Dreamy Clothes for Bookworms and Romantics

dahm house makes dreamy clothes for bookworms and romantics
Dreamy Clothes for Bookworms and RomanticsCatherine Dahm

In February of 2020, as a new pathogen was beginning to make its way around the world, Cat Dahm was in the process of moving to Europe. An Indiana native, Dahm had spent years working in branding in New York City, but the lifestyle was starting to wear on her. As a sideline, she had launched a fashion brand, Rabot, with a friend, and it seemed like time for a new adventure.

So at age 27, Dahm quit her job and flew to Paris with her friend. “We were going to stay in Paris for a month, and then I was going to go to Berlin,” she explains over Zoom—Berlin being a relatively affordable home base for a fashion designer.

But fate had other plans. On Dahm’s first night in France, she struck up a conversation about jazz with a cute waiter. He invited her to see jazz guitarist Pat Metheny, and they began spending time together. “But in the background was all this, like, ramping-up-of-Covid conversation,” Dahm says. “And then, for the first time since World War II, they closed the borders between all the European countries.” With her lease in Berlin canceled, she had nowhere to stay, so her new French boyfriend invited her to move in with him. After all, he said, it would only be for two weeks.

In the end, they lived in that apartment for two and a half years. “It was interesting, living with him in the beginning,” Dahm muses. “He’s a sociologist; he also writes a lot of poetry. It sounds very French, but he was just the first person that I’ve met who is very in his life, in the moment.” She was sick of the fast-paced, productivity-obsessed American system, and Paris, even in its eerie lockdown form, felt like a place where she could finally pursue art. “During that Covid period, I was constantly sketching, creating, dying fabrics in the bathtub, weaving on a loom that I made in the living room. Just experimenting.”

a living room with tie dye fabric drying
Dahm dyed fabrics for the collection in her apartment.Catherine Dahm

You can feel the romance of this origin story in her clothing line, Dahm House, which is full of earthy-sexy pieces like a long, beribboned dress in turmeric satin, or a split-front top with gemstones stitched in spirals on the bust. Ruffles bloom like flower petals down the front of a blouse, or sprout from the collar of a shirt like monstera leaves. Sharp pants add an element of edge—a reminder that as imaginative as these clothes may be, they’re for a girl who’s riding the Metro, not floating on a cloud.

But as much as Dahm House, which just released its second collection, is inspired by Paris, it owes an equal debt to the Indiana of Dahm’s youth. “It’s this balance of industrial—not Western—creativity and femininity,” she explains. “I’m using a bleaching technique on a lot of the garments to remove color. And I’m introducing a lot of cool workwear: wax, cotton canvas, things that give it a contemporary spin and make it feel more, I don’t know, authentic. I really want to have it hit on the Indiana component, because it’s where I come from and it’s something that doesn’t really exist in the market. And I think balancing that with this elegant femininity is a nice play.”

a woman in a black dress with lapis and malachite spirals on the bodice
An early Dahm House dress with hand-beaded lapis and malachite spiralsPhilip Gay

In the same way other brands stamp their stores or websites or bags “Paris, London, New York,” Dahm considers the phrase “Paris, Indiana” an important part of her label’s DNA. “There’s so much great craftsmanship in Indiana, [and that is] my preferred style for design and architecture,” she says. “The countryside is never going to be the most grandiose, with crazy mountain views or anything, but it’s this really subtle beauty that builds over time.”

The clothes are produced in Frankfurt, Germany, in an atelier employing 15 refugee women from all over the world. The work offers them both financial stability and a pathway to citizenship. For Dahm, this detail is not just a nice-to-have, but an important component of her overall vision: “A lot of my inspiration come from the Arts and Crafts Movement, which [came about] post–industrial revolution and was a response to preserving craftsmanship and better working conditions for people. I think it’s really important to have transparency around that.”

Dahm releases one big thematic collection per year, and she spends countless hours refining the conceptual framework behind each theme—thought work that finds another outlet in an oversize print magazine (also named Dahm House), which she releases along with the clothes. The first, “Welcome to Earth,” was inspired by a quote from fellow Indiana native Kurt Vonnegut, while the new, second collection is called “The Bardo,” for the liminal stage between life and death in some branches of Buddhism.

A former journalism major, Dahm peppers her conversation with literary references. Collection two was inspired by the Booker Prize–winning author George Saunders and The Tibetan Book of the Dead (“I’m in the middle of reading it; it’s dense”). The second edition of Dahm House magazine will include a reprint of beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “I Am Waiting” and of American artist Joan Mitchell’s painting Minnesota. Songwriter Adrianne Lenker of the band Big Thief, another Indiana native, gave Dahm permission to reprint some of her work, as well.

a model wearing a tan jacket and a white blouse
A look from Dahm House’s Fall/Winter 2023 collectionCatherine Dahm

For Dahm, the swirl of ideas—dreams, liminal spaces, Paris, Indiana—seems to be as heady as the clothes themselves. It’s all rooted deep in her unconscious: “Four or five of the garments [in the first collection], I legitimately just had a dream about them. I would wake up and draw it with my finger on my phone and then go back to sleep.” No wonder she chose this quote from Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami as the epigraph for her second look book: “Nothing in the real world is as beautiful as the illusions of a person about to lose consciousness.”

designer catherine dahm of dahm house
Cat DahmYireh Lee

Dahm House is currently stocked at 10 Corso Como, RTW in Charleston, and Viola Lovely in Boston.

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