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Culture

Q&A with Richard Chai, New York designer

Nov 14,2006
Richard Chai fitting a model before the show.By Ines Cho
Q. What’s your connection to Korea?
A. I’ve been here a few times, but I’ve started coming more now that I have a business here. In the United States, it [my business] is strong, and I’m developing a healthy business in Korea, Japan and everywhere. I had exclusive deals with stores in major capitals, such as Avenuel. The stores like this because it gives them more credibility but now I’ve finished these exclusives I have begun to extend my business.
My parents emigrated to the U.S. in the late 1960s and settled down in Westchester. My father is a chemical engineer with a Ph.D, and my mother is a housewife who raised three crazy kids, of which I’m the youngest. We now live in New Jersey. My older brother runs a very well-known company called “Odin’” an influential men’s lifestyle store. The store has been covered in men’s magazines around the world. My sister is looking after the baby she just had, but she is a marketing executive.

What makes you qualified to represent the New York collections?
Although I’m American in many ways, I’m also Korean raised with traditional values. I definitely see myself as Korean, or Korean-American. In terms of design ethics, because my designs sell in many countries, they are truly international, but I’m considered an American designer. Good design is timeless and it can work for women living in different parts of the world.

What are some of the toughest challenges you face as a designer in New York?
The industry in the U.S. is supportive of new designers, but there are just so many new designers out there. There are about 130 shows during the fashion week, from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sometimes there are three or four shows at one time. In that sense, some people might find that challenging, but for me, I’ve always focused on my work. I’m not aiming to please everybody. If I feel good about it that’s all that matters.

Who sits in the front row of your shows? Can you name-drop a little?
Key editors of all major publications. I’ve had Julie Gilhart from Barneys, Cathy Horyn from the New York Times, and Bridget Foley from W magazine, who rarely goes to fashion shows, but she’s been to all my shows. And all the people at Vogue — including Anna Wintour who’s been on and off — have given me tremendous support.
After the Marc Jacobs generation, there is a group of young designers — Behnaz Sarafpour, Zac Posen, Derek Lam, Proenza Schouler, and they were recognized very quickly; you need all the stars lined up to promote a collection. They have been in the business for about five years and are way ahead of me. But people link me with them, even though I’m new, and fortunately I’m already placed with these people. Getting myself photographed at parties is not on my agenda. I want my work to speak for me.

What were the early signs that you would become a fashion designer?
I have always been surrounded by art. Since I was six, I’ve played the violin and piano. Since I loved to draw, I was 13 when I started taking night classes at Parson’s. One day I pushed the wrong button on the elevator. As the door opened, I saw an amazing energy in the classroom. It was model drawing for fashion illustration. The next week I changed to fashion design. From the first class, I knew I wanted to become a fashion designer. A teacher then told my mother, ‘Your son must become a fashion designer.’

Where do you find sources of inspiration each season?
First, it’s all about construction. My clothes are deceptively simple and understated, but when you look closer, they’re very intricate. I work with a Japanese pattern maker, whom I worked with at TSE from 2001 to 2003; I started my company in 2004. I design and sketch, and she executes the concept. She is like my eyes and hands.
For any designer, defining oneself often takes time, and it continues to evolve. For me, the source can be anything — a dinner or maybe a conversation. It’s a combination of all things, not one specific thing, that goes through my mind. Designing is also an emotional process that transcends the clothes. When you wear clothes, it documents who you are at that time. As a man, I’m fascinated by the psychology of women, what makes a woman feel a certain way. Different women might wear the same clothes differently, so it’s also personal. The beauty of it is when I see women wear my clothes on the street, the way they put it together. It’s a weird feeling but also amazing. For me a runway show is a narration of my mood at that particular time in my life.

How do you know women so well?
I just do.

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By Ines cho Staff Writer [inescho@joongang.co.kr]
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