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The process of starting a women's clothing brand

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The recent weeks have been exciting times for the brand as I presented my works and creative process to a larger design community.

Firstly, an intimate panel discussion on the future of retail with Fashion Group International and Armoire, a clothing rental company. We talked about the challenges of being an independent designer label and how A.Oei has adapted to the changing retail landscape by partnering with Armoire to reach out to new customers. 

Secondly, I was featured as a guest speaker at renowned architecture firm, Olson and Kundig. I presented an in-depth look into the process, inspiration and motivation behind the brand. It was an inspiring atmosphere of creative people picking at the seams. I was both thrilled and honored to have a space to share my works and ideas. 

I thought I would share some of the questions and answers raised in these two presentations in this post. 

 

Q. Why A.Oei Studio?

A. Having worked as a designer for various fashion companies, I realized how much I valued being a small, independent maker who is not only actively hands-on in all aspects of garment production but also learns the mechanics of running a business from scratch.

A.Oei Studio was envisioned as a creative platform that combines fashion, textiles, graphics, concepts and pattern-making, bridges commercial and artistic needs, and still be accessible and affordable.

 

A.Oei Studio Seattle Fashion Designer A.Oei Studio Custom Clothing Sewing

 

Q. What challenges did you face when starting the company?

A. Working out a viable production line is a huge challenge for an emerging brand unable to commit to large quantities. I spent about a year researching and testing different suppliers and manufacturers, looking for partners that had little/no minimums, flexibility, strong knowledge and experience in women's fashion, quality, and ability to deliver on time. 

Learning how to sell and promote the brand was also a challenge. As a designer who've mainly worked behind the scenes, having to come up with quick sales pitches for something so personal, was new to me. Doing pop ups helped me figure out how to interact with customers in a more honest manner and gain direct feedback in return. 

 

Q. Why Seattle?

A. Originally from Singapore, I had visited Seattle a couple times and after talking to local designers and artists, I felt like there was enough support to start an independent clothing brand here with its quiet, off-the-fringe but bubbling creative hub that still maintains a strong sense of individuality.

At the same time, I felt like Seattle and the Pacific Northwest lacked fashion-forward womenswear brands in the mid-fashion market - a brand that could target working women like myself who want to wear high-quality, exclusive designs without feeling the pinch. After finding a studio at the Inscape Arts and Cultural Building, things started to fall in place. 

 

Q. Why did you decide to become a fashion designer? 

A. Since young, I've always enjoyed drawing people and imagining what they would wear. Growing up in Singapore where the creative arts were generally ignored, it never occurred to me that "fashion design" could be a real profession.

After high school, I studied English Literature at the National University of Singapore. During an exchange program in Utrecht (which was also my first time traveling and living abroad), I visited the Antwerp Fashion Academy, the famous base of Belgian designers like Martin Margiela and Dries Van Noten. When I saw rows of sewing machines, dress forms, and students' works, the thought of becoming a designer suddenly became a lot more real and apparent to me.

I decided to enter the Amsterdam Fashion Institute and that was probably the best fashion education I could have asked for - the school pushed me creatively and technically. After graduation, I worked for different fashion brands and dived into ready-to-wear clothing from woven and knitwear, prints and embroidery, to pattern-making and sample sewing.  

Seattle Fashion Designer Process

 

Fashion is a way to communicate stories and capture the zeitgeist of the times we live in. Fashion is tactile and three-dimensional; it is about form and movement and understanding how the body interacts with fabric. The range of things that one can do within fashion is fascinating and crosses many different creative fields. 

 

Q. How do you start designing? 

A. It starts with a concept, usually inspired by art, nature or technology. Whenever I come across an interesting article or image, I save it so that I have a huge archive of inspiration.

From the concept, I come up with ideas for colors and materials. Then the print. Sometimes they are hand-drawn/painted prints that are then turned into digital art works. Other times I manipulate photographs and work entirely on the computer. 

The sketches. Usually drawn in between moments of draping on the mannequin. I edit the sketches until I have a "collection" of a few looks, envisioning how they would flow on the runway or on the garment rack. To me, a strong collection is one that is coherent and distinct in the choice of shapes, colors and textures. 

I then start drafting paper patterns and sewing the samples. I'm constantly working to refine and understand fit and finishing so it's important for me to keep the prototyping process in the studio.  

Fashion illustrations A.OeiA.Oei Studio Seattle Pattern Maker

 

Q. What do you do when you hit a creative block? 

A. I start organizing my studio and picking up scrap materials - piecing random fabrics together, pinning them to the mannequin or making some sort of collage from my archive of articles and photographs, and in the process, I start gaining ideas. 

I would also visit museums, book stores, and boutiques where I would spend time researching the technical construction of clothing.

Another good way to clear my head is to pick up new mediums or subjects and spend a day or two just drawing. Not clothing, but everyday life. Sometimes the drawing turns into an idea for a print or sets the mood for a collection.

Illustrations A.Oei

 

Q. How has your previous work experiences influenced your design style?

A. Since I studied in the Netherlands, I am obviously influenced by Dutch fashion which wavers between extreme soberness and conceptual art-fashion. Because of their rich textile history, there is a lot of emphasis on material innovation. As students, we were always encouraged to create our own fabrics through knitting, weaving, printing, melting fabrics together...

I worked as a pattern-making assistant for a Belgian fashion atelier that was all about tailoring and luxury craftsmanship. Hidden details like deceptively clean and simple finishings, beautiful fabrics like silk and leather, and an obsession with precision (everything we made was down to the millimeter). 

In Singapore, I designed for a brand that was much more fun, light-hearted and ornamental. Quirky prints, rich colors, and feminine shapes. It was with this company that I started really falling in love with the process of designing prints and understanding how different prints suited different fabrication and silhouettes. 

I've interned for a New York fashion brand that was inspired by 90s minimalism and very much rooted in New York street style. Slim silk blazers, cropped tops, pencil skirts and track pants. 

Coming from Asia where Japanese fashion has always been popular, I am also into draped, shapeless, androgynous styles and Kimono / origami style of pattern-making. 

I've incorporated these different cultural influences into a.oei . At the heart of it, I enjoy experimenting with subtle design details. Shifting seams, using asymmetry, balancing draped and tailored elements, mixing knitted and woven fabrics, etc... A blank, neutral palette with little pops of colors.

 

Details of jackets A.Oei

 

 

Q. What's next for A.Oei Studio?

A. I hope to expand my distribution channels and increase brand exposure. My goal is to develop a sales and local production team that can enhance production flexibility, delivery lead times, and offer custom bespoke designs for customers. 

In the upcoming month, I will be launching an exciting Kickstarter campaign for our Fall'19 collection, a line of essential basics with a subtle twist. Stay tuned!

 

A.Oei Studio Seattle Designer Showroom

(photos by Kailee Elizabeth Photography)

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