Malaysian Fashion Designer Jasmine Chong On Making It In New York
"My mother was also a designer," says Jasmine Chong, 32. "She would take me to the fabric store and encourage me to pick out a fabric that I liked, which she would then make into a dress for me."
Born in Selangor and raised in Damansara Heights, KL, Chong lived with her Indonesian mother and Malaysian father before leaving home to pursue fashion design at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). She shares an anecdote from her childhood: "You know the movie scene that stayed with me 'til today? The one where Julie Andrews made clothing from drapes in The Sound of Music!"
Upon graduation, she worked with Anna Sui, Marchesa and Tory Burch before starting her eponymous label in 2016 in New York Garment's District.
New York has this way of making you feel like you can be anything. The sense of possibility is intoxicating. In many ways, I think it's why I'm still here.
Over email, Chong shares what it means to be on the New York Fashion Week roster, her fall/winter 2020 collection, and landing a coveted spot in the Amazon Prime's design competition, Making The Cut, which premieres tomorrow (March 27).
Who inspired you to be a designer?
My mother and grandmother. They both have such distinct sense of style. I'd watch them get ready for weddings and parties, and I still feel that they are the two most glamorous women I know. In fact, my entire family has been supportive in my fashion design pursuit. My mother sees it as "passing the baton," which is really nice.
What are some of the more important lessons you've learnt as a designer so far?
My first professional experience in fashion was with Anna Sui in New York. She is such an American fashion icon, and I'll always be grateful to have worked under her in the design room. She taught me to stay true to my voice and understand the importance of knowing my craft. There can only be one Calvin Klein, one Tom Ford — each designer has to find their own voice and stay true to it. I also spent time at Marchesa and Tory Burch — it was necessary for me to learn how American luxury brands operate.
Why did you decide to start your own label?
Growing up, my mother and I would walk into boutiques and there was always a sense of not being able to try something off the rack. We always had our clothes tailor-made for events and weddings, but what about the experience of being able to pick something off a rack in a high-end store?
It was a luxury I never had so I wanted to change that. We all know women in our lives who are strong and beautiful, and have different body shapes. I want my label to help widen the definition of what aspirational is.
Who do you design for?
My first client found me through the runway sale at my senior thesis fashion show. She fell in love with the pink guava shade of a cropped silk jacket and voluminous draped skirt, inspired by my personal nostalgia for Malaysia and the colours and fruits I missed from home. She ended up purchasing the entire collection!
The woman I design for wears my clothes and falls in love with the story behind each piece. She weaves her own meaning into the pieces and wholeheartedly embraces her femininity.
I want my label to help widen the definition of what aspirational is.
Describe your design.
The label is about the subtle ways a woman experiences luxury. The pieces marry the romance of rich details like couture finishings with the functionality of ready-to-wear. My fall/winter 2020 collection was inspired by being in the Palace of Versailles this past summer. I juxtaposed airy, sheer looks anchored with darker, heavier suiting. There are elements of traditional Grecian draping - a signature of the brand - with the opulence and detail of the Rococo era.
What is it like to be working in fashion in New York?
The best thing about it is that it's a melting pot of talents. You see this reflected in how people dress, the visual merchandising in boutiques, the incredible art scene — and also the professionals you collaborate with. I've been lucky to work with people like Emily Rudman, who owns luxury beauty brand Emilie Heathe and has been my collaborator on the make-up for my New York Fashion Week (NYFW) shows and campaigns.
What is the significance of the Garment District to the city’s fashion, artistic and cultural scene?
The Garment District is synonymous with iconic American fashion as we know it. Donna Karan, Calvin Klein, Carolina Herrera, Anna Sui — all these brands are vastly different aesthetically but they all have roots in the Garment District. There's such a beautiful sense of story with being there, an incredible ecosystem of moving parts that makes the American fashion industry work. It’s so special to be entirely designed and made in New York’s Garment District, and I’m proud to be a part of it.
How do you feel about being included on the NYFW roster?
Even though I just had my fourth NYFW show this February, the excitement is still there. I'll see my name next to other recognisable names, and it's very surreal to me.
What were the challenges for a foreigner trying to make it in a competitive industry in New York?
In my experience, there are always people who will underestimate women, especially Asian women. For me, the challenge lies in balancing being the face of the label while also being a firm businesswoman.
Let's talk about Making The Cut. How did you land a spot on the show?
It was all such a whirlwind. I was in Los Angeles for a trunk show, and while at the Nomad Hotel, I received an email that said, "Seeking Jasmine Chong", with some 'praying hands' emojis. I actually thought it was spam at first. One thing led to another, and the next day I was meeting with the people from Amazon Prime Video.
Why did you agree to go on the show?
The exposure for my brand would be amazing. Honestly though, the one thing that always drives me is the opportunity to inspire other women, especially those who may relate to me. The idea that someone who looked like me could be one of 12 designers cast in Amazon Prime Video’s first fashion reality show is a powerful message, especially for young girls of all backgrounds who are interested in pursuing a career in fashion.
What was it like presenting your designs to a star-studded panel of judges that included supermodel Naomi Campbell and fashion influencer Chiara Ferragni?
It was like nothing I had ever done before. Such an exciting time. You'll have to watch to find out more.
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- Images Courtesy of Jasmine Chong