A New Stage


October 3, 2018

by Gracia Ventus

Europa-Cargos

Ever since ROSEN was created, I have always used deadstock fabrics found in the local market. This place is by no means small, it has four levels that house a few hundred sellers. Generally there is no shortage of natural fabrics. My favourite sellers bring in imported wools and linens from Japan and Italy. It's also where I discovered the joy of Chinese sandwashed silks, a fabric that's far superior than cotton in terms of comfort, softness and breathability. However as I started experimenting with synthetic garments that focuses on utilitarian aspects for ROSEN-X, from fabrication to design, the options shrink to almost zero. I am extremely picky with the fabrics that I select. Comfort - this includes stretch and breathability - and tactility always come first. Water-resistance second. Since I am not doing the traditional route of factory production, certain production techniques are off-limits, such as heat-taped seams. So I carve a little nook for ROSEN-X that balances aesthetics with the simplicity of practical clothing. Despite the lack of options, I managed to produce a capsule collection by resorting to buying fabric samples online.

However, with the growing popularity of ROSEN-X, I couldn't limit my designs to the few fabrics that I have used. So when I was invited to join a friend in Guangzhou for a trip to the fabric markets there, I thought it was a good time to head down south.

Guangzhou

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The day I arrived in Guangzhou, it rained heavily. I was here in January for a factory visit that didn't prove fruitful. This time I was determined to come back with results, though I had not much of a clue what I should be expecting. There would be a lot of walking involved due to the sheer size of the fabric mall, that much I know. On the second day, I made my way to the textile district first thing in the morning. The main mall is brightly lit, with wide walkways flanked by shops on either side. Each storey houses about a hundred shops, and there are eight storeys in this building. This is just one mall, amongst several others in the area. Outside these mall, the district becomes a maze of small, dark alleys flanked by accessories wholesalers. ⠀

Unlike the fabric market in Shanghai one does not get to walk home with the actual fabrics. The shops display their fabric samples that we can peruse and free colour swatches to take. Orders are made on the phone or on Wechat. The entire trading process is extremely informal, almost like buying from a relative. Chinese manufacturers are experimental with their linens, but from what I could tell, their main focus lies in more innovative fabrics such as viscose and tencel, that and synthetics that either mimic natural fibers, or are made into membranes. Eight hours and eighty fabric swatches later, I only managed to cover half the area, before my legs gave way.

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This is how bolts of fabric are moved around the fabrics district, from the warehouse, to the shops, to the courier stations. It was fascinating to see how different people have come up with different methods to juggle as many bolts as possible.

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And so on the third and final day - decked out in my favourite Rad Hourani vest - I had a better idea of where to go and whom to look for. Having sifted through hundreds of shops, I have my eyes on a particular synthetics producer run by a matriarchal Teochew family who knows what a three layer membrane is. It was a breath of fresh air to be able to speak to someone who is closely linked to the manufacturing side, rather than talking to young sales assistants who have been hired to man the shops without an inkling of what they were selling.

Armed with close to a hundred fabric swatches, I went home ready to tackle the next stage of ROSEN and ROSEN-X.

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The Joy and Pain of Making Clothes


September 24, 2018

by Gracia Ventus

ROSEN FALL/WINTER 2018

Plato suit in silk linen / Plato suit in wool

There are three different kinds of hard work. Some work is hard because it’s laborious and back-breaking. Think rice farmers, street sweepers, and construction workers. Other kind of work is mentally taxing as it requires intense concentration that may involve repetition. As a result, staying focused on the task at hand becomes an uphill battle. Every calculation has to be precise, and in the case of many types of engineering, thousands and even millions of lives are at stake. And then there is another type of hard work that is also mentally taxing in a different way. It requires one to be constantly creative and be quick on their feet. Entrepreneurs, designers and writers fall under this category. I should add that most jobs consist of these three different types of difficulty to different extent, eg. surgeons have to be accurate with their diagnosis and have creative problem solving skills when faced with unusual medical conditions, not to mention doing long shifts that can be physically demanding.

Making clothes is not rocket science. Designing clothes, especially in the early stages of building a label relative to older established brands with intricate designs like Comme des Garçons and Rick Owens, is not the most difficult part of the business. In my experience, the true difficulty lies in running the operations.

ROSEN FALL/WINTER 2018

Gaussian robe / Plato shirt / Hanzo hakama

ROSEN FW2018

Planck shirt / Hanzo hakama

Being a one man show - albeit with a very supportive partner in the shadows - time is never on my side. The most exciting process for me is always designing and sampling. Once the samples are made, the tough part begins. I have to plan and shoot the editorial, organise social media and marketing communications, double up as customer service representative who answers all emails, do the legwork of relaying orders to my tailors, be the assistant who wraps parcels, deal with the logistics of outbound parcels, work as the HR manager who deals with work visa, business licenses, income and corporate taxes, while moonlighting as a bookkeeper. And then there are always fires to put out. If something can go wrong, it will go wrong.

ROSEN FALL/WINTER 2018

Yeats jacket / Oliver shirt / Yeats trousers

ROSEN FALL/WINTER 2018

Yeats jacket / Cicero shirt

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Oliver shirt in burgundy / Yeats trousers
Oliver shirt in grey

ROSEN FALL/WINTER 2018

Euclid coat / Oliver shirt / Ōe hakama

ROSEN FALL/WINTER 2018

Euclid coat / Cicero shirt / Hanzo hakama

You might wonder why I haven’t hired any help yet. It’s mostly to do with my nature that resists dealing with people. I hate networking, I have now refused to attend fashion events unless it's to show support for my friends. Most fashion people put on a vapid front, so it becomes difficult to sieve out those who truly understand the current state of the industry and the economic system we have to operate in from those who are lured in by the superficial promises of fashion. And this voluntary seclusion has reduced my network size considerably. To a lesser extent, I’ve found that being a small independent company dealing with niche aesthetics makes the search more difficult. Many dreamy-eyed fashion students and graduates seek glamour and glitz - none of which I can offer - and often their preferences are more conventional, hence not as equipped to understand my design language. And so the search continues.

ROSEN FALL/WINTER 2018ROSEN FALL/WINTER 2018

Cicero shirt in black cotton / Puyi trousers
Cicero shirt in grey sandwashed silk / Ōe hakama

Hardly having the chance to take a breather for months at a time, I find myself having an overwhelming urge to escape. It doesn’t help that my living environment in central Shanghai is constantly buzzing with people and traffic. The exceptionally high decibel on the streets makes it incredibly difficult to find some peace and quiet. Even the bourgeois cafes, beautiful architectures - both old and modern - and other luxuries have failed to diminish the assault on the senses. I often find myself surrounded by Shanghainese grandmothers screeching at the top of their voice; or offended by the sight and sounds of men clearing their throats and spitting phlegm on the streets (they really should consider quitting smoking). What makes Shanghai so conducive and dynamic to run a business in can becomes an additional source of mental exhaustion from hyper vigilance. I have to be wary of speeding old women and delivery boys on their electric scooters, who constantly flout traffic rules (yellow means speed up; red means proceed as normal). At times it gets even more stressful in a car as most drivers do not observe road courtesy, and I’m not even the one driving! Sudden breaks occur frequently, and there were times when the adjacent car was two inches away from scraping the one I was in. Also why queue when you can shuffle your way in as soon as there’s a meter-wide gap? I have to applaud the fearlessness and aggression that Chinese drivers have had to develop.

And so I run away to the nearest place that allows me to seek seclusion and solitude, which happens to be the Longjing tea plantation in Hangzhou. Long time readers of my blog would know that this isn’t the first time I sing praises of this place. It is a rare green oasis in the midst of first tier cities of China on the eastern seaboard. I cannot stress how difficult it is to find solitude and peace in a region of sixty million people without having to jump on two trains and three buses. Amongst this patch of hilly greenery I find a little bit of peace to mentally recharge. Being away from home allows me to not feel guilty when I do some reading and writing, instead of having the nagging feeling that I should be answering emails and fulfilling orders. My eyes are soothed by beautiful foliage, a welcome break from steel and concrete artifice.

ROSEN FALL/WINTER 2018

Turing jacket / Oliver shirt in grey

ROSEN FALL/WINTER 2018

Planck shirt / Hanzo hakama

If Shanghai is the naggy mom who means well but gets on your nerve, the tea plantation is the generous aunt who welcomes you with hugs and feasts. But as with any good things, one should avoid having too much of it lest we take them for granted. And so with my strength replenished, I headed back down to the city that has adopted me, nagged at me, and forced me to grow up. Amidst all my responsibilities, anxieties and complaints, I take pride in knowing that more than a few of my customers are enjoying the clothes that I've made for them. My gratitude goes towards everyone who has given ROSEN a chance.

ROSEN FALL/WINTER 2018

Turing Suit / Oliver shirt in burgundy

All items are available on ROSEN-STORE.COM. Feel free to contact me for custom requests.


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What I Think About When I Think About Buying Clothes


July 30, 2018

by Gracia Ventus

“Should I get it, or should I not?”

That’s the question that I often found myself grappling with. It’s certainly nothing new for most of us who have an interest in fashion.

The item in question was a The North Face (henceforth known as TNF) Summit L5 jacket. The person that I was two years ago would not give it a second look, let alone give it a long ponder, many umm and ahhs. The person I was two years ago was still deeply entrenched in the simple sportswear and intricate designer pieces. I know nothing about synthetic fabrics other than polyester a la Comme des Garçons and pleated Pleats Please. I kept myself warm in winter by wearing three to four layers of clothing - they weighed me down and tire me out within the first hour of leaving my house. If it started pouring - a frequent occurrence in Shanghai - I did not own anything in my wardrobe that let me go out without an umbrella.

The North Face Summit L5 Womens Jacket-1

Wearing: The North Face Summit L5 Jacket; ROSEN-X Minerva trousers; Salomon shoes

I first saw this jacket at a TNF outlet store in Gold Coast. I’m not quite a fan of brick and mortar shopping as I have been truly spoilt by the Internet, but outlet shopping still holds the magic of bargain hunting. My first memory of outlet shopping was in Bicester Village in Oxfordshire, known for their list of luxury brands. The year was 2010. I had scored immensely beautiful Burberry Prorsum runway coats at 70% off - from their best season too. And just like that a pleasant memory had imprinted a positive association towards outlet stores inside my head. Conversely, it is quite likely that if a terrible experience had transpired instead - like losing my passport - it would have turned me off outlet malls in a subconscious way.

It was my partner who first brought up the existence of this specific jacket and suggested that we should look for it. He admired the built quality of the garment. I trust his expertise in the field of technical clothing. But a brand’s quality of production does not necessarily kindle excitement within a consumer. For example, I know that Zegna makes good suits and fabrics, but I don’t get excited thinking about the brand. On the other hand, TNF has been collaborating with my favourite designers such as Junya Watanabe and Sacai - and the collections were done rather well, though the branding could be less blatant. The positive association towards TNF has thus been strengthened, so I entered the store with much enthusiasm.

The North Face Summit L5 Womens Jacket-2

The person I was one year ago was a little less ignorant about synthetics because I had tried to make clothes with them. I had a more in-depth understanding of their intended use, benefits and array of differences in various materials, and with that understanding comes a greater appreciation. Armed with that appreciation, I took the TNF jacket in my hands. I could feel its substantial built, it’s armour-like tactility that does not correspond to how light its weight is, and the matte texture that was neither rough nor plasticky, as if it’s been coated with very fine powder that feels good when brushed against the skin.

“Uh oh, I think I like it. What do I do?”

This TNF jacket is part of the Summit range - built for extreme weather conditions for the most prolific athletes who dare to conquer the highest peaks of the Earth. I may have been a competitive athlete in my younger years, now a religious gym goer and the casual rock climber, but none of those would qualify me as an avid mountain climber. I have done plenty of hiking, but not the sort that involves ice-picks, snow and treacherous weather conditions. For an urban dweller such as myself, most of the breadth and depth of the technical qualities of this jacket would be lost on me. This jacket is made of Gore-Tex 3-Layer membrane; absolutely waterproof yet breathable; hardy in abrasion-prone areas, but still soft and lightweight. It is meant to protect the wearer from constant pouring rain and snow in sub-zero temperature.

“But I am neither a mountain climber, nor a frequent hiker. I'm sure it will work well in the cities that I live in, but does that warrant a purchase?”

Heidegger postulated that we are products of the time, place, and culture within which one is born, lives, and dies. If he were alive right now next to me he would be telling me that wanting this jacket is a culmination of external forces such as commercial interests and positive reinforcements of my experiences and those of the person(s) whose judgments I value influencing my decision making process. I am adrift, floating as part of the herd; being inauthentic. On the other hand Sartre might argue back to him that my personal experiences have shaped me into the person I am and I have internalised them to become a part of my identity, therefore I may possibly be trying to be authentic. As my internal dialogue carried on I tenderly put the jacket back on the rack.

The North Face Summit L5 Womens Jacket-3

Photography: xeoniq

“I’m pretty sure I should get it. I don’t own anything as practical as that. No doubt I wouldn’t be hiking the Everest any time soon, but it would be a useful jacket as the weather gets cooler, protecting me from rain so I don’t have to carry an umbrella, which means my hands will be free to carry more bags.”

The mental gymnastics that I did to justify my purchase was a familiar process, but luckily one that I have not done too often these days. I have concluded that my decision buying process when it comes to clothing is part of an attempt to craft an identity; one that is built on personal background, lived-in environments, and secret fantasies. This intangible value is carefully weighed alongside its practical functions and built quality of the garment. At the end of the day though, I am a consumer. I consume. I am no saint in this Capitalist system that I partake in.

Three months later I found myself going back to the store, twice more, before I finally turned my nose up at Heidegger, and carried the wonderful jacket to the cashier.


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ROSEN-X


July 26, 2018

by Gracia Ventus

At the time of writing, the plane was flying somewhere over Australia’s Northern Territory. I have not had the opportunity to do any form of writing in the last few weeks as I had been racing against time trying to complete the latest ROSEN collection, only a couple of weeks after the previous one was released. That collection came to be known as ROSEN-X, the synthetics-heavy counterpart to ROSEN.

Editorial-Cover

From fabric selections to sampling, a capsule collection that only consisted of eight pieces - versus the usual twelve to fifteen - proved to be a challenge for my tailor and me who are used to working with natural fabrics. It didn’t help that I was pedantic about the fit of the garments, especially on what was to become my favourite trousers in the collection - the Europa cargos. In the quest for the perfect cut, I ended up making four samples of the same garment versus the typical average of one.

My design approach for ROSEN has always remained singular - to create fuss free garments that complement the clothes made by our favourite designers. I do not seek to create ornate clothes - simply because I do not have the expertise, manpower and financial resources to make intricate clothing well. I do however - with the expertise of local tailors - know how to make not-so-ornate but slightly-more-interesting clothing well. And that combination of design knowledge and tailoring expertise are brought over to make ROSEN-X pieces.

All ROSEN-X garments are available on ROSEN-STORE.COM, customised sizing available upon request.

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What Is It Like to Produce in China?


June 4, 2018

by Gracia Ventus

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And so it was that the summer collection of ROSEN was launched over two weeks ago.

In continuation from the last post about clothing production, I would like to post an answer I gave in an interview that asked me what it was like to produce in China.

“I can’t speak for the majority of the production methods that are available in China. The following information is purely from my own experiences and what I have learnt from others. Generally, Chinese producers are extremely eager to win your business, and they have can-do attitude which is highly contagious. Most aren’t afraid to consider taking up a business outside of their scope of experience. The upside is that they are willing to experiment together with you, as long as you are willing to foot the cost. When the end result works out as planned, everyone wins. The downside is that sometimes they are biting more than they can chew, and the result can be a spectacular failure. When you are working directly with tailors doing custom orders, or hiring in-house tailors and seamstresses in a private studio, this risk can be minimised but it increases costs of production per piece. Dealing with a factory in a mass production process would bring down costs per piece, but it means involving three different parties - the designers (me), the middleman (salesperson, pattern makers, pattern cutters), and the factory (factory managers, production team, factory workers). Every single stakeholder in each entity has different ways of thinking and knowledge of production, which means that there are a hundred and one ways in which the entire manufacturing process can go wrong - from sampling to final production - especially when making unconventional garments. Some design houses would spend a long time sourcing the right factories to work with by making samples. However, there are a thousand and one factories in China to choose from, each with their own middleman, hence it is necessary to put their works to the test. Very soon the overheads increase exponentially. And in order to recover these sunk costs, it is necessary for companies to either charge higher prices, or increase sales volume.

Once a relationship (commonly known as guan xi) is established, however, it is necessary to maintain it well. Loyalty is very much cherished. We cut each other some slack when mistakes are made, payment terms become more flexible, and our orders are prioritised over others. During important holidays like Lunar New Year, or coming back from an overseas trip, it’s common to bring gifts for parties you’ve established good business relationships with.”

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There were of course some things that I left out, because I didn’t want to end up writing a long essay in an interview. It was important to add that laws and regulations do little to enforce the working culture of China. Flexibility is expected when operating in a large grey area. And in many cases, businesses would take it upon themselves to push the limits, which can be good or bad, depending on the situation. For example, if one’s business relationship is good, both parties would be more willing go out of their way to accommodate each others’ requests, improve the quality of production, or do favours for us at the risk of bending the law. The tailor whom I've worked with the longest confided that the work and finishes that I demand from him have pushed him to improve his standards and exposed him to more complicated designs. Fortunately he has a good attitude that is willing to embrace such challenges. There are some other tailors who refuse work that goes beyond their comfort zone. On the flip side, shady companies might also decide to cut corners on your products to see what they can get away with in order to save costs. And I’ll tell you why.

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The entrepreneurial spirit is common amongst the Chinese, whether we are born in the mainland, or are the fifth generation born overseas. My dad is a businessman, and I’ve followed his footsteps. Many of my relatives did the same, a late uncle sold poultry in a traditional wet market in Jakarta until he died in an accident, some distant aunt has been running a noodle shop for decades - she still makes the best Indonesian beefballs I have ever had. Contrary to common practices in Western countries, Chinese businesses tend to start really small, often with borrowed capital from friends and family. It doesn’t matter the size of the business, what matters is doing it. When mainland China finally freed itself in the late 70s from the utter failure of Mao’s economic reforms, the flames of entrepreneurship were rekindled in full force. The masses were hungry for food, for wealth and for productivity. Informal businesses sprung up next to state-owned enterprises. People worked hard to earn their rice bowls. While this are all very good things, the hunger to survive also made competition much fiercer. Without proper government regulations and watchdogs in place at the beginning of the economic reforms, some unethical businesses resorted to underhanded means to increase their profits. Bear in mind that unethical business practices can occur anywhere in the world - one simply has to look at the financial collapse less than a decade ago - but how and why they manifest differ. As the government constantly tries to play catch up, Chinese business laws and regulatory framework have to be revised every so often, so much so that it becomes difficult for companies to keep up, especially when many of them are small, family-run businesses. They continue to operate within what they think would be within acceptable boundaries, until they are warned or fined not to do so.

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This is why there is a common adage in China that it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission. It is with this mentality in mind that flexibility can be a risky factor. Hence it is important to find business partners that have moved beyond simply trying to make money on a one-off basis and evolved into the type who are keen to develop a working relationship based on integrity and creating a win-win situation for both parties involved. Thankfully as the market is maturing, most producers are now realising that they cannot simply rip someone off because keeping long-term customers happy has been proven to be more cost-effective. Not only that, the business relationship that has been fostered often transcends to loyalty and personal friendships, which is a valuable advantage for running a business for reasons outlined in the beginning of this essay.

While the payoff can be great, not everyone can tolerate the ambiguous nature of Chinese business culture, especially not for those who are more comfortable with conformity and clear boundaries. The acceptance and ability to navigate through these cultural differences are some of the most important key factors in determining the success of a foreign business in this country.

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A Sneak Preview of ROSEN’s Next Venture


May 22, 2018

by Gracia Ventus

“If at first you don’t succeed, walk.”

Whenever I begin a new project at full speed, I tend to fail.

I’m the sort of person who gets overly excited by new ideas. Ideas that are novel in my life, and at the same time not too overly grand, realistically achievable within my lifetime, with as few number of people as possible.

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Perhaps that’s why I couldn’t bring Velamen to fruition. At that time, I had little knowledge of synthetics fabric, textile manufacturing, production flow, let alone actually dealing with factories. This was months before ROSEN was started. The project began with the design ideas provided by an ex-business partner who had made a sample of an exoskeleton suit. I had some idea as to how a typical manufacturing process pans out, but not the nuances and the hundred and one ways in which it can go wrong. As someone who has never studied fashion formally, I did not have the network of suppliers and factories whom I have worked with, especially not in a foreign country. I had to start from ground zero in terms of fabric sourcing, textile manufacturing, factory visits and technical clothing production. It was a steep learning curve for someone who deals mostly with natural fabrics and conventional garment construction.

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The final prototype of ROSEN's cargo trousers, to be released in June

Despite all the hiccups, the exoskeleton-like suit designed for Velamen was getting close to its final form. My tailor - to the best of his ability, despite never dealing with Cordura and DWR-coated fabrics - had done the third and fourth iteration of the sample. The suit was beautiful in a very rough-edged way, despite not having the refinements of the actual custom-made fabrics we had ordered from a Shanghai textile factory. It was now up to the factory in Guangzhou (for your reference, Shanghai is in the central eastern seaboard of China, 3 hours away on a plane from the southern coast of China where Guangzhou is) to do the final prototype for production, complete with waterproof aqua vislon zippers, heat-taped seams, and custom-made 3L-membrane DWR-coated fabric. Excitement was high, expectation through the roof. After months of research, sourcing, factory visits, testing and sampling, I was sure that we had done our due diligence, and it was going to be smooth sailing from here. After all, it was a matter of replicating the final sample with additional technical qualities that only a factory could provide on an economical scale. A week after sending the order to them, the prototype arrived on my doorstep. The custom-made fabric that we’ve picked out from the textile factory was beautiful. However, everything else was a disaster and nothing in the suit was elegant nor refined. What was even more baffling was that the sizing was severely off by an inch or two, width and length wise. As to how this could have happened, I have no idea, until this very day. The sales rep was unable to provide any reasonable explanation. No-one wanted to own up to the mistake.

I relayed this story to a friend who works for a well-known Chinese label, and she understood my predicament immediately as she had several horror stories of her own. In her case, it was knitwear. The world of knitwear is a different ball game almost entirely. Specifically, the world of luxury knitwear requires a specialised knowhow in running industrial-sized machinery AND hand-finished details. Every round of sample produces a different mistake. Let’s say the weaves were incorrect in the first round. That mistake would be corrected in the second round, but the sleeves would magically grow longer than the first sample. And so several more rounds of sampling would be required.

Due to these series of technical difficulties, Velamen had to take a hiatus with no definite plans of resurrection, especially since it coincided with ROSEN taking a life of its own. What started as a small experiment with beautiful sandwashed silk in a comfortable cut became an unexpected hit that remains to be the best-selling item of the brand. Three quarter of the year has since passed; massive changes have taken place in my business and personal life, all of them for the better. I run ROSEN on my own now. I have learnt many valuable lessons along the way, tested my limits and boundaries in clothing production, while discovering the tools and resources available at my disposal. Due to these boundaries I am forced to be a creative problem-solver. But the single most valuable lesson I have learnt is that simplicity is the best starting point. Don’t get me wrong, I love my complicated garments. I simply need to recognise that I do not have the manpower nor technical knowledge to execute complicated designs without the risk of them looking cheap and shoddy. I have been so used to wearing intricately-constructed clothes that I put on a self-imposed blinkers. What I had failed to realise that some of my best-loved garments were made with conventional craftsmanship method, albeit in beautiful fabrics and cut. I had fallen into the trap of fashion school thesis mentality, where grandeur is valued over functionality, idealism over reality.

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ROSEN's sporty version of the Plato suit, not final prototyope

It was thus still a bit of a surprise to me that I have embarked on my own personal brand of Velamen. Now that the original partnership has ended I have no wish to resurrect the brand. However, I am now in the midst of finalising garment samples in synthetics, with final results that are ready to be released in the next few weeks. With the approach I had taken with ROSEN - tactile fabrics, beautiful cuts, practicality over frippery - and equipped with a better knowledge of fabrics, the upcoming diffusion line will concentrate on activewear in synthetics, with minimal approach to aesthetics. Think 80s Issey Miyake, 90s Prada Sport and Jil Sander, with a subtle oriental slant that ROSEN is known for. It still adheres to my original ethos of making fuss-free garments that complement our favourite designers. All the clothes that are produced are tested personally by me as I run around Shanghai carrying out my business, from lugging 10-20kg of work and fabrics, getting in and out of cars, and traveling across different cities in China.


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