"Introducing an emerging designer creating captivating leather fashions."
SUK CHAI INTERVIEW "SCHAI"
“My hands and eyes ooze desire to create when I touch something special. When I touch the “right” fabric, I usually close my eyes and visualize all the things I can create.”
“I am inspired by and seek mentorship from people who are genuine, intelligent, incredible at their unique craft, persevering, and paving path for newness.”
“Most of times it’s just an emotion that inspires the entire collection.”
Growing up the youngest daughter of a fisherman, Korean-born Suk Chai’s wardrobe was not her own. It was oldest brother’s first, and then the next brother’s, and then her sister’s — but waiting taught her about timeless silhouettes and the value of materials. By the mid-90s Chai was a young single mother putting herself through design school in New York. Her own clothes came from 10-dollar stores, but her dreams came from the then-dying legendary houses of Givenchy, Ungaro, and Alaia. After school, the award-winning FIT graduate spent twenty years designing, directing, and producing womenswear for elite brands —fourteen of those years at Nordstrom, innovating and exacting for the luxury department store clientele — but swift and steady success in the industry eventually gave way to a boomerang. She began to see fashion as a surface-level art form, and ultimately vacated her coveted senior design director position. It wasn’t until a chance encounter with the rich cashmere of a Lanvin coat, some two years later, that the soulfulness of refined fibers and precision craft pulled her back in.
S C H A I is her personal debut. Although Chai continues to work outside her brand as a creative consultant for major Korean and American fashion companies, her collection represents her own intellectual and intuitive beliefs about beauty, longevity, and comfort. Each season exhibits the brand’s DNA: a dedication to finely milled Italian fabrics and luxe vegetable-dyed animal skins, New York City-based manufacturing (with satellite production in Korea), elegantly modern shapes and cutting-edge architectural lines, and an intrinsic wisdom concerning color, shade, and tone.
“Softly spoken but powerful hues are what seduce you to touch a garment,” says Chai.
When felt, S C H A I garments command even more attention—when worn, body, mind, and materials are transformed.
1. Describe your journey to becoming a designer?
S: I found myself not being able to breathe without being deep in it. Despite a couple of occasions where I was completely burnt out from the industry, I found designing is what my makes my heart beat faster.
2. What is your favorite part about being a fashion designer?
S: Fabric sourcing. Textile is an integral part of design. My hands and eyes ooze desire to create when I touch something special. When I touch the “right” fabric, I usually close my eyes and visualize all the things I can create. However, this is also the part I hate the most, because I cannot use all the fabrics I love.
3. What were your inspirations for the designs you created for the shoot?
S: I titled the S/S 15 collection “Water”, and it’s a secret homage to my father who was a fisherman in Alaska.
Water is immense, yet transparent. It is mysterious yet purifying. It is vast yet vulnerable.
These emotions coincided with my experience as a little girl fishing with my father. My father, who is now hospitalized, is the strongest, most driven person I know. Although we didn’t really speak much on these trips, I remember the emotions that I collected each time we went fishing together. I wanted to capture these memories in the collection.
4. How did you select the materials you used?
S: I sourced materials that show structure and durability like what a fisherman would like, but feels soft and worn, such as Feather Lambskin, Cotton/Linen Denim, and Crackled, Splatter Leather. I also wanted to balance the collection by juxtaposing structured materials with extremely fluid and sensual fabrications in strong lines, such as Stretch Crepe with a Vintage Washed Hand-feel and Voile Stripe and Stretch Viscose from Italy. For accents, I used the Copper Shimmer fabric that represents the shimmer on the surface of the water as the sunsets in the Pacific Northwest.
5. What are materials that are challenging for you to work with?
S: Drapy fabrics. They are harder to cut and sew as they tend to “slip” as you handle them. Seams can twist and warp, but when done right, a beautiful drape can wrap around a body in the most sensual way.
6. What would you think when some high-end brands challenged you to create haute couture clothes and accessories out of trash and recycled materials?
S: It would be a challenge. But I like challenges. I remember having to design something with carpenter’s tools while I was at FIT. It’s fun to be able to use unexpected materials and achieve something extraordinary.
7. Can you tell me one of your most challenging moments as a designer?
S: Having to be the designer, the CEO, the janitor, the assistant, the merchant, and so on. I am really good with multi-tasking, but the challenge for an emerging brand is that it is constantly growing and the designer often has to do-it-all. For over 16+ years in management positions, one of my biggest responsibilities was to “delegate” tasks to my team members, but now I must undo what I learned to do.
8. Who/What is your inspiration?
S: My surroundings and my family. Most of the time it’s just an emotion that inspires my entire collection.
9. Which designers do you admire? / Why?
S: Haider Ackermann. I don’t think this needs any explanation. His work is magical and transcendent.
10. Which designers have you been inspired by or learned from?
S: I am inspired by and I am always seeking mentorship from people who are genuine, intelligent and incredible at their unique craft, perseverance, and paving the way for newness.
11. What's your favorite style?
S: Slightly androgynous, which translates ageless, timeless and also is versatile between street and high-fashion.
12. Where do you think the most fashionable city in the world is?
S: I don’t think there is such a thing. Fashion is such a subjective matter. I think it is most fashionable when a person or a city is confident, creative, eclectic, artistic, intelligent and open to versatility and change. I will say the most unfashionable city is a city where the citizens are stuck with one belief.
13. Can you tell me one of your childhood memories regarding fashion?
S: My family was not able to afford a Barbie back when I was growing up in Korea. My sister and I used to design our own paper dolls and their outfits, including handbags, hair accessories, and shoes.
14. What do you like to do in your spare time?
S: Friends and Family gatherings. I wish I was able to do more of it.
15. What are your favorite musicians/songs/bands?
S: I love a good mix of house music when I am working and everyone around me knows that I hate lyrics in the music when I am working. When I am driving, I love great vocalists such as Adele, Amy Winehouse, Sade….
16. Do you have any spots that you always visit in NYC? Any places that you get inspired from?
S: Lower East Side. I love the fact that I can walk across the Williamsburg Bridge, and I can have the most amazing coffee at Cafe Vita (from Seattle, by the way!) Cafe Vita is my favorite roaster. I can walk around feeling the neighborhood, and there are amazing eateries as well as the coolest shops around. All of this without the tourists!
17. What are your favorite restaurants/bars/nightlife in NYC?
S: For breakfast, wherever there is a great espresso. Coffee is not like Seattle. I am happy to see that better cafes are popping up though.
I am not much of a bar-goer, so I do love going to great restaurants like Freemans. For me, being able to chat all night long is the best “nighlife” in whatever city I happen to be in.
18. Where would you like to travel to get some ideas or inspirations from?
S: Africa. Middle East. Vietnam & Laos. New Zealand. Australian desert.
19. Where do you see yourself in 3 years / 5 years?
S: By 3rd year, I would like to have the collection established and recognized by great boutiques around the world. In 5 years, I would love to create a beautiful coffee table book to celebrate the 10th season.
20. How would you describe yourself in one word?
S: A labyrinth.
INTERVIEWED & WRITTEN BY: RACHEL IIMURA
PHOTOGRAPHER : FIONA PEPE AND SARA MARIE D'EUGENIO