Suk Chai Talks SCHAI & the world of Fashion

Monsoon, Legion, Soul, Awakenings, Water, & Salt. Magical ingredients to a secret sauce of success? These are the beautiful visions of Suk Chai’s collection called SCHAI. A brand that may have started in the subconscious of a young girl while playing with her paper dolls in her Korean hometown. It was an honor to sit down with Suk Chai and talk about the world of fashion from her eyes

Where did it all begin?

I’ve always loved creative things. When I was a child in Korea we weren’t wealthy enough to have things like Barbies, so we had to make paper dolls. My sister and I would cut them out and play with our friends making them clothes etc. I just loved being creative.

Did you have a big family?

I was actually the last child in a family of 4 siblings. And we weren’t a wealthy family.  I wore the hand-me-downs from my eldest brother, then to my other older brother, then to my sister and then me.  I remember waiting 6 years for this tweed coat with a fur collar — which was a big deal for me at that time.  Every one of my siblings have a picture wearing this coat.  If I psychoanalyze myself, I think one of the reasons I got into this industry is because it was a way of having my own clothes. 

So you knew you wanted to get into fashion from a young age?

No, I never actually thought I would get into fashion - I actually thought I would go into accounting, which would have been a horrible idea  - I’m horrible at it...

[Both laughing].

My father was creative. All my siblings were also quite creative… so I grew up around creative people. We all had a love of the arts.  I’m sure that my father would have loved for me to study at YALE or something but that wasn’t going to happen…

[More laughing]

It wasn’t that I really had a dream of being a fashion designer, because I didn’t really know that could have been a possibility. I really didn’t grow up around that kind of world. It wasn’t until I came to live in Seattle, and even then, it was just something that I knew that I liked.

I started thinking more about fashion towards the end of my high school career when I was prepping for college. By that time I knew how to sew and read patterns. I worked at a fabric store and really enjoyed touching the fabrics. I sort of decided last minute that I would apply to FIT [Fashion Institute of Technology] and Parsons in NY.  It was really a last minute decision. I was accepted to FIT and I turned out to be quite good at it. I graduated with a critics award that helped me get an internship at Adrienne Vittadini, and eventually led me to Assistant Designer position at Dana Buchman of Liz Claiborne.

You liked working high end fashion?

I always loved high end. I was never much for street style. I always really liked Italian tailoring. I used to quiz myself by looking at photos of various outfits and seeing if I could guess the designer.  I kept photos of my favorite designers in folders. That was really just my thing. I still never thought that one day I might own my own brand. My dream was just to work for a highly successful brand with great “career-wear” & beautiful product. I was always a “GIRL BOSS”  type of person. I loved strong women and was attracted to strong, women lead brands. Donna Karen, Adrienne Vittadini, Ellen Tracy and Dana Buchman were really paving the way, dressing the career women of the time.

How long did you stay there in NY?

I worked for Dana Buchman for about 2-2 ½ years but living and working in NY can be very stressful. I kind of worked myself to the point of just being physically ill. I decided I needed to return home and shortly after moved back to Seattle. After a few months back home I was ready to get back to work.

Is that when you started working for Nordstrom?

The timing worked out really well. Nordstrom was building their product group and they happened to be looking for new people. One of the candidate requirements they were looking for was that the candidate had industry experience working for one of several design houses in NY. One of the design houses they named happened to be DANA BUCHMAN. So, they were very excited to meet me and it turned out to be a great match for both of us

You spent 14 years there?

I didn’t go into it thinking I would be there for a long period but it was really a great company to work for. The Nordstrom name was large but the product group was so unknown at the time. I would go to the Italian mills and trade shows and, at first, people didn’t really know who we were. However, within a couple years they were suddenly

“HEY, You’re with Nordstrom?!  Please have a seat! Here are our latest fabrics!”

They really wanted to talk to you.

Nordstrom customers loved Italian fabrics.  My Bridge Apparel Division was one of the only brands that could afford the Italian goods and we used them in a lot of our collections.  Of course, soon the Euro came and that all changed because the market became much harder to afford.

Did you leave Nordstrom to start your own brand?

No, I decided to leave in 2011 when my division, in particular, was having a great year.  By 14th year, I felt like I’ve exhausted all of my abilities (“been there, done that”) and needed a change.  I didn’t do anything to do with fashion for about a year — I got married, moved, got a puppy, started doing yard work, renovation, etc.  Soon after, I started my design consulting company, Mode Legion Design Group, helping people launch their own brands.  It enabled me to still utilize all the great relationships and skillset I had developed through the years. All the experience from concept development,  designing, raw materials and manufacturer sourcing, tech spec’ing, quality assurance, etc.  

Was there a moment where you decided to move from consulting to opening your own line?

I remember the exact moment, actually - It was the middle of August and I had gone to Barney’s New York in Seattle. On the back wall they used to carry Dries Van Noten and other very high end brands. Every time I went in to the store, I went straight to the back. Even now as I talk about it, my heart races… I still remember that moment as if I am feeling it again. I saw this beautiful coat and reached out to touch the fabric, and my heart was just pounding outside my body. I had goosebumps all over my body and I had tears in my eye.  I still get emotional thinking about it. That was the moment where I just felt like I couldn’t breath if I couldn’t touch or work with materials like this italian cashmere. I just knew that I had to be able to do my own line. Maybe not as expensive ...Maybe not as exclusive…

[laughing]  

...but that was turning point where I really knew I was going to launch my own collection. I didn’t start my brand with a strategy - I just went into it because I knew that I couldn’t live my life without it. (My husband would probably hate me for that…)

[Both laughing]

When you started your brand, did you mirror brands you had worked with?

When I launched my line it was really about that visceral emotional response that I felt. My inspiration wasn’t the designers I followed, or travels, or life experience… It was really about the lingering emotional responses, memories, moods or thoughts I had in life

Can you tell me a little about the collection and how they got their names?

My first line was called SALT and it was based on a photo my son had taken of a magnified salt crystal in hydrogen peroxide. It was these hard angles with lots of soft bubbles that were eating away at the edges. I could really relate to that image. I felt like I was those hard angles. I started by putting together designs with really strong lines, but chose the luxurious and soft Italian cashmere.  These are signature details I apply in the collection still to this day

My next collection was called WATER. It was more about strength, mystery and fragility of water. It was something that really reminded me of my father (And my father was that — strong, mysterious, and vulnerable). . My father was a fisherman and I was having all these thoughts about him and it just really moved me to connect.

AWAKENING was inspired by my Mother. It was a time when the new world trade center had just been built. I noticed that the original towers were completed the year I was born and it got me thinking about birth and rebirth and it really just reminded me of my mom and the emotions I felt there.

With SOUL  - I developed this collection around my love of art.  Fashion designers aren’t often though of as artist, but I really wanted to express the soul of an artist — myself.  I loved the organic feeling of painting, and I love sculpture.  There is a hand painted element to this line — like a stroke of an artist’s soul.

LEGION was developed around a political time where things were getting really crazy and I felt like we needed to come together as people. It was an homage to my team and my community. I felt we needed to come together and sort of hold hands, This line is created with a lot of belts and ties and long strings. By holding these strings or ties you are sort of holding hands or “coming together”.

MONSOON is a huge rainstorm in Asia. I was feeling all this pressure at the time and I was going through some turmoil and it was really taking a toll on me. It felt like a huge storm cloud was coming in. After I completed sketching out the styles, it sort of freed me from that pressure, and it felt like the clear, breezy light after a monsoon.

All of these collection are more like moments that just kind of sit on my chest like a rock that I need to do something about. As you can see they aren’t really inspired by trends or designers I follow or admire...they are drive by my moods and such and it is something I need to do to sort of free myself..

Is there anything you wish you could tell new designers that are just starting out.

If you want to learn about starting your own brand, or getting into fashion, first you should try working for a medium to large company and learn the process so that you have a foundation to build from. Next, maybe move to a smaller company and get experience with having to do a lot of different jobs. That is what it takes to keep things going when you work for small companies. You have to wear a lot of different hats.

Build up relationships within the industry and see how the different parts work together. Even people that are backed by millions of dollars can struggle and fail because they don’t realize what is involved with creating a new brand. It takes so much hard work and industry knowledge. You can’t just come up with a beautiful design and some great fabrics and expect to launch your own line. There are thousands of things that you have to consider.

As a new brand , you’re doing EVERYTHING ON YOUR OWN. So many young designers just don’t realize how many factors can really impact your business health. However, If you’re open enough to learn the process, start out working for someone else, and building that foundation of industry knowledge. you can really learn what it takes and that is something that you can carry with you.  I really just don’t know how you can succeed without that foundational knowledge.

Thank you so much for your time. I feel like I had so many question that we didn’t have time to go over. Maybe we can arrange another time to chat? In the meantime, I am honored to have had this opportunity.

Suk Chai Lives in Bellevue WA. You can find her beautiful collections online at: https://schaischai.com/