A self-described “accidental designer,” Richard Tsao is making headway with his handwoven Thai silk designs selling at shops at the Metropolitan Opera, the Asia Society, the Guggenheim Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Santa Fe Opera, among others.
Starting out as a painter, which he continues to do today — he has a group gallery show in January at Arts Project International in TriBeCa —Tsao stumbled into fashion 16 years ago while visiting his mother in Bangkok. He began designing silk jackets and scarves and worked with an experienced tailor there, who turned his designs into reality. “I didn’t think it would last more than two years,” said the Chinese-American artist, who was born and raised in Bangkok and now lives in Jackson Heights, Queens.
“I’m really afraid of the real retail world,” said Tsao, who found a niche for himself selling museum and opera shops. “People have been really nice to me in the retail world,” said Tsao, but he does harbor some desire to expand to specialty stores such as Henri Bendel and Barneys New York.
Tsao’s collection focuses on simple, classic styles that incorporate subtle details from Southeast Asian and Chinese traditional garments. He is known for using the rich jewel tones and tropical hues of his native Thailand. The silk used for his designs is handwoven from hand-spun silk yarn on old-fashioned looms. This artisanal quality and attention to detail is part of Thailand’s arts and crafts tradition and is a hallmark of Tsao’s art and design. His designs retail from $125 to $1,000.
Tsao, who studied fine arts at the Arts Students’ League in New York, has no formal training in fashion design. He said this was something he did to support his career as a fine artist.
“I’m a small mom-and-pop designer. My apartment is like a warehouse and I live in this little corner,” he said. “I design long-distance by phone with the tailor in Bangkok.” He sends e-mails back and forth with the tailor’s daughter. In fact, the last time he was in Bangkok was three years ago.
“I don’t know pattern-making. I don’t know how to sew. I have to send him back samples so everything’s made exactly how I sent it to him. I’ll do sketches and send jpegs and e-mail his daughter. It’s always my ideas, they’re a little bit complicated,” Tsao said. Basically, he said, he has developed six really good silhouettes. It’s like six modernist homes that can be tweaked and done the way he wants it, he said.
His Bangkok tailor does all the work himself and uses satellite tailors. “We have not ventured into factories,” Tsao said. “The production is not big enough.” Everything is then shipped back to the U.S. via DHL.
Tsao’s handwoven silk jackets, for example, have buttons that resemble M&Ms. The pockets are iPhone friendly. “Quality is of utmost importance to me,” he said. Tailor made from handwoven Thai silk, the jacket is fully lined with shoulder pads, a fitted bodice and colorful silk-covered buttons with loop closures. It retails for $400. There are also what he calls “diva scarves” that have elastic that hold them in place. “My designs are about having fun and being noticed,” he said. One of his designs he refers to as “The Madame Butterfly” jacket, which comes in magenta and cobalt blue.
His bestseller is a handwoven Thai silk cocoon jacket for $350, which uses six to seven yards of silk. The silk is shirred into one jacket with elastic sewn onto the fabric, which creates the cocoon effect. The sizing is “one size fits many.” He said the jacket doesn’t wrinkle and is great for travel. “You can add a scarf for $125 and it becomes a whole outfit,” he said.
The AsiaStore at Asia Society was the first to showcase Tsao’s designs. “Richard’s signature cocoon jackets were first showcased at AsiaStore in 2001 where they quickly became a staple among our Upper East Side clientele. The unique ability of his designs to highlight a variety of body types was a major selling point and the lustrous handspun, handwoven silk was adaptable for both day and eveningwear. From that initial cocoon jacket, Richard’s collection expanded to include distinctive blouses, scarves and shawls that took inspiration from traditional Southeast Asian and Chinese designs,” said Anne Godshall, chief merchandising officer and director of events at Asia Society.
Hope Van Winkle, director of merchandising at The Met Opera Shop, said, “I really love working with him. We collaborate on product development. He’ll tweak designs for us or we’ll work on new ideas.” Sometimes they’ll do different versions of the “Pagliacci” — the woven silk jacket with buttons down the front — because it’s been so popular. She said that jacket is the one they’ve sold the best and they try to bring in four or five different styles per season. “We won’t sell hundreds of anything. It’s a pretty limited production. We’ll change the color or change the length, so it’s never quite the same,” she said.
Van Winkle said Tsao’s collection is geared to a museum-type customer and people who attend the opera or come to Lincoln Center. “We actually have a lot of Europeans and South Americans and people from all over the world coming to the store. [Tsao’s collection] is for someone with discerning taste,” she said.
Tsao will also do trunk shows at the Met Opera store. “We do special orders based on trunk shows, and it gives him an opportunity to see customers trying it on and talk about their lifestyle, and really provide a very personal service,” she said. The Met Opera store also carries the cocoon jacket in four or five different colors and the vest. “They’re wonderful. People collect them. They’re warm and very comfortable to wear,” she said.
Asked how he established such a high-brow collection of museums and opera shops, Tsao said the tickets are expensive, so most museum and opera shops think people won’t spend more than $125. But they do. “The price point is very reasonable,” he said. Tsao said he established his specialized retail clientele through word of mouth and introductions. His customers are generally 55 years old and up. “They have lots of disposable income. They can afford very expensive clothes. It’s a bargain for what it is,” he said.
“My customers will come out to Jackson Heights and they’ll shop with me. They only wear black until they come to my studio,” he added. He has also begun offering some poly chiffon machine washable styles for $350. He said MoMA wanted something that wasn’t silk and he came up with a little duster in poly/chiffon which sold very well.
Tsao has also ventured into accessories and is making long-stranded candy necklaces and pearl necklaces.
As for handling sales and running the business, Tsao said, “I don’t have a rep. I do it all myself.” During the day, he runs an art program for adults with schizophrenia at St. Francis Friends of the Poor in New York.
And he has his upcoming group gallery show in New York curated by Kathy Galitz called “Blurred Horizons: Contemporary Landscapes, Real and Imagined.” Most of Tsao’s paintings, which are inspired by outer space, are in collections now and have been sold. His paintings can take from two to six years. He paints color-saturated, highly textured pieces on wood or canvas.
“The clothing paid for my painting business. I’ve done really well with retail and a lot of generous supporters. I’m happy I’m able to do this,” he said.