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Cho Cheng is moving at a pretty good clip for a designer who graduated from Parsons The New School for Design just two years ago.
He has an atelier on Manhattan’s East 63rd Street, a handful of freestanding signature boutiques in China and celebrity clients. In addition, the designer — who is preparing for his first runway show in the tents in February — will sponsor the 2009 Young Friends of Save Venice Ball and is wholesaling his collection in the U.S. Until now, the Chinese-born designer has relied on word-of-mouth recommendations from his well-heeled friends and clients to sell his collection.
Last year, Cheng inherited the five Betty Couture stores in Asia that belonged to his maternal grandmother Betty Char-nuis Clemos, considered to be one of the first fashion designers in China. They are now under his company’s label, Chocheng. He also inherited his grandmother’s design archives.
Although Cheng’s family helps manage his stores, he came up with the seed money to start his business through an impetuous stock investment. After hearing that Martha Stewart was arrested in 2003 for lying about a stock trade, he decided to play the stock market for the first time and bought $50,000 worth of stock in her company, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia Inc. After her release from prison, however, he disapproved of Stewart’s decision to do a spin-off of “The Apprentice” reality TV show and decided to cash in, making tenfold in the process. That windfall enabled him to leave his full-time gig at Maggie Norris Couture, where he had started as an intern, to venture out on his own.
This year, Cho Cheng’s annual volume is $925,000, with the U.S. accounting for about $120,000. The company plans a 27 percent increase in 2009, which Cheng considers to be conservative, given the difficult economic climate.
Olivia Pei, architect I.M. Pei’s granddaughter, helped raise Cheng’s designer profile by wearing one of his made-to-measure gowns, a dramatic black and red style that retails for $40,000, to last year’s Crillon Ball in Paris. Months later, Cheng was delighted when Nicole Kidman commented on what he calls the “marshmallow gown,” a pink poufy taffeta number he designed for his friend Tinsley Mortimer for last year’s Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute Ball. “At first, I thought she was just being nice, but that was a big encouragement for me,” said Cheng, who escorted his friend to the gala.
In building sales, the company aims to broaden its domestic distribution beyond the handful of stores that carry his line. The 30-piece spring collection consists of jackets, skirts, suits, cocktail dresses and evening gowns. Wholesale prices range from $150 for a skirt to $3,000 for a gown. His made-to-measure collection retails from $15,000 to $45,000.
Cheng employs some of the seamstresses who worked for Mary McFadden, and buys handwoven brocade from Scottish mills. “There are still people in Scotland who do this intricate handweaving,” he said, displaying a jacket. In fact, he is so enamored with jackets that the February show is inspired by “The Little Prince,” Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s velvet jacket-wearing character.
Cheng credits his grandmother with introducing him to the design world and couture show in Paris. While she was known to match the lining of her designs to her clients’ complexions, he is also drawn to the little details — though these times do not allow for such indulgences.
“Back then, people would order from the same designer again and again,” he said.