Starting off Strong
By Lindsay Cooper
While many young designers’ careers start with the humble beginnings of a graduate collection, unconventional beginnings seem to be a pattern in the life of South Korea—born, Ohio-raised, and New York—based designer Jennifer Chun. Not one to start off small, Chun worked under big names like Michael Kors and Derek Lam early on and, after forging success for others, set out to find her own. Again avoiding baby steps, the Jennifer Chun label found near immediate success after she sought out a WWD editor, who would include her in their young designers to watch column less than a year after the label’s official launch. Jennifer Chun would soon find a cult following of fashion editors, with Chun and her designs appearing in W Korea, Lucky, Allure, and the New York Post over the next year.
Having since debuted at New York Fashion Week as one of Gen Art’s “Fresh Faces in Fashion”, made fans from some of New York’s most eligible fashionistas, and participated in the Pratt Institute’s Principles of Design exhibition, Jennifer Chun is sticking with the theme of unconventional. Reimagining menswear wardrobe staples for a female audience, Chun takes traditional collared shirts, trousers, and blazers and transforms them into feminine creations that are somehow both cutting edge and nostalgic. Mixing modern elements like asymmetric hemlines with the unlikely duo of ‘90s minimalism and ‘70s silhouettes, every article of clothing maintains an air of effortlessly cool while paradoxically implying an educated understanding of fashion history.
What is your favorite thing in your closet right now?
Right now my favorite thing in my closet is my Fall 2013 Oversized Denim Jacket with sleeve stripes. It’s just something easy for me to wear everyday or over dresses when I go out.
Do you remember the favorite piece you worked on while working for other labels?
My favorite pieces are always outerwear. One departure from that was when Brian Reyes (who is more on the dressier side) and I designed a striped tank top with heavy black beading and embellishment. We added it to a racer back silk stripe tank to make it more sportswear instead of adding it to a cocktail dress. It was fun to see how people responded so well to it!
And what was the catalyst that had you setting out to establish your own label?
After working as a designer with Brian Reyes and seeing and being a part of the young designer process, I found there was so much support and momentum for young designers and a friend of mine asked me to make a few pieces for Fall 2010. We took that small collection and showed it to an editor at WWD and I was featured as a young designer and got my first order from By George in Austin. After that I thought “I should take this incredible opportunity”!
How do you find the creative process of working on Jennifer Chun different than working for someone else?
Designing for your own line you don’t have to balance another designer’s brand aesthetic, but that doesn’t mean you can totally disregard balancing your line with other elements. I start out with a concept or theme for the season and then from there I focus on who my “girl” is and what my brand is. After I design some brand specific designs, I then add designs that are less brand specific but still stay true to the brand. This is every designer’s challenge. It’s always about a balance. That’s why its really important as a designer to define whom your customer is.
And how would you define the Jennifer Chun customer?
The “girl” that represents my brand is someone who knows fashion but wants to stand out by wearing something with unique details. She’s also aware of the trends but doesn’t always follow them and knows how to style herself. There is a definite boyish and uniform element to my designs so she also knows her personal aesthetic. There are so many 90’s music/film references to my collection so she’s nostalgic for that era!
One element that makes your label stand out from your previous bosses’ is the texture and pattern used. Do you design your own fabric?
I do design some of my own patterns, prints and embellishments. Again, if I do embellishments it’s in a more casual sportswear way. I love working with cotton shirtings and twills and revising it to make it bias or frayed, etc. From Fall 2016 I designed the bleach spots on the twills and really enjoyed experimenting with how to make these patterns come out the way I wanted it to. Trust me there is a process to this!
How did you decide to take on that extra responsibility?
In the past, I’ve had to work for younger designers who had limited budgets so you end up at times designing the prints, experimenting with washes, beading or even spray painting on your own! So when I started my own label it was a natural process. For SS13 I redesigned an Iris print I remember my mother wore in photos back in the 70’s and revised it to make it more 90’s.
And what do you think it adds to the final product or the label as a whole?
I think it’s important to have a signature way of doing your own denim, cotton shirtings, embellishments or prints. On a whole, when you design this it’s our signature or take on something. The final product adds to your branding.
That being said, we have seen a definite change in the label’s use of these fabrics over the years. With SS13 using a lot of differing fabrics, colors, and patterns, your FW16 collection’s mostly neutral palette provides a definite contrast. What has caused this slow progression?
As a designer you have to evolve and evolve with your customers. I enjoyed doing all those prints and combinations of fabrics during SS13, which feels so long ago! I’ve always stayed true to my branding (which is a uniform/preppy girl with some 90’s elements) but when you’re a young designer you need each piece to stand out on its own then, as you grow with your customer, you can design more of a “collection” feel.
And have you found your personal style to be effected in the same way? Has owning your own label affected the way you dress yourself?
If anything my personal style has become more consistent with my branding. Being a female designer who loves menswear details you definitely have more of a feminine approach to it. Also when you work with such great stylists and see how they pair things, you’re completely inspired.
How about your education? You took a slightly unconventional route and studied at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, known for its fine arts program. Have you found that to be particularly influential?
Pratt definitely did not have a traditional fashion program and I loved that. They really allowed you to be creative in your projects and design. It was also amazing to be surrounded by painters, writers, designers and architects because it all influenced your designs.
And to return to an earlier discussion topic: how have you found your time working with hugely successful designers affecting what you’re doing now?
My experience working with each designer has influenced everything I am doing now. I learned how important it is to know who your customer is, fabrications, branding and how to be a designer. I’ve been fortunate to work with them when they were young designers and I got be very involved with every aspect of the business, not just one part of it.
What influence do you hope Jennifer Chun (both the label and the person) has on the fashion industry when you’ve found that level of recognition?
And do you have any advice for young designers looking to get to where you are now?
I didn’t grow up directly in this industry and I like having that influence on other designers who came from different backgrounds. It can be a different perspective or input in design and I love seeing that. As a brand, I think it’s so important to bring my female take on the uniform/preppy & menswear/tomboyish aesthetic that defines my brand. If I were to give young designers advice is to really learn who your customer is. Also learn about sales and production and working for another designer is never a bad thing!
Find more on her website here: Jennifer-Chun.com
Her Instagram @JenniferChun_NY