I first heard about Jessie Liu at this years LA fashion week. In a sea of fashion it stood out. With her use of color, lazer cut leather and unique graphics, I wanted to know more. I began learning the quickest way I know how, trying the pieces on. I began with the trench, how the material draped, where the laser cut patterning fell, how the material felt on my skin, (wearable and beautifully soft leather) and most importantly how it made me feel when I wore it. Innovative? Wearable? Practical? Check, check, check. Next step, interviewing the designer herself, Jessie Liu.
In the process of the interview, I got a lot more than I bargained for. Learning not only about Jessie's background, her challenges on starting up her company but far deeper issues; the issue of bringing work back to America and her views on the discrimination she has seen and experienced in the process of starting up her company. You have been forewarned, this is a no holds barred interview, and gosh, do we love her for it.
Literally, since I was a child when I made the first knit dress for my Barbie doll.
What is your earliest memory of a special fashion moment for you?
It was from my childhood memory, posing in my new dress for my mom's photo shoot when I was around 8 or 9.
Is any of your family in the fashion industry?
No, no one related to arts either.
What was your training and work experience prior to launching your own line?
I received my MFA at Academy Art of University in San Francisco. Prior to that, I was an accountant. It may not seem relevant, but business-wise, that experience has helped me tremendously.
I think it's hugely relevant! You are now based in San Francisco, how is the fashion scene there, and how does it compare to other places you have lived?
Well I'd say Fashion in San Francisco is just like the fashion in most of metropolitan cities in the world, but with its own authentic tastes. I don't see much that are uniquely San Franciscan. I guess because the great weather year-round, people here are more comfort driven than weather oriented.
I understand that you grew up in China, when did you come to the US?
I had my undergrad of accounting major in Toronto , Canada and moved to California in 2008.
How has your cultural mix and experience in different countries affected your aesthetic and vision as a designer?
I'd say I am affected by the mixed culture. You can see from my collections that some of the graphic elements, like prints and laser cut motifs definitely carried Asian influences. However, the silhouette is very western in style. I feel somehow the mix of eastern and western cultures could bring out unexpected beauty and elegance. But when it comes to design, I am unbiased to any specific culture or style. I want my designs to be appreciated worldwide.
Being mixed myself, (half Chinese half English) I am always fascinated by fashion trends and how differently they are interpreted in different parts of the world. How different is the consumer in China do you feel V's an American consumer and how different is the fashion industry overall in both places in your opinion?
Well, since I was not a fashion designer when I was in China, I don't have too much to say about the differences of the industry between China and America. However, I feel that fashion in Chinese metropolitan cities is definitely leading, and of course that's related to the rapid economic growth and growing demands. Top 10% income earners in China are a whopping 140M people, which is almost half of the US population. Imagine all these folks waking up one day and demand individualism, elegance, high-quality garments, and you’ll see what I mean. It is a huge market. Fashion hits faster in the Asian market compared to most of the cities in the States, and you can also feel the desperation and the needs for fresh fashion is much stronger over there.
Can you remember the exact moment you decided to start up Jessie Liu and how long did it take from idea to realizing the brand?
My company name is Simple Pair. I had a partner when I just started my company, she was my good friend also a fashion design background, and we shared the same visions and values. A simple pair of us decided to start our own women's line to pursuit our dreams. Unfortunately, my partner was diagnosed with late stage cancer after a few months after we started our company. Since then, I’ve been on my own journey and I named my collection with Jessie Liu. Being a consumer myself, I know from the get-go what I want my brand to be. The entire process took about 3 years.
I'm so sorry to hear about your partner, Jessie. That must have been an incredibly painful time. It shows great strength that you carried on and began the Jessie Liu line. Since beginning Jessie Liu what has been the biggest challenge with starting up your collection?
My biggest challenge was being a small business, how to do more with less. I had to deal with catching up with time lines and the lack of staff and delays at the manufacturing stage. These are also related to industrial experiences. Also, what I didn’t realize was you often hear politicians tout about bring jobs back to this country, yet no one said anything specific on how to do it. Well, I tried to make everything in the USA and let me tell you how hard it was. There was just nobody who’s willing to or has the expertise to do the work. We had job openings for months before I gave up. Then I had to deal with immigration. That was the most horrific experience I have imagined. I wanted to sponsor one of my employees to stay and work for me as a highly-skilled worker (H1B visa), but the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) office refused to recognize my employee’s MAF diploma, (despite the fact) that I have the same degree since the Academy of Art University is for profit...I don’t even know what to say. Do we as a country really want to bring work back? Really? I mean, come on, buddy these are the same people who educated and staffed giant companies like Pixar, Disney animation, and Dreamworks. How come the Fashion industry MFA was denied a H1B visa? If this is not discrimination, then what is? If we’re serious about bring jobs back into the US, we need to start by actually fostering growth by keeping existing talents so they can create and sustain the fashion industry here, not but sending them back and then complain why all these companies are making goods in China. No one knows the howto’s in this country anymore. If we keep immigration a backward institution as it is today, we’ll continue to snuff out industries like ours!
Sorry, I am venting and pleading for help, hoping some politician would read your blog? Maybe Hilary Clinton or Michelle Obama?
I design for women that have unique characters. She is very confidence, strong, and intelligent. She dares to challenge the status quo and is not afraid to try new things. Meanwhile she is cool and composed. She is super sophisticated but with enough edginess. I'd say I myself carry some of these characters. I take myself as a muse since I know her the best. I think Michelle Obama also would be a good muse for my line.
How would you describe Jessie Liu in one sentence?
Jessie Liu speaks fresh designs, couture craftsmanship in exquisite fabric selections.
Where did you find your inspiration for this collection?
San Francisco is such a big metro-cosmopolitan city and I just LOVE the diversity here. I find my inspirations from reading random architectural megazines, visiting the dozens of museums in the city, ranging from the African Diaspora museum to the DeYoung museum, even the Cartoon museum is not out of the question. I am pretty jazzed about the opening of the new MOMA, and I am deeply moved for those philanthropists such as the Fisher family (interestingly GAP’s co-founder) to have donated their private collection of a HUGE amount of contemporary art pieces to the museum. Who said art is only valuable when the artist dies? It’s ridiculous! Even more importantly, the benefit of the endowment to enable all under the age of 18 to enter the museum free of charge will benefit millions of young minds for ages to come. I plan to visit the museum and draw some inspiration from the Fisher private collection. So, this is San Francisco, and I plan to let the world wear it!
How many people are in your team?
We have a team of 4 regular employees, and many, many contract seamstresses, pattern makers, and manufactures.
Where are you currently stocked?
San Francisco Bay areas, London, UK
Would you eventually like to have a storefront for your collection and if so where would your ideal locations be?
Yes, absolutely. I want the first store to be in San Francisco since this is my base and I adore its people.
If you had any advice for new designers what would it be?
Go and chase your dreams, otherwise you will be hired to chase others.
Great advice. One of the best I have heard! Are there any designers that you look up to?
Many, Alexander McQueen, Alexander Wang, Yves Saint Laurent.
Aside from Michelle Obama, who are some of your style icons and if you could dress anyone in the Jessie Liu line who would it be and why?
I don't really follow mainstream celebrities. I think the characters that they showed to public are mostly not themselves, but rather a perpetual cast of some sort. If you really ask me who I want to dress with Jessie Liu, she would be the current first lady of China. She is a very talented and well know singer in China; she was famous before she became the first lady. And she is very confident yet modest. She is real. It'd be my pleasure to dress her some day. As I mentioned before, I think Michelle Obama would look wonderfully chic yet elegant and solemn in my jackets and dresses. She has a great taste of fashion. It would be an honor.
Where would you like to see the Jessie Liu brand five years from now and are there any imminent plans for Jessie Liu that you can share with our readers?
I just got back from the Daytime Emmy Award and the stars whole-heartedly LOVED my collections. This experience further affirmed the path I’ve taken for my brand: stylish, recognizable quality, couture-level craftsmanship, and just fresh elegance. But I also want to explore additional options to deliver high quality, comfortable, and reasonably priced pieces for everyone. I see my brand taking off in five years and perhaps will finally be available for the public at large while still retain that exclusive quality.
Thank you again for your time and candor, Jessie.