Richard Chai Talks Alber Elbaz, Archictecture, and Timing

Richard Chai
Photo: Patrick McMullan
Richard Chai

The fashion industry welcomed Richard Chai’s eponymous line in 2004 with what was probably an intimidating dose of buzz—but unlike many newcomers on the scene who burn bright and burn out just as quickly, Chai’s been plugging away steadily ever since.

He did a collection for Target in 2008. He launched a contemporary menswear line shortly after that. For Spring 2010, he shelved his main womenswear line in favor of Richard Chai Love, a gentler-priced collection that has since become his main focus. And earlier this month, he held his first-ever sample sale.

Yes, slow and steady is winning out for this New Jersey–raised designer, and he’s no worse off for it: Last year he won the CFDA Swarovski Award for Menswear.

FashionEtc checked in with Chai to talk Parsons epiphanies, his fashionable friends, and why, like his hero and former boss Alber Elbaz, he’s right where he’s supposed to be.

First of all, let’s talk about your Fall 2011 collections.

Last season was much more pure, the Fall before had an eclectic art-school feel; this season was the hybrid in one. I was pushing the idea of proportion with long silhouettes. I love the idea of mixing fabrics together and adding men’s tailoring and sharpness. It was very strong this season in terms of tailoring.

For menswear there was the same idea, but it was really about refinement. Spring was easy, breezy, surfers, California, backpackers. For Fall I wanted to strip all that away. There was a lot of texture—having a collection be not monochromatic but specific in color. I wanted to really bring that refinement and sharpness back.

Has your womenswear changed since you introduced menswear in 2008?

I think my womenswear always had this side of menswear to it. Not androgynous—but mixing and contrasting menswear shapes and structures, offset by something languid and feminine and fluid. I don’t think it’s changed, really—it’s been anchored in that in all of my collections from the beginning. But they’ve gotten closer together, in a way.

You’ve worked for Donna Karan, Marc Jacobs, Tse—when did you decide you were ready to have your own line?

I knew at a very young age I wanted my own line. But then after working for so many other people, there was a point when I thought, OK, maybe I won’t have my own line. In a way, the amount of knowledge you gain can be a setback—you know how much is involved and how much it takes.

richard chai Fall 2011 runway

Photos: Imaxtree

Looks from the Richard Chai Fall 2011 collection

As I worked for other people, I got very comfortable. My last collection for Tse was everywhere in terms of press and editorial. I had tons of offers to work for other houses, go to Europe—but the next progression was to go on my own.

Are you glad you went when you did?

It was perfect timing. Everything happens for a reason. I took a little time off, and during that time was the last episode of Sex and the City—I think there were something like eight pieces from my last Tse collection in that episode. Drew Barrymore and Kate Hudson were wearing it. I thought, I must have really done something with that collection. I knew I was ready.

What was the best advice anyone gave you?

Know yourself. I was a bit of a fish out of water, and I had to really find out who I was. It took me a bit of time to evolve, through trial and error and pushing myself.

You took your time to evolve, but what do you think of designers like Alexander Wang, who have blown up so quickly? Do you wish you had that path?

I was always interested in longevity. It’s not about wanting to have something overnight—things will come when deserved. There’s a conscious effort to make sure the work I do is work I’m proud of.

There are so many different sides to this industry. There are designers who come out and are huge overnight because they’re connected to a socialite or a celebrity—whether that keeps them sustained is another question. But there are also people like Alex, who have a great business and are doing so well. It’s personal; that’s the business of fashion.

Alber Elbaz was the first person I worked for in fashion, when I was interning at Geoffrey Beene. It was a really invaluable experience and he’s the most inspiring person I know—but it wasn’t overnight for him. It took him a really long time to really develop something. He was at Guy Laroche, he was at YSL—which I thought was a brilliant match but then Tom Ford took over. People didn’t necessarily recognize it then, but I always knew he would do something sensational.

Aside from Alber, who else do you respect most in the industry?

I respect all the people I work for. Working at Donna was incredible. She has such a sense of who she is and who she designs for. I learned so much being there; I really learned how a woman feels. Marc was incredible in a completely different way: taking something that might be from the past, reinterpreting it, making it right and modern again. But there are so many designers out there I think are amazing. Ralph Lauren is a genius in the way he’s created this world of Ralph. Everything is so considered and thought out. He does it so brilliantly.

Is that something you aspire to, that lifestyle brand?

Certainly—but only if it’s done in a very organic way. I had my main line, then I did a contemporary-priced men’s line. I did a line with Target early on, and then I did my contemporary priced women’s line.

Your main line is on hiatus while you do your contemporary line, Love, right?

Love grew so rapidly, and I really want to focus on this business. I’m taking elements of what I was doing on the main line and putting it into Love. What’s funny is after two seasons, a lot of buyers didn’t realize it was a contemporary line!

Do you think you’ll go back to designing your main line?

I think so. I’ve thought about it, whether it’s doing capsule collections or special pieces, if not an entire collection.

Menswear is still relatively new for you, but you’ve had an amazing response. How’s that going?

I want it to grow and evolve. It’s the idea of a lifestyle, with a strong message. Winning the CFDA award was amazing! The response has been great.

What would you be doing if you weren’t in fashion?

When I was really young I wanted to be an architect—from the age of 7 or 8. My mother was a painter, so I was surrounded by the arts. Growing up in a Korean family, it’s pretty special that they allowed me to be artistic!

I grew up in Jersey, and I wanted to take art lessons. My mom said there was a school called Parsons where I could take classes at night. There were no architecture classes, but my mom said, ‘Why don’t we see what else is close? Three-dimensional, lines, form, function … why don’t you take a graphic design class?’

After the first class I knew it wasn’t right for me, but my mom would drive me there twice a week. So out of respect for her I wanted to try and make it work.

One day in the elevator, the doors opened to this room. There was a model posing in the middle of the room, loud house music, people dancing, this very exaggerated German professor screaming at the class—there was just so much energy coming out of that class. My mouth just dropped open. Then the elevator door closed.

When I was in my class, I excused myself to the restroom, went back to the other classroom, and asked the professor what class it was. It was model drawing and illustration. I asked if he had any openings, and he said I could start next week. I was 13, and that was when I knew exactly what I wanted to do.

What do you do when you’re not working?

Being in fashion is all consuming! I spend a lot of time hanging out with my friends, and I ride my bike all over the city.

A lot of your friends work in the industry too, though, right?

I have a lot of designer friends and friends who work at publications as well. There’s something very easy because they really understand your world. It’s great to have friends like Phillip [Lim] and Thakoon. They’re really amazing and inspiring—and when things are tough, they can wallow in their misery with you!

What’s been on your radar culturally lately?

I’ve been going to a lot of concerts and performances. Music has always been an important part of my creative process. There’s always an album or song that plays over and over for each season. I just saw the Kills and they were amazing. You can get so much amazing energy from that.

What’s the best concert you’ve been to?

The Gossip was pretty amazing. And I saw Depeche Mode a few years ago. I wish they would tour more often!