Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Contradictions - Part 2, Execution

As soon as we returned to school in the fall of our junior year, Mich and I were working on our show nonstop. We were living together that year, which made things convenient. I had seen a fashion show in the dining hall at Pforzheimer (one of the "houses" or dorms on campus) that had impressed me, so we got permission from the super and the house committee to do our show there. Fortunately for us, the catwalk from the same show had been preserved in the basement, which cut at least one thing off of our list of expenses. We also needed permission from the University to hold the event, which Mich took care of, along with ticketing through the Box Office.

Somewhere along the line, we decided to shift the focus from "Asianness" to being multicultural, since making an "Asian" show would only reinforce the stereotype of Asian self-segregation. One of the segments would display this through the exhibition of traditional costumes from all over the world. My roommate Helen was charged with rounding these up, loaned to us by other students on campus. We started the segment with the song "American Woman" and three girls walking out in jean cutoffs and tops I made from American flag fabric.

Then the Korean drum troupe, which I was a part of, started up with a traditional song and the models came out in costumes from a variety of countries.

Our other roommate, Candice, was charged with recruiting campus acts to perform in between segments and keep the audience from getting bored. For the two shows we got break dancers, salsa dancers, and the Caribbean Club dance troupe.

Our other segments included one showcasing most of the designers whose clothes we borrowed, then a segment of student designs,' then a final segment which was everyone's favorite -- swimwear (by Keiko). Here's a photo of a few of my designs (I'm a little embarrassed to show it ;-) )
Our next big project was recruiting models for our show. We handed out flyers between classes advertising our auditions, spammed house e-mail lists, and went around to the different dining halls during meals and harrassed good-looking students, asking them to audition. Harvard's weekend magazine, "Fifteen Minutes" does a survey of the 15 hottest freshmen each year, and while many people disagree with some of the selections, I e-mailed the 15 from each year previous to encourage them to try out. We had a good turnout and made our selections. Some people wrote angry e-mails when they weren't chosen (typical Harvard egos) but we were going for a certain look and also had to make sure our models' measurements fit the sample sizes we got. I learned a lot about bodies from doing the show -- like how some people might look thin but actually be larger than they look, or some people might be really thin but have a big booty or chest. We found a rehearsal space in Currier Fishbowl (a space in another house) and did rehearsals. We taught the models how to walk and did run-throughs without the clothes.

Our room was connected to my ex-boyfriend-turned-friend's room through the bathroom and we had become buddies with them through late-night random hanging out. My ex-boyfriend was one of the models and two of the other roommates were recruited to be the MCs because they were very charismatic and hilarious. One ended up having to drop out because he had a squash game but we got another girl who I had wanted to model in the show to replace him.

We charged the models with getting their friends to come to the show, requiring each to sell 10 tickets. We advertised the show as we did the model auditions, although I got into a bit of a controversy over our marketing slogan. Since the show was benefitting breast cancer research, I came up with the slogan, "Like breasts? So do we!" It might have been a little less than classy but I thought it was funny while attention-grabbing (especially for the boys). One girl in one of the houses I sent our advertising e-mail to engaged me in a fight over the whole house list, accusing me of being insensitive, and how she knew someone who had struggled through breast cancer. I was taken aback and responded that I hadn't meant to offend and that unfortunately, fewer people would pay attention to an e-mail inviting someone to an event benefiting breast cancer research than an e-mail like mine. Fortunately, it seemed that the majority of people on the list (or at least the ones who responded) agreed with me, and some even went so far as to stat they would send me checks for the research fund (and did), in defiance towards this girl.

As we approached the date of the show, there were more and more things we realized we had to do. Michelle picked up the clothing around Thanksgiving weekend, a couple of weeks before the show. It was a struggle to stay on top of everything while also trying not to fail our classes. I lost almost 10 lbs. because I was nervous and just plain didn't have time to eat sometimes. We were both excited and stressed about how our baby would turn out.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Contradictions -- Part 1, Planning The Fashion Show

Michelle and I immediately began planning the show. This was not too long after the controversies on campus over the A&F t-shirts that depicted negative stereotypes of Asians, i.e. Two Wongs Make It White and Juice Fong's "The Invasian" piece for the Crimson, an essay which ostensibly stereotyped and bashed Asians.

Eleganza was sponsored by a couple of the African-American organizations on campus, and the majority of the planners and performers were African-American or partially African-American. Eleganza was the cool "black people" show, so we wanted to do an Asian counterpart. Our goal was that it would be more about the clothes and less about the performative, hot-people-dancing-in-very-little-clothing aspect (although of course, we intended to have some of that action to draw the crowds). We also wanted the show to showcase positive and non-stereotypical aspects of Asian-American culture, in response to the aforementioned occurrences.

Producing the show was my first experience in starting something from the ground up, and I learned many skills that would help me later on, particularly for starting my own line/company. We had to figure out what needed to be done to accomplish our vision, and then how to make it happen.

For the show to fly, we needed funding. The great thing about Harvard is that there's so much money available. If you just seek it out, you can get funding for almost anything. Michelle had experience with getting grants from her previous extracurricular experience and somehow managed to get the grant applications in before the deadline (it was almost the end of the school year by that point). She got us the necessary funding.

We made a list of designers we would want to loan us clothing for our show and spent the summer contacting them. Since we were both from the New York area (I'm from Westchester, she's from Long Island) it was fairly easy for us to do this. We were a little naive to think that we could get people to loan us clothes for a college fashion show but through a lot of aggressive cold calling and persistence, over the next several months we shored up several designers (mostly not in our original list) who were willing to loan us pieces for the show.

We created a schedule. The date was set for December, a few days before my 21st birthday. (We didn't want to compete with Eleganza, which happened in the spring.) Then we worked backwards, figuring out when we would need to hold auditions for models, get permission from the university to do different things, hold rehearsals, book the venues, book other acts, etc.

We worked out a general format for the show, which would undergo changes and be fleshed out later on when we returned to campus. We also thought about ways to make the event compelling, making it a charity (benefiting breast cancer research) and deciding we had to make a concerted effort to recruit very hot models. There would also be a student designer portion, where I would show some designs, along with the work of other students on campus.

Once we got back to campus in the fall, our work was cut out for us.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Crawling Back To Fashion

In the spring, for whatever reason, I didn't take a painting class. I don't remember if it was because there were none being offered that fit my schedule or because I decided I wanted to try other media during my foundational studies. In any case, I ended up not being very happy with them. I took silkscreening and sculpture, which sounded fun, but 6 hours a week of something can quickly kill your liking for it if you're not totally into it.

My silkscreening class was particularly difficult because my teacher was a bitch. That might sound harsh but it was a pretty unanimously held opinion within the department. She didn't like my work because I wasn't really interested in conceptual art, and was trying to somehow do painting in silkscreening class. (However, we got along very well my senior year when she became the moderator of our senior thesis critique sessions). I also have a problem with tardiness, and she had this thing where she forced latecomers to do 15 jumping jacks.


Anyway, in these two classes I was trying to figure out how to marry my interest in art and fashion and yet still come out with compelling work that met the conceptual requirements of my professors. In my sculpture class, I ended up making figurative work, including welding a metal armor-like dress.

In my silkscreen course, I experimented with what most people think of when they hear of silkscreening, which is t-shirts. This somehow snowballed into convincing the board of the Korean Association (I think I was Culture Chair or something like that at the time) that I should put on a fashion show within the annual Culture Show, which started out with traditional Korean costume, or hanbok, and finishing with pieces I had created for my class.

I didn't really think much of it besides just really wanting to do something fashion-related, but the roommate of one of the girls who was in my little fashion show happened to be in the audience. She was one of the directors of Eleganza, the biggest fashion show on campus (not that that really means anything to anyone outside of Harvard). Eleganza was less of a fashion show and more of a debaucherous spectacle, one of the few times where Harvard students would let loose in public. They would usually do the show on PreFrosh Weekend, when prospective students came to visit, to try to trick them into believing that Harvard is one big party with lots of hot people dancing around in very little clothing.

She contacted me to put my pieces in the show. (It's a little weird to look at the pics because one of the girls who modeled the pieces actually committed suicide while we were in college.) My blockmates came to support me and it felt great to see my clothes in the show, although they are a bit embarrassing to look at now (I usually find it hard to look at old work without cringing). After the show, my blockmate Michelle, the most fashion-conscious of the bunch, turned to me, and said, "Let's do a fashion show!"

And thus began one of the most difficult projects of my life.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Learning To Be An Artist

Sophomore year, I took a couple more economics classes, thinking I could maybe do consulting, like many other Harvard grads before me. However, I was still a VES concentrator, so I was able to continue taking studio courses. I shopped a couple of painting classes, including one taught by Julian Lethbridge. In the interview, he asked me a question which I can't recall but when I responded, he said, "That's what I think, but you're the only one who answered that way!" He had a British accent and was very cerebral in his manner of speaking. Later, I was trying to decide on which courses to take for the fall when his TF, Tova, happened to walk by my window. She recognized me and urged me to take the course, saying that Julian had taken a liking to me.

I did and it was a difficult but edifying class. The course was titled, "Drawing Into Painting" and was meant to explore just that -- going from sketching to making paintings. We would meet once a week for 7 hours, which we spent critiquing the work done in the previous week. (The idea is that we would spend the week away working on whatever ideas had been generated in the previous critique). It was the first time I had really been exposed to talking about art critically and academically, and what it meant to be an artist. I was used to just drawing whenever I felt like it, not really thinking about what it was about or where it was going. I can't say that I followed through with it in the actual course, but the course taught me how disciplined an artist must be, and how the drive must come from within. No one is really asking for more art in this world, so if you are to be an artist, there must be an internal force compelling you to continue to create work.

Julian was/is a thoughtful and generous mentor, and even after the course was over, I kept in touch with him. He would be instrumental later on in my pursuit of a career in fashion.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Initial Disillusionment With The Fashion Industry

My devoted readings of Vogue along with other depictions of the fashion business on TV and in film had given me a false impression of how the business works. There was a glamorous gilded exterior presented by the media which hid the gritty and dirty reality of the busienss. Now that I've been working in fashion for several years, it's a little difficult for me to reconstruct this impression but here are a few things I remember being struck by:

1. A true "designer" doesn't sew the clothes him/herself. I think I imagined that somehow a designer magically created all the garments alone, which is impossible. This is what separates a designer from a dressmaker/seamstress. A designer is more like an architect (indeed, it was at Marc Jacobs that I first heard someone describe architecture as fashion on a larger scale) or a director of a film. He/she conceptualizes design ideas and directs his team to make this a reality. In addition to the designer, generally the team consists of one or more assistant designers, a patternmaker, samplemakers, production manager, and interns. Depending on how much money is on hand, one person may handle more than one of these roles.

By the time I was an intern at Marc Jacobs in 2001, the company had been around for a while and so it was fairly large. The MJ label took up an entire floor of a small office building in SoHo; the Marc label was on another floor. There were separate offices for production, design, sales, and I think PR, with the front of the floor housing an elegant showroom space and reception desk.

Marc himself was only around for a week or so a month, as he spent much of his time in Paris (designing for LV). Even when he was in the office, the interns were instructed not to talk to him (which of course, we all wanted to do) and he spent most of his time talking with Richard Chai, who was his assistant designer at the time. Richie, as he was called, had two assistant designers.

I was starstruck when I saw Marc walking around the office. I remember being struck at how small he was in real life (although I guess most people are). This was before his glam makeover, and he used to walk around in green sweatpants and a ponytail.

Interestingly, only one of the interns actually seemed to have any real responsibilities. He was Jack McCullough, who I only interacted with a couple of times during my brief internship at Marc Jacobs. He would later famously go on to start Proenza Schouler with Lazaro Hernandez with Jacobs' support.

2. Designers rip off ideas from other designers. I now know that fashion is very cannibalistic, and there are very few, if any, truly "original" ideas. However, at the time, I remember being very disappointed when I saw a rack of vintage clothing which was to serve as "inspiration" for the new collections.

3. In fashion, as in many other industries, you are expected to pay your dues. This means, that as an intern who is at the bottom of the totem pole, you should be expected to be treated like shit. Aside from things like picking up coffee or office supplies, we did things like pick up and drop off things to and from factories and stores in the garment district in Midtown. There were also tasks like organizing and cleaning up. Since I was officially a production intern, I was also asked to do work on Excel, mainly checking over to make sure that the numbers for store orders were correct. For me, the worst part of being an intern was just sitting around and waiting for someone to tell me to do something.

Also, I was expecting that in return for my slave labor, I would be taught things. In retrospect, I did learn a lot but I didn't appreciate it at the time. Additionally, interns in fashion don't get paid. It's difficult to break into the fashion industry if you don't have money or some outside source of income. You're expected to intern for free for a few days a week or more, and somehow figure out a way to support yourself. Even if/when you do eventually get a job in fashion, it usually pays poorly.

Essentially, I couldn't see the light at the end of the tunnel, and envisioned myself in this hell of running errands indefinitely and never doing anything creative or interesting. My parents weren't a huge fan of me doing fashion, as I've mentioned (and who would be a huge fan of pissing away 160K on a Harvard degree to have your child do fashion) and after a month I felt like I'd had enough of this. I rationalized that with my degree I could easily find well-paying employment where I wasn't doing menial labor, and where I was treated with a bit more respect. I informed my supervisor of my decision, who told me to tell her boss, the production director, Danuta. She listened with a look of understanding, and told me I was better off because fashion was such a tough business.

I regretted not being able to help out with the upcoming fashion show, but I felt free.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Talking About Your Work

Quoted from Gang of Four, Cathy Horyn's article about Rei Kawakubo (of Comme des Garcons) for T Magazine:

For as much as journalists remark on Kawakubo’s cryptic silences, it is actually language — or verbosity — that inhibits the creative process, shutting off the possibilities of imagination. Katsuya Kamo, a hairstylist who works on Watanabe’s shows, said as much when he told me, "Western designers explain everything. ‘The clothes like this, the music and lighting like that.’ It gets complicated.” Watanabe, by contrast, says almost nothing, but that refusal, Kamo said, leaves the hairstylist room to exercise his own imagination.

This reminds me of something that I hated about studying art. People were always asking you what your art was "about." Often I was driven to paint something without really know what it was about, and I would either have to make up something, or later, I found that I was led to create work that I wasn't that excited about but that I could explain. As a result, I was very unhappy with my senior VES thesis at college.

Landing My First Internship

In fashion, as in life, there is always a bit of luck (or divine intervention, if you're a person of faith as I am) involved.

When I got back home after my first year at college, I compiled a list of designers I would want to work for. I cold-called all the companies and found out where to fax my resume in hopes of obtaining an internship. (This was the summer of 2001, and the fashion industry was a bit behind in terms of e-mail.) I quickly realized that many of the companies I wanted to work for were based in either Paris or Milan (i.e. Prada, Christian Dior), which meant I wouldn't be able to get a studio/design internship with them.

However, I was most intent on interning at Marc Jacobs, who was probably my favorite designer at the time. (Currently, my favorite designer is Nicolas Ghesquiere over at Balenciaga.) When I called the office, the receptionist kindly informed me that they got tons of applications for design interns but not many for production interns, who did pretty much the same thing as the design interns.

Since I didn't have a design school background, I decided this was a good idea, and applied for a production internship. To my delight, I was called in for an interview and they gave me the internship. I was so ecstatic and thought I had received my lucky break. I was on the road to fashion superstardom! I would intern and they would love me and give me a job when I graduated and it would all be roses.

However, I quickly learned that the fashion industry was not as glamorous as it seems from the outside.

You are Invited! Fall 2008 Trunk Show

For more info, click here.

RSVP to graey AT graeyny.com!

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

A Disclaimer Of Sorts

Before I continue posting about my experiences in fashion, I wanted to say a couple of things.

I was inspired to write about my experiences because when you read about famous and successful designers, you rarely hear much detail about the ascent into fashion stardom. Or, for that matter, success in any field. Hardships are glossed over and it often seems like things happened to the person overnight. People don't like to talk too much about the failures and hardships experienced on the road to success. Kind of like how you rarely see a famous artist's bad paintings.

Although I wouldn't call myself successful, so far I have managed to achieve a few things that other aspiring designers would be interested in knowing how I achieved. In reading many different designers' biographies, one thing that's certain is that there's no one way to become a "successful" designer. There is something of a "standard" route of going to design school and interning for other designers before launching one's own line or being hired to design for a well established line. But the interesting but also somewhat frustrating thing about fashion is that following this route doesn't necessarily guarantee success, and many successful designers have not followed it at all.

I write only about the route I have taken. This does not mean I think it would work for everyone, but I have always found it interesting and valuable to learn about how others achieved the same goals I pursue.