NEW YORK — Three up-and-coming designers, each of whom grew up overseas, are taking markedly different approaches to setting up their businesses.
Instead of working under a series of well-known designers for years, Chomwan Weeraworawit, Hye-Jin Hwang and Prabal Gurung are making names for themselves.
Raised in Bangkok, educated in London and based in Paris, Weeraworawit plans to show her first collection here this fall. She has designed the uniforms for the wait staff at Kittichai, a new Thai restaurant at 60 Thompson, which is a popular Manhattan hotel. She said during a phone interview last week that her designs were inspired by trousers worn by Thai fishermen. Diners at Kittichai have liked her work so much that she has taken 30 personal orders and her Bangkok-based tailor will ship them next month.
“The response has been much greater than I expected. Robin [Leigh] warned me, but I didn’t realize it would be like this,” she said, referring to her friend Leigh, who launched Kittichai with partners Michael Callahan, Jean-Marc Houmard and Huy Chi Lee. Weeraworawit agreed to make the uniforms after bumping into Leigh in Bangkok. She had started selling customized Thai-inspired clothes to private clients about 10 months ago through her Web site Chomwan.com.
Under her new company, Chomwan Ltd., Weeraworawit has developed a 15-piece collection and the Web site. In September, she plans to show her first full collection here in a venue that is “definitely a little underground” and will eventually relocate to New York to attend Parsons School of Design. Weeraworawit said her clothes are “what Daisy Buchanan from ‘The Great Gatsby’ might wear if she came to Thailand.” Wholesale prices range from $60 for wrap tops to $150 for chiffon dresses.
Her career has a few layers. After receiving her law degree from King’s College in London, Weeraworawit worked for the international law firm Linklaters in Bangkok in mergers and acquisitions for about a year. Now she is getting her master’s degree in French law at the Sorbonne, and then plans to sharpen her focus on design. “I love studying law and it’s been very useful,” she said. “It’s a means to an end. I’m getting technical skills for [the business side of] fashion.”Like Weeraworawit, Hye-Jin Hwang, the designer behind Gam In Gale, which makes its debut this fall, has labored outside the fashion world. Born in South Korea, she has worked in graphic and interior design, putting together the Chocolate Suites, a downtown pied-à-terre that starts at $2,000 per night — from staining the floors to making some of the furniture. Her work on that property was recently featured in the French magazine Optima positioned next to the interior of New York’s Spice Market restaurant, a compliment as far as Hwang was concerned.
While she hasn’t ruled out doing more interior design projects and often receives proposals, Hwang said her attention is focused on fashion. “If I meet the right person with the same vision, I might do something,” she said. “At the moment, I am so devoted to this. I don’t want to work for a company and look for drapery all day. That’s not so interesting.”
After attending Ducksung University in Korea for two years, she moved to the U.S. where she picked up three degrees. She earned an art history degree in two and a half years at Ohio University. From there, she went to the University of California at Santa Barbara, where she completed a fine arts degree in the same amount of time. Her next stop was Parsons for a fashion degree.
Hwang then freelanced in design for Katayone Adeli, partly because a “small company cares about details.” But Hwang wasn’t a stranger to the fashion world. In the Nineties her father owned a 40-store fashion-forward sportswear chain in Korea, which was also called Gam In Gale. The name refers to a group of whales swimming together in gale-force winds and was a metaphor for a young company, Hwang said.
Her fall collection consists of 35 pieces including a wool bomber jacket, a strappy dress with German glass detail, a multitiered flapper dress, tweed coats and silk chiffon camisoles. Intermix has picked up the collection for its Madison Avenue store. Wholesale prices range from $160 to $600. Fall 2004 and spring 2005 should generate $150,000 in sales, and that figure is expected to double the following year, said Maria McManus, sales and public relations director.Sari Sloane, head buyer for Intermix, said, “The tailoring was perfect and the fabrics had a really soft hand. It’s really sophisticated, clean and very good quality. There’s definitely been a void in that market for nice, clean clothes,” she said.
Prabal Gurung was born in Singapore, grew up in Nepal and worked in London and Australia, before moving here to attend Parsons in the late Nineties. As a junior, he was named “best designer” at the Fusion show, an annual fashion event featuring Parsons and Fashion Institute of Technology students. After the show his senior year, Cynthia Rowley, one of the judges, offered him a job as a designer, a full-time position he still holds. Gurung also does freelance design for 429, a new T-shirt line.
After seeing his work in the Fusion show, a London socialite, whom Gurung declined to name, bought his senior project, a six-piece capsule collection, for $15,000. He continues to design clothes for her and other private clients under his own label. On the side, he has developed a full spring collection. Dresses wholesale for about $200, jackets are around $300 and tops are $90 to $150. This spring about six stores are expected to carry his collection, he said.
Gurung said the collection, which includes trenchcoats with hoodies and handstitched dresses, was inspired by Bollywood, vamps and models. “I always try to think of this woman who takes the gritty New York sidewalks as her runway,” Gurung said. “Nothing is cute. Everything has a little dark side to it. It’s for the very confident.”
This year’s sales are projected to be $150,000, and that figure should more than double in 2005, Gurung said. He has lined up a few investors including the London socialite, with the hope of eventually stepping out on his own.
“When I was coming to New York from India to study fashion, everyone thought, ‘Oh, that’s a nice hobby. What do you really want to do?’” he said, “They couldn’t even fathom it being a career.”
Holding down a full-time job at Cynthia Rowley, while developing his business and helping 429 with design can be difficult. “Sometimes it’s really challenging, but that’s why I left Nepal. One day I will look back and know it was worth it,” Gurung said.
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