Korean-born, Seattle and New York-based designer, Suk Chai's love for fashion began as a child. After graduating from the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, she spent over two decades in design, product development and gaining experience in the business aspects of fashion. These included fourteen years at Nordstrom as Senior Design Director for four brands, before she started her own label, SCHAI [pronounced Shay]. She speaks to Creative Sparq about her design process, the cultural influences that shape her work and creative aesthetic and the "need to demand more paths and education for creativity and an appreciation of art and design."
When did you start your journey in fashion?
I only realised when I grew older that I’ve always enjoyed fashion even when I was a little kid in Korea. I used to draw, design my own paper doll characters and their outfits as a kid. I also really enjoyed starching beddings and helping my mother sew comforters and pillows — I remember making sure that each stitch was equidistant from each other, and the corners were mitred at a 45-degree angle. Haha ! My actual love for fashion probably started in middle school — I used to go window shopping at the local mall virtually every day after school. I also used to look at fashion magazines and test myself by naming the designer of the looks featured.
Why are you passionate about fashion and about building your own label?
I love good textiles. I appreciate subtle lines, shapes and textiles that make you feel so good - in your soul, on your skin, and makes you want to stand taller and feel confident. Because confidence and intelligence are sexy and attractive. That’s why I love sourcing from all over the world for that perfect cotton shirting or the feel-good crepe and create shapes and lines that transform the wearer at a deep level. Honestly, fashion is not necessary in life. But if I could be one’s voice through my clothes and styling that could last years and decades in her wardrobe, and to the generations after, I feel that is worth pursuing.
What is your signature style or fashion aesthetic?
Minimally & architecturally inspired, with untailored-yet-tailored details and finishes.
How has your cultural background influenced your creative philosophy?
Absolutely !! Discipline, resourcefulness, patience, ability to adapt, etc. Having been born in Korea, and having had the opportunity to study, live, work in New York and Seattle, experience 17+ years in corporate America, I’ve learned to design and work with textiles and colours that work with so many body shapes, cultures and lifestyles. My experience in different cultures, living in different cities, understanding different economic backgrounds have enabled me to appreciate people from all walks of lives and I try to express that in my designs.
What are the challenges you have faced in setting up your label and how have you overcome them?
There are so many! The most challenging for me is to edit. When I start designing and/or start sourcing textiles, I can go on and on and I have difficulty editing out styles and fabrics. It’s not just about editing what doesn't work, but how all things come together as a whole. So some styles or fabrics might need to be dropped aka “sacrificed” for the good of the whole. It’s painful, but when the collection is cohesive, it makes all the difference in presentation.
What are the 3 top pointers you can give to a new fashion designer?
- There is no glamour in being a fashion designer. It’s 99% passion, blood, sweat, tears, money, and no sleep. If your blood doesn’t boil for it, if your heart doesn’t beat faster for it, then it’s not for you.
- Find your voice. There are thousands of super talented designers popping up everywhere. Find YOU.
- Be humble and be on your best behaviour at all times. There is no room for being a diva in this industry.
What does “creativity” mean to you?
Freedom. Passion. Expression.
Do you have a routine/ritual that you follow every day?
Not necessarily everyday, but when I start a new collection, I have to clean my office, my home. When I have a clean slate, literally, I am able to let my creativity roam and create a new chaos of goodness.
What is your creative process when you start work on a new collection?
While I am working on the current collection, there is always a lingering feeling or vision I have for the next collection. Usually I start with that feeling, emotion, memory or a sense of nostalgia. For example, the time I was fishing in Alaska with my father, the waking of the water and splash of the waves - those thoughts and visuals lingered in my head for several months before I started the collection titled, “Water”. It became an homage to my father. Then I build a colour story based on the idea above and thought of essential materials and source textiles for them. In conjunction, I would do sketches based on these fabric ideas or visa versa. A lot of the times I would let fabrics tell me what to design — some textiles scream a particular silhouette that works perfectly with the total concept. I like to close my eyes and touch the materials and let the power of visualization come through.
Who or what inspires you?
People around me inspire me - family, customers, buyers, stylists, and strong women friends and muses.
How has technology changed the way you work and what are the opportunities / challenges that it presents fashion designers such as yourself.
Without technology, I wouldn’t have my business — research, day-to-day communications, presentation tools are all done via technology. With it however, one needs to constantly be on it and be engaged, consistently learn new things and find new paths. That can get quite exhausting when you just want to be a creative person and design beautiful clothes.
Creative and cultural investments are often de-prioritised during tough economic times as they are deemed nice to have but not necessary. Why do you think this happens or what do you think can be done to avoid this ?
It’s all about economics — cultural and creative endeavours are looked upon as more of a slow or non-profit enterprise. It is something to nurture our soul and society, but not necessarily the fastest route to get the biggest return of investment. That is one of the reasons why super stars launch clothing brands and they blow out in a day — with a particular “name” behind a label, there is a guaranteed return on that investment. This makes it so difficult for incredibly talented designers and artists to “make it”, since it seems like “anyone” can do it — making art and design feel cheap and readily accessible.
We, as a part of community, all need to demand more paths and education for creativity and an appreciation of art and design. Without investment in education of the public and schools in these fields, the design and art community will continue to suffer. We must demand for more independent designers and artists, be curious how things are made and created. And not take art and creativity for granted. It all starts with us.
If you had to suggest a government policy intervention involving the “creative industries” that could make a positive impact on society in your view, what might that be?
I am not sure how to tackle a policy, but here are some of my takes on education and learning for children. Let ‘em play and be artistic. Give them good, healthy food options — see all the different countries’ lunch programs and learn from that! Teach them true important things in life. Nurture them. Not just teach them. Provide teacher therapy sessions — teachers are so stressed out that they cannot nurture and give a positive learning environment. Encourage a culture of positive reinforcement. Stop the standardised tests. Test for their creativity and potential.
If you were to compare levels of creativity among children today versus your childhood, what differences and similarities do you see?
Children today are the product of processes, systems, technology and regulations. With that, many lack creativity as they are “boxed in”. But on the other hand, the truly creative ones rise above and showcase things that are really out of this world. I think many of these creative children will invent and innovate new ways to improve lives, whether it be in medical, or in technology, or in environmental, or in artistic fields.
3D printing is already popular in fashion. Artificial intelligence is being used successfully to mine trends to develop decisions for creating collections. Where do you see technology taking fashion?
3D printing of fabrics or actual clothes, definitely, would be one path. I am certain that Virtual Reality and Artificial Intelligence technology will become integrated into fashion product development and production in the future.
A brand storyteller, Ayesha Kohli is the founder of communications consultancy, Sparq Communications and the Editor of Creative Sparq. She launched the site in 2017 to showcase different perspectives on creativity and creative thinking. Passionate about people, culture, education, leadership, technology and trends, she loves championing emerging talents and new businesses.