I was very lucky to have the opportunity to sit down and have hour-long conversation with Bowen Hu, the Parsons graduate designer. When I send her the email request for an interview, I never actually thought she’d say yes — but she did!
Bowen graduated from Parsons in 2018 and founded her own brand — Bowen Hu. She has been quite active in New York and is no doubt an emerging talent in the New York fashion indsutry. Her visit to London this time is to showcase her Lucid Dream collection. As a fashion student I was thrilled, so after the show ended I reached out to her and shortly recieved her reply! I’m still very thankful for her to make time for me as she had a very busy schedule that day and still suffer from jetlag.
In the hour-long interview, Bowen talk me through the inspiration behind her work, work ethic, fashion industry behind the scene, and the difficulty independent designers face.
1. Why did you choose London for your show this season? Could you elaborate on the concept behind the work of this show?
BH: It’s actually a decision made due to multiple aspects. We have not started production yet which means we are not a brand that could sell our products to buyers. First thing we’ve got to do is to gain as much exposure as possible so people could remember our brand. I don’t want to invest in too much capital into production just yet since we are just beginning. If the feedback were not as expected it could put quite a lot of pressure on us. We already have certain scale of connection in New York. This is a great opportunity to come over to London and see the reaction and the feedback of the market in Europe. To be frank, the pieces I presented during this show are more aesthetic-oriented rather than commercial. They are not that easy in terms of selling as products. They were inspired by psychology. I call this collection “Lucid Dream”, meaning the inspirations sparked in human’s subconscious mind when dreaming. I also was inspired by brain waves and turned them into the design on the fabrics.
2. Your introduction emphasizes on the influence psychology has on your designs. Have you studied psychology before? Does integrating study from other discipline with fashion sets you apart from other designers?
BH: First of all I do think aesthetic is very important as a designer. It is one of the aspects that distinguishes you and the others. Personally I like making music and try doing all kinds of experiment, so I do think if we were to do collaborations with people in different field could spark new possibility. It’s something I consider quite interesting.
3. The introduction also mentions the use of soundtrack and background story to create interaction between the wearer and the garments. Are you accustomed to work across different discipline?
BH: I am not someone who has great perseverance ever since I was little. I’d be interested in one thing and dive into learning all about it and stop once I lost interest. This is actually one of my weaknesses. Nevertheless, I now realized the making garments is something I could persist in doing. Sometimes I do get bored sometimes and I am afraid I’ll treat it as a business rather than something I enjoy doing. If I would like to try something else, I’ll do it right away. I wasn’t a professional music producer before this collection. I am still not qualified as one, but I give everything I am interested a try, and look for people who are professional to teach me about it. Interacting with them is also a way of building connection. You get to know so many people and they inspire you a lot. I am not saying all coming collections are going to be associated with music, but it can be associated with many other things. I’ll probably get interested into something else next time and look for people and ask: “How do you do this?” and learn about it. Experimenting in different direction but what remains static is the aesthetic of the brand, as it shows in your garments.
4. Your design is unisex, but your background in textile makes your silhouette quite different from the typical unisex design we see. What does unisex mean to you and how do you approach it?
BH: I am not sure if I should describe my garments as unisex, womenswear, or menswear. Unisex is a more like a conceptual mentality. The boundary between men and women is more blurry than before and people don’t necessarily think a garment belongs to only men or women. However, there are still categories of menswear and womenswear in the traditional fashion realm, so the concept of unisex is rather difficult to put into realisation when it comes to production. That being said, the collections I have on hand are wearable for both men and women, but when you put it into production you’ll find there will be problems in terms of sizes. It’s actually rather difficult to realise, but it is a trend that will progress in the future. The appearance of unisex doesn’t mean menswear and womenswear will be replaced. I tend to think unisex will be something equal to menswear and womenswear under the umbrella of fashion.
5. Why did you decide to start your own brand after graduating?
BH: I wouldn’t say I started my brand right after my graduation. I have three part-time job in New York now. I work at The Row as a freelancer and as a part-time stylist and sales associate at a select shop that matches with my style. I also work as part-time model to make up for extra expenses. I have never worked in retail before, so the role I took on in the select shop allows me to get in direct contact with customers. As a designer, You have to get to the frontline and know your market. You can see what kind of products customers want. Furthermore, the shop I chose is the kind of shop I would imagine my brand to work with in the future. It gives you the chance to observe your competitors and see what’s their best sellers and how do they attract customers each season et cetera. You get to learn so much. The Row is simply a brand I admire. I also get to experience how does a brand function as a company. This is also one of the reason one I have not started producing my own products — I do not have much time to invest in my own brand right now. We’ve been updating what we already have on hand and we’ve just debuted a new jewelry collection to build up a stable crowd that follows us. Once we built up enough customer base we’ll be ready for production.
6. What identity do you have other than being a designer after founding your brand?
BH: After founding my own brand I realized that I am a boss now. I gotta do all the work and carry the responsibility of the company, although our company is rather small. Public relations is the first aspect I found that I need to take care of. There will be people reaching out to you, at the same time you’ll have to reach out to other people as well. Because we are at the stage where we need brand recognition, so we’ll go to all kinds of event and promote our brands to other people. Apart from events, we will also reach out to buyers and stylists. My partner is now reaching out to 88 Rising. They want to borrow our pieces for their music videos and what not. These are actually what we are doing in the beginning. I also need to arrange interns when we need extra hands on deck. You have to be in a leadership position and not joking around all day. You need to work when it’s time for work. I am the type of designer who would become too excited and play around all day, so my partner will have to take charge and remind me from time to time.
7. As an independent designer, are there moments that make you most accomplished? When are you most frustrated?
BH: The most satisfying moment is no doubt when being liked by people! For instance, sometimes when stylist approved of my work and would like to borrow your work so they can let more people see you or when some friends offer to buy your stuff out of the love for your work. What even makes me more excited is when meeting a bunch of people with great insight and interesting ideas, and work with them together, doing this and that. Being with these people sparks a lot of new ideas. Say, like, you met a person when doing music, you’d think: “This person is interesting.” You both want to do something and when your ideas collide the collaboration turns out quite compelling. This is probably the most thrilled moment to me.
What frustrated me the most is when ideal and reality collide. After graduating I had various ideas and thoughts and would like to put it into practice but realize I’ll have to compromise due to the reality of the market. It’s very frustrating. You’ll find out that everyone including yourself think your work is amazing but it couldn’t generate profit. For instance, I had a piece that is completely hand-sewed from top to bottom and it require a month to finish. The piece could be borrowed by stylists and what not but it won’t sell. Nobody is willing to spend 8000 dollars or 6000 pounds on this piece, nobody. A garment like this is probably suitable for an one-time event. A lot of time I’ll have to consider what makes a product really sell. You’ll come to a point where you think: “Oh, it seems like we will have to do t-shirts, jeans, and daily items.” After working at The Row I found that fashion houses are not as “great” as I thought. Every brand is observing its competitors and what they are doing, and take inspiration from them. Sometimes you’d think a brand is copying from another brand, but it’s actually a mutual action. It’s quite frustrating. Sometimes I’ll have the urge to go back to China because how good the market in China is right now, but generally, the aesthetics of people in China can be frustrating as well. It’ll need more time to get better.
I used to think there is nothing I can’t do, but later it proved that it’s just not how things work. A team is crucial.
8. How important is a great team to an independent designer?
BH: It’s super important! I used to think there is nothing I can’t do, but later it proved that it’s just not how things work. It doesn’t matter what you do, you rarely do it all by yourself. Most of the time you’ll need a team to function. A team is crucial, which is also why I can feel defeated sometimes. The fashion industry in the U.S is, I would say, sick. A lot of times the people who are propelling the progression of a product are the interns, and they don’t get paid. The result is that when this particular intern leaves after three months, another intern will come and pick up at where the previous one stops. Despite it’s still slowly progressing, and the products are still selling, the outcome is very messy. That is because every intern has different habit when doing things, so there is no consistency. The most horrible situation is when the interns come and go in a fast pace, the quality could be unstable. This is why I don’t use intern, unless we have deadline approaching like we did for this show. Later on I do think I’ll need at least three full-time intern to propel the process.
9. How do you balance between keeping your work artsy while also “commercial”? What do you think is the ratio of the two?
BH: Tough question. I think it’s 7:3 market-wise. 7 being the commercial aspect and 3 being the artistic aspect. My idealistic status is 0:10, but it’s not possible. Ideally we all prefer doing things we want to do, but the market needs are there and there has to be a target market for every brand. It is very unlikely that an eighty-year-old lady would like to wear our garments. So you’ll have to design in accordance to your target audience. You’ve got to know them, know their needs. Nobody just sit there all day does nothing other than wearing a piece of fancy garment, right? You’ll need to know what kind of occupation they have. They might need a t-shirt and a jacket today, a shirt and a coat tomorrow. A very thorough research and a great deal of thinking are required. Then you add in your aesthetic into further develop your design. I think you do need to keep your brand on this rhythm that it is likely to prosper. If you simply want to show your aesthetics to people you could become an artist. Before I graduate from college I used to perceive fashion as a form of art. Fashion design is art. Later I realized fashion design is creative business. This is still a business but with creativity.
KC: Not every designers think this way. The friends I know who are doing fashion design tend to reject compromising with the market needs. They tend to put more weight on the artistic aspect of fashion design and little to none on the business aspect. Among many of them, it is considered “no longer authentic” once it’s associated with business. However, to us who are doing fashion business, at the end of the day, your work has to sell, so the brand survives. There won’t be any future season if it can’t survive on the market.
BH: I was thinking the same thing as your friends. At the time I thought I would exhibit my pieces in museums. No doubt if your work is qualified as museum pieces, you are dope. The question is if you can really make it. I personally think I can’t. Everybody wants to be the next Alexander McQueen, but McQueen has passed away for a decade now and we still haven’t seen the next one. Not that people are not creative enough, there are tons of creative people. I know way too many people with good ideas, talent, and techniques, but they are not even close to the height of Alexander McQueen. I’m not saying this can’t be your dream — you can, if you are affluent and have plenty of time. If so then just do it, but you aren’t making any money. Not to mention, Alexander McQueen himself used to go to his store and ask: “What are my best sellers?” and he just went and made more.
KC: He is truly an amazing designer. When a designer makes too many items that sells, critics would criticise the relevancy of him in the fashion industry. McQueen’s work maintain the balance so well, so brilliant.
BH: I think there must be a very supportive and talented team behind him and help him take care of the RTW collection. It’s hard to believe that he made all those amazing museum pieces and at the same time those RTW collections by himself. Creative directors don’t involve in every tiny bits of design process, a lot of the times there are more meetings than hands on activities. Like I said, a good team is crucial — your team will have to know you well to know what you need, what do you want to show, your brand identity, and know the market at the same time. The market is constantly changing. You’ve got to work really hard in the fashion industry, especially now. The fashion industry today is very sick, especially after the emergence of fast fashion. Designer brands are being pushed to a poor condition where they have to struggle to survive. Fast fashion brands copy their work resulting their real effort is not being valued and people are less willing to shop designer brands because they can always find similar style at fast fashion company. Designer brands need to reinforce their brand tonality and identity while also build attachment with customers — it’s difficult. I have seen friends around me who work really hard in order to survive in this industry. They work six days a week, from morning to evening. I’m not saying they can’t survive; I’m just saying it’s very hard to if you do not prepare yourself for this before you step into the fashion industry. Especially those who still possess the dream of making museum pieces. When you face the reality, realized your parents can no longer support your design dream financially, you’ll have to think how are you going to make money to make more garments.
10. Would you reject the idea of becoming a commercial brand?
BH: Let me put it this way, do not think in a way that’s too straight-forward. There’s always a way out. If one day I really make it big, I’ll probably not be the one designing. I’ll probably hire a group of people and do the design and I’ll do something else. It’ll probably be ten years later and you’ll never know what is the fashion industry like ten years later. They have this installation format other than the traditional runway show now and it’s getting very popular. Seldom does a designer today still use traditional runway show for new collections. They’ll probably build a showroom and an interesting installation. You never know what’s going to pop out in ten years. I’ll possibly hire people to deal with the design for the market and I’ll do something else. All I know and can be sure about is I personally will not want to do something that is boring. If there ever comes a day when I have the pressure of having to decide whether to scale my brand and become a commercial brand, that means I am doing quite alright. If I am doing quite alright that means I have the money, and if I have money on hand I will NOT do something I do not want for sure! I don’t have the money now and still hanging on to it and insist in doing what I do — why would I do something I don’t like to do when I have the money? However my partner will probably have to deal with more trouble, but as a designer you’ve got to have your own temper and personality! To be frank, nobody knows what’s gonna happen in the future. I do think there is going to be a huge revolution in the fashion industry because the way it works is getting very old. I think a huge revolution is coming.
KC: I agree. Fashion industry is coming to a turning point now. Especially now when the traditional (magazine) is losing its strength.
BH: Yeah! Perhaps in the future people just wear digital clothes. You never know.
11. What kind of difficulty does an independent designer faces? What obstacles have you encountered?
BH: The problem with money is one big obstacle. I don’t know what’s the situation like in Europe, but there are some problem in New York. If you have enough money you can do basically everything. You can see a lot of the brands getting on to the runway of NYFW. Sometimes we joke about how people can buy their way in to NYFW — things like this does exist. You can buy coverage in magazines, buy more exposure by paying celebrities to talk about it or post about it and each has its price. There are tons of PR agency that would do all these stuff for you. I have a friend who pays a PR agency 3000 dollars per month to have the company to deal with public relation, things like looking for connection and raise exposure. This is of course one way to build brands. It’s actually quite difficult without PR. I know a designer who is a CFDA awarded designer and have worked for big brands. He left the company and started his own label. His instagram account has only 500 or so followers and the products are not selling that well because he tend to keep everything low profile and he is not accustomed to do these PR things. People nowadays live in a bubble. Relevancy is the new currency. I am struggling as well. I don’t know if I should just play with the game or what. You might need several revolutionary people, but would you be that person? You’ll probably end up very tired and poor, barely making it for being the one leading revolution. The world is just not authentic, if you were to be the authentic person you’ll be exhausted and poor, would you like to be that person? I personally is facing this inner turmoil too.
KC: So just continue to walk and see.
BH: Yes. Right now I’ll try my best to do things I like to do. I’m still young so there is no need to compromise, right? If I’m in my thirties and still couldn’t support myself, that’s when I’ll probably compromise. If you could support yourself and make a living then there’s nothing to bother. If your parents don’t need too much help from you financially then just do what you do and accept all living condition you might have.
What people don’t know is that the costs for designer brand products are high because we cannot produce in large amount of batches.
12. What aspects in the fashion industry that are not so friendly towards independent designers?
BH: There is a terrible downside to independent designers — they disappear very easily
KC: They just sort of disappear from the scene after few seasons.
BH: Yes. Many perceive independent designer brands as something fresh and interesting. People like each designer for his/her own distinct character. Nevertheless a lot of independent designer could not get a grasp it. For instance if the socks of this season brings attention to the designer, so the designer continues on doing all kinds of socks the next following seasons without bringing up new element. It’s easy for everyone to stay in the safe zone — design whatever sells. Luxury brands could get by doing this because for their customers, their products never go out of style, like Burberry trench coat. As for designers, your specific design might get you popularity and massive exposure, but it won’t last forever. If you do not debut new products you’ll get forgotten by people very easily with other brands and trends coming up. This is the way fashion industry is. More often they shop independent designer brands for a sense of novelty.
Also, independent designers have a hard time finding a space to stand on in the industry. I have a friend who designed a sunglasses for a brand. It got viral on instagram, but the credit is no where to be found. They won’t mention your name let alone giving you any credit because you are merely a small designer. Despite the fact that it’s your work, they just will not support small designers. Another unfriendly aspect has something to do with the market — people are not willing to spend too much on designer products. What people don’t know is that the costs for designer brand products are very high because we cannot produce in large amount of batches. The less you order the factory to produce, the higher the cost, which reflects on the retail price. If the price is too high, people are just unwilling to buy.
KC: People would rather shop at either luxury brands or high street brands. Most of the time people tend to judge if the price is reasonable based on the name of the brand and it’s hard to understand why designer brands with little reputation could cost so much.
BH: Exactly. People would rather go shop luxury brands! Even Taobao! What’s worse is you finally have a piece that go viral and your brand is finally known by people, only to find out there are tons of counterfeit on Taobao, things like this.
13. What changes or adjustments do you wish to see in the fashion industry ?
BH: All of which I just mentioned need to change. *laughs*
First of all, the fashion industry right now is very conservative — not open to new ideas, new designers, new brands. There isn’t a wide acceptance towards new form of doing things as well. I hope it could be more open and people could have a more thorough education on culture and aesthetic. Especially in China. Stop teaching math when it’s time for art class! To be honest, it’s quite scary to not have aesthetic taste at all — it’s satisfies your mental needs after you meet your physical needs. It is crucial and I think a lot of times what you do reflects your aesthetic taste as well.
14. What do you hope people think of when think of the brand Bowen Hu?
BH: Interesting question. I hope that in the future, when people think of my brand they think of stories that are captivating, interesting, and playful. I do hope that each season there is something new — new collaboration or new element. I want people go: “Oh, this brand is very intriguing.” I want people feel like they’ve witnessed a story as each season debuts. Although it sounds very conceptual, but that’s the ideal status. On the practical side, I hope everyone would want to shop my brand when they think of my brand, buy as much as you can!
15. Will you consider incorporate sustainability into your work ?
BH: Actually I think this is not something whether you’d like to or not. Fashion industry is one of the most polluting industries. If you ask a designer about sustainability five years ago, it would be considered a pioneering question. Right now, it’s no longer a choice, but a must. You must to it. It’s just something you have to deal with rather than a choice. Our mother earth is already very screwed up. Sustainability is inevitable.
16. If you were to travel back in time to the time when you haven’t started your brand what advice would you give yourself ?
BH: Do not procrastinate! It’s not that big of an issue now to me. I used to be a huge procrastinator. I tend to look for the fastest way to complete assignments and excel exams, so I could do things faster, resulting leaving everything until the last minute. Until I realized that’s not how things done in fashion design. If you are not finishing up you are not finished. Basically I have an understanding of how long does it take for me to complete a particular task so I’d leave four days before the deadline and start doing it and stressing myself out. My partner would set up deadlines for me to speed me up. The fashion industry has become so fast. Ever since fast fashion popped out it’s one season per week! You’ll have to catch up on the speed and not procrastinate. Another thing is that when opportunities come to you but you do not have enough work on hand, you won’t be able to catch the opportunity.
17. What’s next?
The next thing on my plan is to receive visa for artists in New York because I’m Chinese. It’s actually quite hard to get a work visa in New York. My advantage is that I have exposure and awards I’ve received and what not, so I’m counting on those. I’ll continue doing what I’m doing for at lease one to two years. Our next move is to have another collaboration the next season and the season after that we’ll begin a small production and begin to move towards the market. The 100% hand-sewed piece will no longer exist. Perhaps I’ll do it during my free time, but we’ll try to look for the right balance between our aesthetic and the market. Hopefully the buyers will come to us and start production. There are few buyers who would come to us now but at the moment we don’t really know what to produce because all of them are hand-sewed. No factory is willing to produce. Every time when buyers approached us we could only say: “Sorry! We do not know what can we produce and what can we sell you at the moment.”
KC: I love the jewelry collection from your previous season! It should be easier to produce.
BH: We are considering putting the jewelry collection into production as many people have been asking about buying it.
KC: I’d like to buy as well. *laughs*
BH: Sure I’ll take a note of it.
KC: Thank you so much for making time for this interview. You inspired me a lot throughout the interview. I do think the fashion industry needs a new transformation and improvements here and there. I do think supporting and empowering independent designers like you could solve a lot of problems and inject new energy. I look forward to see more of your work in the future!
This short meeting gave me a glimpse into the not-so-glamorous world of independent designers. Despite the tremendous obstacles, independent fashion designers continues to dive into this industry out of their love for their garments.
As consumers, it is easy for us to turn to fast fashion brands or Taobao for affordable yet environmental-damaging products with similar (sometimes 100% similar) design that’s riff-off from designers’ hard work. Maybe we could stop for a moment before putting them into the shopping basket and give independent designers a chance — get to know them, their work, and maybe even support them. Trust me, the quality of designer’s product will prove this decision prudent, it speaks for itself.