she’s doing things the only way she knows how—her own.

It all started with an email invitation. Fashion designer Gail Chovan was going to present Aesthetic Ghosts, her Spring 2014 collection. There was a date and time, but the location was “to be revealed.” It felt exciting…and mysterious, two feelings that the chic and almost always clad-in-black Chovan is a master of evoking to her devoted sea of followers. From the West Austin moms at the local elementary where her children go to school to the many interns she has had from the UT fashion design program, people are fascinated by Gail Chovan.

A week later, I was driving down East 5th Street looking for Delta Millworks, a lumberyard by day and the unexpected location for tonight’s fashion show. It was dark, but we knew we were in the right place—our path was illuminated by a single light, a neon sight that read FASHION SHOW. With an overwhelming, but delightful smell of cedar in the air, the show began amongst the candlelit sawmills and rusted industrial size fans. Fourteen structured looks made of open weave linen and laser-cut velvet in hues of cream, grey, and maroon went down the runway. The crowd of over 300 people rose to their feet in cheers as Chovan walked down the runway with her stylish 8-year-old son, Creed, as the grand finale to the show.

I met up with Chovan after the show at the studio on South First Street that she shares with her husband of 15 years, neon sign artist Evan Voyles. It was noon, and she needed a “cronut,” a melt-in- your-mouth donut meets croissant, from La Patisserie next door. Breakfast for lunch, opening a boutique that only sells black, leaving a Master’s program in French Literature for fashion design school—Chovan knows who she is. She came to Austin in 1995 and worked as the manager and buyer for Tesoros Trading Company before opening Blackmail in the fall of 1997. “My dad gave me $2,000 to put down for the deposit, and Evan fronted me the money to stock the store,” she remembers. “We drove all over West Texas together buying black.” Blackmail first opened on South Lamar and after four years, moved to its current location on Congress, where Chovan and Voyles immediately bought the house behind it.

The store was thriving, so she opened a space next door to Blackmail called Vivid. She got pregnant with twins in 2004, and then, as she says, “everything got crazy.” Her twins were born prematurely at 26 weeks in September of 2005. They weighed just two pounds. They were airlifted to Texas Children’s Hospital and had health issues from the start, so the surgeries began—heart, brain, eye. Between them, the twins had 21 different surgeries in the first year of their lives. After a few weeks, the twins were diagnosed with congenital toxoplasmosis, which left her daughter (Zelda) blind and both children with brain shunts.

Then, just three years later, Chovan was diagnosed with breast cancer. “When I was diagnosed, I felt I could handle it because nothing compared to what my kids went through,” she says. “I am just going to face this because my kids had showed me how much they can withstand.” One of Chovan’s sisters and her mother were both diagnosed with breast cancer around the same time she was. She finished eight months of chemo and radiation in July of 2009 and had both her breasts and ovaries removed, but you will never hear her say she beat it. “I don’t believe anyone is cancer-free. It’s just not active right now. I never celebrate a ‘cancer-versary’…I don’t give it the power. I only refer to it with a little c,” she says. “The most important thing to me is to keep fighting for my kids.”

After all of these challenges and the sudden death of her father, everything changed for Chovan. “I thought, ‘why am I doing things I don’t want to do? Why am I worried about doing things that aren’t important to me?’” She knew what she had to do—find a way to spend more time in France, the place she fell in love with on a high school trip when she was 15. So, she packed her bags and moved to Paris for the summer with her twins to teach design courses. “Everyone thought I was crazy…but I said I was going to do it, and I don’t just say shit and not do it,” she says, taking one last bite of her cronut. “I need to be in France, I need to be with people that I love, who support me. I need to be doing what I like to do…life is too short.”


Photography by Randal Ford


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