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.
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.
Oliver shirt in grey
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.
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.
If Shanghai is the naggy mom who means we’ll 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.