A Message for 3226 – A Look into ROSEN’s Operations

July 8, 2020

by Gracia Ventus

Adhering to The Norm

ROSEN has never followed fashion cycle nor seasons, nor any pre-determined rules of the industry. A typical industry cycle begins with showcasing collections at one of the major fashion capitals, followed by a showcase to press and buyers. Orders would be made, clothing manufactured, then shipped to various stores around the the world. There has to be enough window between delivery and sale season in order to give the maximum time for goods to be sold at full price. End of season sale usually begins - as the name implies -  at the end of the season, but thanks to American retailers, they are now shifting ever earlier. Ten years ago we could expect sales to begin in July in order to make way for autumn/winter clothing. Closer to the end of the season, liquidity is needed to cover looming invoices and overdue liabilities; liquidity which is held up in excess inventory due to overbuying, mismanagement and intensifying competition in the e-commerce space. Today, we can expect North American retailers to begin its sale season in May, when summer has just begun. Whoever is taking the risk to slash and burn earlier gets the first mover advantage in generating buzz and hungry consumerist money. This practice is forcing brands to manufacture and deliver their goods faster than ever, just so they can generate revenue that will cover their expenses and costs of manufacturing. 

ROSEN Hara Suit

Defying Common Practices

Designing is only a small part of making a collection. Ideas, sketches and fabrics can be easily conjured. Most of the effort in producing a collection goes into making samples, which include muslin and intermediate prototypes. A muslin sample is much easier to produce as it does not require finishing. However, it may require more than one round of production in order to ensure that the basic design drapes correctly on a human body. After the muslin is finalised, a prototype is made in the final fabric. It is considered a miracle if the first round of prototype is perfectly made. At this stage we will find out if our chosen fabric, finishing, trims and hardware work harmoniously with the design. More often than not, we find out that they don’t. If the issue is minor, such as using the wrong trim or hardware, fixing it would take a few days. A medium-sized problem would be a rogue panel or two that have to be removed, recut and restitched. A major issue would be picking an unsuitable fabric, which means we would have to redo a part or the whole of the garment.

ROSEN Deconstructed Plato Suit

Once in a while, we would face the most serious setback of all. The garment’s construction - which include seam placements, panelling, darting and interfacing - does not support the fabric’s tactility and weight, therefore it does not drape, stand and/or move according to how it is designed. In cases like this, we would have to go back to the drawing board and make massive changes to the pattern. 

These are all laborious and time-consuming efforts. The smallest tweaks in the shape of a lapel, shift in the seam, an adjustment on the length, begins with a change on the pattern. Pattern-making itself is a tedious work that requires mathematical precision, which not many people enjoy. I’d like to think of pattern makers as engineers of clothes. 

Shooting the collection

Having completed the entire collection, other matters of the business would need to be tended to, such as product, editorial and lookbook photography, followed by marketing communications strategy and getting the online store ready for launch. Rushing through any part of the process, especially in production of samples, will result in sub-optimal end product. In order to make the best clothes that we possibly can, we take our time to figure out solutions, work through our mistakes, while giving our manufacturing partners adequate time to complete our samples. In choosing not to follow the conventional fashion seasons, we do not have to push factories, workshops and tailors to work under unreasonable time frame, an unhealthy norm that is widely practiced in the fashion industry, 

Taking our time to complete each collection leads to an indefinite time frame of production and release. It is the reason why ROSEN launches collections only when we are ready to do so. 

Takeshi Kitano and Wong Kar Wai

Many of my design ideas stem from a lifetime of personal experiences, interests and immediate surrounding. For example I would never make a corseted floor-length gown because it is incongruent with my lifestyle and personal values. On the other hand, my interest in Japanese and Hong Kong cinema of the 90s has sneaked its way into my recent collections.

I am a firm believer in the continuous evolution of design, as opposed to a complete change every season. I don’t necessarily care for abstract nor lofty ideas. I make clothing that can be worn everyday, hence I would prefer to approach the design process from a more humble, mundane perspective. Modern uniforms are one such source of inspiration. They are designed to be worn on a frequent basis which typically has to be made as comfortable as possible.

When it comes to designing ROSEN (as opposed to ROSEN-X), I would look at the supply of fabrics available for immediate order in the early stage of planning. They influence the general mood of the collection concurrently with the designs, sometimes influencing the design itself.

A closer look at our choice of textiles, from wools to metal-infused cotton

A Love for Outerwear

When I first started making my own clothes, they were very simple. A-line silhouettes, classic patterns, conventional construction methods. What you see is often what you get. I was expecting to not deviate too much as I was limited by my own experiences. 

Fast forward three years later, the Alexandria and Earhart were born. 

ROSEN Alexandria Coat

The Alexandria was first released last December in a heavy wool version. This time I decided to take it to the next level by doing a multi-panelled, double-layered collar and lapel construction. 

The idea first began from this quilted fabric that I’ve found from my usual vendor. I had been mulling over it for several months after seeing it for the first time, not quite knowing what to do with it. Having designed this new Alexandria, I decided to put the fabric to test. I took the plunge and sent it off to the workshop for sample-making. It turned out to be a challenging fabric to work with. Despite its medium-level thickness - no thicker than a typical wool cashmere fabric any seasoned tailor has worked with - the yarn of the fabric was so densely woven that it broke the workshop’s industrial sewing machine. Luckily they were understanding about it and did not reconsider our business relationship. 

And then there was the Earhart.

ROSEN Earhart Jacket

The design of the Earhart was first conceived in autumn last year. I headed north to Beijing to work with a studio whom I have collaborated with previously. Unfortunately they closed their doors due to financial difficulty very soon after - a common occurrence in fashion startups. Fortunately for me however, they promised to deliver the first muslin sample. After it was made, I engaged the defunct studio’s tailor directly to create the first sample piece in the same fabric as the Alexandria. The garment was so complex that it consisted of over 80 panels.

The first attempt came out a little on the underwhelming side. The construction and the fabric did not complement each other well, and some of the panels that were made in a different fabric were incongruent with the rest of the garment, so together with my newly-hired patternmaker, we went back to the drawing board and overhauled the pattern. A miniature muslin was made so we could save time in assessing the construction.

As the Earhart grew more complex, the 80-panel pattern increased to almost 100. Seams were shifted, lapels adjusted and re-adjusted, panels added and removed. Then we gave the job to the workshop that made the Alexandria. When working with this many panels, a small change would create an avalanche of shifts and nudges that ripple across the garment.

In the end, our persistence paid off. When the prototype came back after the last round of changes, I first felt relief, followed by elation. The Earhart was ready. 

Paired with ROSEN Cicero Shirt and Deconstructed Plato Trousers

Xiangyun Silk

ROSEN has always been a big proponent of using deadstock fabrics as part of our sustainability efforts. For us to order fabrics directly from a factory, we will be adding another 100 meters - 100 meters being on the lower end, the average that I’ve been quoted is 500 meters - of fabric into the market, along the way extracting even more resources for production while dumping more chemicals into our waters. It is my hope that ROSEN can always rely on using these beautiful excess fabrics so as to avoid worsening the overproduction problem that this industry is facing. 

ROSEN Kitano Shirt

Some of these excess textiles that I’ve come across recently is Xiangyun silk. Like the bubbly drink that has a specific provenance, Xiangyun silk can only be made in the southern region of China around the Pearl River Delta for its mix of climate, abundance in tuber plants, and the iron-rich mud from the Pearl River. 

A seersucker-like texture

The production of Xiangyun silk is a 16-step process that is extremely time- and labour-intensive, as well as season specific. Raw silks are spun as jacquard, often with seersucker-like texture. The finished raw fabric can be left blank or printed with motif before being sent to the dyeing factories. The finished plain silk fabric has to be cut to 15-20 meters per bolt as they will be handled manually from this step onwards. 

In contrast to the typical modern textile factory, Xiangyun silk factories consist largely of rudimentary buildings and vast expanse of well-trimmed green grass. Other than improvements in machineries to grind tubers, the dyeing process has not changed much in the last few centuries,

The dyeing season begins around early April when the wet monsoon season has given way to high summer. Every factory has a dyeing shifu (or master). Decades of experience has taught him how to adjust the intensity of the dye according to the depth of the colour that is requested, as well as the amount of silk that has to be dyed. The dye is made purely from tubers like yam and sweet potatoes. They’re ground into dry pulp before mixed into giant vats of hot water. The silk fabric is submerged fully, one meter at a time, to let the tannin in the dye penetrates into the fibre. They are then wheeled to the field where workers will unfurl every bolt of fabric and lay them flat on the grass. 

Upon exposure to the sun, the tannin begins to oxidise, creating permanent brown tones in the silk. The temperature has to be around 28-30 degrees Celcius so that the dye penetrates into the fibers. Once they’re dry, they have to go through several more cycles of dyeing and drying, sometimes as much as 15 times. If the fabrics get caught in a sudden downpour, that particular cycle has to be repeated. At this stage, the colours of the fabric have turned a rich hue of brown and copper. They are then ready for the next important stage of the dyeing process. 

Under a shaded area, lean, weather-beaten workers use heavy giant brushes to coat the upper side of the fabric with mud; mud which has been harvested from the Pearl River. The iron-rich content gives the silk its unique black overtone, while leaving the brown underside uncoated. Coordinated, laborious teamwork is needed to carry the heavy coated fabrics to the river. The fabrics have to be agitated in a specific manner to wash off the mud efficiently, letting it return whence it came. They are then left to dry in the sun once more before they are kept in storage for three to six months. A final wash is required before it can be ready for clothing production. 

And those giant vats of dyes? Once all the fabrics have been soaked, workers would save them aside for a hot bath at night to soothe worn out muscles. The dried up remnants of the tubers would then be collected as fertilisers, thus completing its natural cycle.

Amidst the quest for ever speedier production and ready-made consumer goods, this centuries-old tradition clings on as best as it could for survival. There is no substitute for patience, hard work, human expertise, sun, water, and natural chemistry. The success of every batch of Xiangyun silk ultimately depends on Mother Nature and her benevolence. 

While ROSEN has always worked with deadstock fabrics, Xiangyun silk is harder to obtain on a commercial scale. The silks we use for the Kitano is not quite like other types of silk - similar to a combination of linen and organza, imbued with a signature copper tone, a mark of painstaking perseverance by men and women who have been working on their craft for decades. 

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Living with The Virus – An Aftermath

April 21, 2020

by Gracia Ventus

The cold winter days seem to have disappeared, leaving behind warm sunshine, brisk cool winds and the chirps of sparrows every morning.

It has been almost two months since I returned to Shanghai. For the most part, I have been working at my home studio with my team. On the day of my return flight I wasn't sure I made the right decision. It was the height of the pandemic in China. As a non-citizen I wasn't sure what recourse I will have should I require hospitalisation. But looking back now I'm glad I came back early.

Six weeks ago, only China was struggling to deal with the virus outbreak. There was no Italy nor Spain in the news. Trump was still playing golf. News outlets and independent media highlighted grim, unexplainable videos coming out of China. Armchair journalists - no matter their political leaning - were quick to condemn every effort of containment. Police officers reminding people over drones to put on their masks and to stay home were seen as infringing on people's liberty. On Twitter, videos of Chinese cities being disinfected were brandished as tear gas, poisons and other harmful materials. Doors in a few neighbourhoods - out of the hundreds of millions across the country - were welded shut as community leaders grew desperate in controlling the movements of a few stubborn residents. The draconian lockdown in Wuhan was absolutely inconvenient for everyone involved, affecting some much more than others. It took a toll on many people's psyche. But the fact remains that most of them are now alive to continue expressing their annoyance.

I was lucky to be based in Shanghai, where cases were contained. There was not a need to lock up neighbourhoods and homes. I was not a migrant factory worker who was stranded in between cities, caught up in the confusion between government and commercial orders. To not fall through the cracks in times of crisis one shows one's privileges in life.

Upon my return, there was not much we could do in terms of production. Most fabric suppliers were not allowed to run their business. Tailors and workers had to work remotely, which presented many hiccups and delays. Non-essential businesses were closed for over a month. There was nowhere for anyone to go for leisure, but we had the freedom to go out nonetheless. Supermarkets continued to be fully-stocked. Food deliveries and couriers - without their valiant service people wouldn't have been able to isolate themselves - ran smoothly in metropolitan Shanghai. Half a million businesses went bankrupt. Over a million people lost their jobs. Everyone tried to keep their chin up by playing games, exercising at home and finding creative means to make money online.

In the center of Beijing, my friend Dylan - the creative force behind Thoughts of Other - experienced disruptions in his production. His buttonhole sewer couldn't return to work, a gentle reminder that a garment consists of many parts that seem inane on their own, yet if any is missing, the garment would be incomplete. For those who are not familiar with garment production, button holes are typically sewn with a special machine, and not every garment maker invests in one, so this particular finishing has to be outsourced.

Everyday I'd get notified of the nearest fever clinic to go to. Tests are free for anyone who develops flu-like symptoms. Treatments are free for citizens who don't have insurance, no matter the procedure they have to undergo. I have not attempted to find out how much it would cost me.

People were angry with the government at the initial cover-up and the bureaucratic behemoth that prevented a swift course of action. Having observed China from the inside for years, I can honestly say that malice has little to do with this grave disaster. It was the culmination of human errors and selfish self-preservation that arose out of a punitive bureaucracy - people tossing responsibility back and forth for fear of doing the wrong things.

Collective anger peaked when Dr Li - who was silenced for sending out warnings - died from the illness he contracted on duty. Nevertheless, anger towards and trust in the government coexisted. Efforts to fight the virus overwhelmed the frustrations. Temperature checks were implemented at every entrance of neighbourhoods and buildings. Everyone wore masks in public, not as an individualist pursuit to protect oneself, but to stop asymptomatic carriers from spreading the virus to others. Citizens are not blind to the ruling party's missteps, but as a nation, there was a sense of pragmatism and rationality that I've noticed. The health of the family, community, and country was more important than individual liberty. Anyone not abiding neighbourhood rules will be dragged down by vigilante Shanghainese aunties, the group most feared by everyone, most of all their husbands. Dr. Li has since been hailed as a national hero.

At the end of February, the number of cases and deaths soared. While sitting in my office, I was not sure where the economy was headed. All I could do as a small business owner was to sustain the income to keep everyone paid in full and on time. There was always something to do. An essay to write, a new collection to make, a new type of anxiety to soothe. There was no time for the mind to be idle. Work never stopped.

We knew of citizen journalists being silenced. We were aware of video documentations being censored. We also saw hospitals being built in ten days; thousands of healthcare workers sent to Wuhan to lend a helping hand like soldiers being sent to the battlefront; the little sacrifices made by individual heroes, like a man who ran out of a police station after dropping off several hundred surgical masks.

What does a government have to do to get 1.4 billion people from all income and educational and professional background to believe in a single cause and perform self-sacrificing civic duty?

In the month of March, the streets were quieter than usual, but it was not empty of life. In Beijing's hutongs - I suppose the closest explanation would be narrow streets and alley ways, very much a quaint part of the ancient city - old men and women queued up for groceries, played mahjong in the open and carried on with their leisure activities, albeit with mandatory masks. As Dylan pointed out, the reality on the ground was different from the images painted by the media. Mundane, everyday realities simply don't make it to the news.

Weeks go by. Uncertainties never went away but we could see signs of life coming back to the streets. Businesses were slowly allowed to operate in the middle of March. Soon restaurants and cafes followed. Malls opened their doors, many having installed temperature scanners, or a personnel who inspected every visitor with a handheld thermometer. No mask, no entry.

Since January it feels like I have been living in an alternate universe. I first donned a mask before Lunar New Year on my flight to see my family overseas. Every single passenger and cabin crew wore one. It felt so surreal, almost like a Lynchian dream.

All throughout the end of February, China was adjusting to a new reality. As the country started to recover, the rest of the world started getting ill. We watched in horror as several governments failed their people. The bigger the failure, the angrier their citizens got. And that misplaced anger and hopelessness were directed towards China and East Asian descendants who crossed their path.

Don't trust China, they said. The government is lying, they retorted. They've lied on the number of deaths, it must be a thousand times more than reported. Surely all this talk of recovery is another Communist propaganda.

Media outlets struggled to provide China with the benefit of the doubt, the kind that is extended to other non-threatening nations; overlooking the notion that mistakes could have been made due to human errors, and not a purposeful manipulation of information. Transparency is not something that this country is known for, so I can understand how certain realities that do not fit the desired narrative can be difficult to swallow. Regardless of whom we should believe, the fact remains that hospitals have been emptied out, and economic activities have resumed.

I do not believe there has been a cover-up. Covering up cases would render the tools used for controlling the outbreak ineffective. There might be a few local officials who are unwise enough to attempt it, but at the regional or national scale it appears extremely unlikely. As in every other country, there are caveats to interpreting the numbers, especially in badly affected regions, but the overall evidence is unequivocal: suppression has worked.

China has had a few advantages over other countries in dealing with the outbreak, resulting from its social and political system. One is the ability to deliver consistent messaging. When the lockdown took place, the normal television schedule was suspended and replaced with wall-to-wall coronavirus coverage, devoted to the importance of not letting the disease spread. As a result, the people of China are, generally speaking, more afraid of catching the virus than of running out of food or losing their livelihoods.

Daniel Falush, published on The Guardian on March 30, 2020.

Many Chinese citizens are aware of the the government's propaganda efforts. But so long as their families are kept safe and their economy progressing, they accept it as par for the course in pushing the nation forward. In times of crisis, a well-intentioned Leviathan is needed to provide a clear problem-solving strategy and allocate resources efficiently. Neither democracy nor authoritarianism can lay sole claim to having a benevolent and functioning Leviathan. We only need to look at Taiwan and Singapore, one a democracy, the other a benign dictatorship, both heralded as role models in tackling the pandemic.

When the economy opened up again after over two months of shut down, there is a mild sense of optimism in the air. Everyone was trying to make up for lost time. And once again I find myself stuck in peak hour traffic in this metropolis.

Feeding my favourite neighbourhood stray - Batcat


Living with The New Virus Behind The Firewall – Part One

February 23, 2020

by Gracia Ventus

In late February, Pudong airport was operating as usual despite the lower volume of traffic. The only difference I noticed is the presence of a few staff here and there decked in hazmat suits. The immigration queue for foreigners was almost nonexistent; the baggage came quickly. Well this has been a lot smoother than the usual Chinese airport experience. I was hoping to not see ‘black cab’ touters. However I was disappointed to hear “taxi?” greeting me in the arrival hall. No epidemic was going to stop them from making money illegally.

The taxi queue was also unusually short. A twenty-minute wait was the norm, ten minutes miraculously fast. This time it took two minutes. I hopped into a cab driven by a middle-aged uncle. Late 50s? I couldn’t quite tell. Having established where he should take me to, he told me that he had been queueing since 7 pm the night before. That was over 20 hours of waiting. For a single fare. 

We spoke at length about the situation on the ground. On average, he managed to get four or five fares, amounting to a third of what I would be paying to him at the end of the ride. Despite seeing his daily income plummeting to almost nothing, he was not bitter nor pessimistic. 

It was a grey and dreary day, but otherwise calm and quiet

His steadfast faith in the government’s ability to contain the situation kept him in good spirits. He spoke proudly of the hospitals being built in a fortnight; of the government’s ability to lock down a city swiftly to protect the rest of the nation. He remained in good spirits. 

Taxi drivers in China are often the most politically-gossipy bunch of people I have ever met. They love chatting with their customers and also with their fellow cabbies in their WeChat groups. In terms of demographics, they belong to the lower income class with little or no tertiary education. Cab drivers are avid listeners of the radio, so they absorb much of the media espoused by the government. Many are educational programs, such as ancient history of the world. More often than not, they’d be listening to local news and call-in chat shows where listeners ask for advice for everyday life issues. In many ways, cab drivers provide a snapshot into the mentality and behaviour of the working class. 

When times were good, cabbies’ complaints would usually range from personal family issues to how their local governments were failing them. Not this time it seemed. 

It would have been easy to blame everything on the 'evil' ruling party. But this good versus evil trope only exists in Disney movies, and - these days - American politics. The problem stemmed from human nature and culture of bureaucracy unique in the Mainland. Despite witnessing it many times, I didn't have a name for it, until I read this eloquently-written essay. It's called 'throwing woks'.

Throwing woks is an art you need to understand if you want to get things done in China. Whether you’re building an airport, applying for a research grant or inviting a foreign national to give a talk, you have to fill in so many forms, and get approval from so many departments with all their competing demands, that you risk getting trapped somewhere in the middle: whichever way you turn you risk causing upset or offence in one quarter or another. In the workplace too, a step in the wrong direction can provoke a superior and ruin a career, so that sometimes it’s wisest to do nothing at all. Until a virus strikes, that is.

Wang Xiuying - The Word from Wuhan

Under a centralised bureaucracy, civil servants would prefer not to stir up the pot so that they don't get the heat from senior officials if something goes wrong. The lower officials would have to wait for orders from the top before taking any drastic measures. In this instance, it led to a series of bad judgement calls. First by ignoring grave warnings. Next by waiting for the capital - who is hundreds of miles away at the north - to provide instructions while the virus spread unchecked.

Yet it is also the might of a centralised government that cut off an entire province to protect the rest of the country, when they finally grew impatient with bureaucratic inefficiencies. The cart had to hit fifty million people so the other 1.3 billion could have a higher fighting chance.

People were instructed to hunker down, remain calm at home and perform their civic duties in order to fight the epidemic. Censorship bureau constantly reminded the general public to follow the rules like wearing masks in public. Masks may not fully protect the wearer, but they are effective in minimising the spread of the virus through saliva and nasal droplets. In other words, you have to do your part to protect others.

Amidst continuous reports of cases and deaths, news channels and social media blasted stringent government measures, heroic medical efforts and heartwarming coping strategies. There was room for anger, but not the kind that demanded freedom of speech. Tragic, depressing anecdotes were swiftly wiped out.

Life goes on, mostly behind closed doors

We often think that government propaganda causes harm because it exaggerates the positives and hides the negatives. Often partial transparency evolves into outright lies. But in this instance, it has narrowly avoided mass hysteria, given hope for people to carry on with their lives as much as possible, encourage them not to despair, and build a community spirit to stay strong together.

In dire situations like this, do we hold on to our ideals that insist on the truth and nothing but the truth? Or be adaptable and utilitarian in our expectations, especially in such a large nation of close to 1.4 billion people?

Western media painted an apocalyptical scene of China. As I crossed the city on my way home, traffic volume was down, but not absent. I enjoyed not being stuck in a traffic jam for once.

As of late February, most people were staying home even if they could go out, occupying themselves with online activities since there was nowhere to go. You could hear the neighbours kids having their PE lessons with all that jumping. Mails, couriers and food deliveries were operating normally. Temperature checks were mandatory at the entrance to every neigbourhood. 

While white collar workers were mostly guaranteed their incomes during this period, migrant workers were not as lucky. They had been turned away from Shanghai as there was no employment during this period. It’s always the low-income working class that suffers the most. 

And the cab driver? He offered to stop at the supermarket so I could get necessities, just in case I had to isolate myself for two weeks (it turned out I didn’t have to). He said that since I have no family here, it was the least he could do to help. And yes he paused the meter. 

Maybe it takes a disaster for kindness to rear its head. Regardless, I felt grateful for the compassion shown by someone struggling harder than I was. It is not the kind of story I can tell often, but when it happens it chips away the bitter cynicism one develops in a dog eat dog world. 


Want to Be Rich? Don’t Work in Fashion

February 12, 2020

by Gracia Ventus
Alessandro Michele at his first Gucci show

Fashion and Its Charming Front

Fashion is built on the illusion of grandeur, beauty, creativity, power, and money. Just look at Jean Paul Gaultier’s final couture show. It was an extravaganza like no other, celebrating the legacy of the designer that spanned decades and was attended by the biggest names in the industry. 

Even if one has not been in the business for very long, social media promises the glitz, the parties, the soirees, the dinners as long as you can built your way up to the top as influencers; while at the same time turning a blind eye to the toll on their self-esteem due to the constant pressure of staying beautiful, young and relevant by documenting their lives twenty-four seven.

When it comes to the production side, Dior and Chanel unabashedly portrayed the intricacies of their tidy ateliers and glittery couture embroideries, painstakingly crafted by young men and women whom are most likely interns (as opposed to the older women in lab coats who are full-time staff). Little is shown of the factories they outsource most of their productions to. 

And let us not forget the clothes that flutter down runway shows. Beautiful models caked in make-up, decked out in glorious ensembles made of the most expensive organza, animal hairs and hides. Seeing beauty and aesthetics presented in its highest form, one cannot help but be charmed by the promise of a life filled with brimming with excess but devoid of struggles.

Praying for The Trickle Down Effect

Swayed by the illusion of a life surrounded with beauty and creativity, flocks of starry-eyed youths signed up for fashion schools every year only to find that their paths towards creative designer stardom is hindered by unpaid internships; the kind that dangles valuable work experience and the possibility of full-time employment in lieu of wages. A minority do manage to get their foot in the door. Unfortunately many of them were made to do menial tasks such as fetching coffee and making personal appointments for their bosses. Throw in a dose of emotional abuse from narcissistic and self-absorbed bosses, long working hours seven days a week, and you’ve got the perfect recipe for a toxic work environments. 

Bleak tales of serial interns can be found around the world. They struggle to make ends meet in expensive metropolitan cities as they toil away every night in a studio, yet they held on for the promise of a full time job in the industry. Being able to put down names like Vogue, Louis Vuitton or Gucci on one’s resumé may do wonders for one’s career prospects, and more importantly one’s ego. But full-time opportunities are never promised to interns, unlike a Graduate Program. The companies know this, so they perpetuate these unfair work practices just because they can. Take Alexander McQueen for example. The British label was acquired by the luxury conglomerate Kering in 2001. One would naturally assume that having the financial backing of a a well-known French conglomerate, interns working in McQueen would be adequately compensated for the hard work they have to put in everyday. In 2010 however, The Guardian published a story that painted a different picture.

Cassidy also claims the company relied on interns to carry out core work. "In the pattern making department there were 10 interns and only five paid staff. In embroidery there was just one designer and 10 interns."

In May last year, after eight months of unpaid work, he quit. "I left because it was obvious there was virtually no chance of getting a job there," he says. "They would have been happy for me to continue, but I just couldn't afford to go on working for nothing. I had already done five unpaid fashion internships elsewhere.”

More recently, the Olsen twins - celebrities since toddlers; owners of the ultra-glamorous The Row brand - were sued by an intern who was made to do tasks that was typical of a full-time employee’s without any remuneration. You would think that someone worth a few hundred million dollars would have the spare cash to pay minimum wages for a few more employees to run their billion-dollar business (yes that’s how much The Row is valued at right now). 

At least Anne Hathaway's character was paid enough to live in New York City

The reality for fashion interns is that the jobs that are available are too few and far between. As fashion is becoming more mainstream, the competition is now tougher than ever, giving more power to companies in dictating work conditions. The practice of unpaid internships discriminates against students and graduates who don't have families or sponsors willing to fund their unpaid career choices indefinitely. Back in the 90s, David Foster Wallace wrote a short story about pompous trust fund girls working in a glamorous fashion magazine. Two decades later, the situation has not changed.

Judging from the endless testimonials of ex-fashion interns, it is no longer a secret that a large swath of the industry is built on the backs of those whose contributions are seen as disposable. Unfortunately the same trend is happening in China. Behind opulent doors at elite office addresses, European luxury brands in Chinese headquarters hire interns to keep operational costs low. They are paid by the day no matter how many hours they put in. They are often hired for a minimum of six months so they can learn to carry out many aspects of the business, neatly sidestepping the need to invest in full-time employees. Just like their American and European counterparts, many of these fashion graduates are finding it hard to survive on sub-minimum wages if they want to continue working for prestigious firms. 

It is no wonder that some Chinese-grown fashion companies are adopting the exploitative employment practices. A major fashion showroom company in Shanghai is known for their high turnover rate due to the owner not valuing her employees. Staff complaints range from having to brave the winter months without heating, not having a day off for two straight months, and excessive difficulty in claiming expense reimbursement. Waving about her newly bought diamond ring in front of the staff who were disproportionately underpaid for the amount of hours they put in certainly did not help her case. She isn’t overly concerned with the flurry of resignations that land on her desk every couple of months because there are too many starry-eyed youths in China willing to take up the same job. Some Chinese labels that have become international media darlings are known for their hostile bosses and designers, making the work situation toxic and unbearable. The fashion industry in China is so close knit that there is an unofficial ranking amongst insiders for the most notorious companies to work for.

And yet, the myth of fashion’s glamour persists. Vogue Business in China recently published an article that detailed the 0.1% earners in the industry, with each profession such as creative directors and stylists earning seven figure sums and up. There is no mention of the median earnings in those roles. Such one-sided reporting comes across as an irresponsible move that paints the industry in an unrealistic light. It is no wonder that more students signed up for fashion courses than ever before, hoping to be the next Virgil Abloh, swayed by the possibility of a over-inflated income while cozying up to celebrities.

So You Want To Work in Fashion

Being exploited as a full-time unpaid intern in a prestigious luxury brand is a soul-sucking way to break into the industry. For every success story there are hundreds, if not thousands of ex-interns who gave up their dreams and moved on to other industries. The sad reality is that market forces and luxury conglomerates who have a monopoly on prestige have normalised bad employment practices in fashion.

All is not lost, however. The industry is always in need of non-forward facing unglamorous roles such as pattern makers, cutters, sample machinists and garment technologists armed with fresh perspective and creative problem-solving skills. These jobs are far more plentiful than their glamorous counterparts, not to mention being transferable across companies, cultures and regions. You might have to start at a factory floor, but it beats running around the city returning samples and fetching coffee for people who don't remember your name.

And speaking as someone who laments on the lack of experienced and sophisticated pattern-makers, I hope the younger generations would answer the call.

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The Lesser Known Challenges of Running A Fashion Business

December 19, 2019

by Gracia Ventus

It has been a few years since I began working on ROSEN. Along the way, I have learnt some important lessons from my personal experience and also from observing my peers and competitors. In the beginning the challenges were focused on products - from fabrics to design to construction - that works in tandem with the marketing strategy. In a world where everyone have more choices than ever, clothing that command a higher price tag have to stand out among the crowd with a mix of creative marketing and appealing product design.

“Clothes are expensive. You have to buy them, and to buy them, you have to believe in them.” - Jean Paul Gaultier

As my business grows, the challenge shifts from product-based issues to operations. The sustainability of a clothing business on an upward trajectory depends on the relationship built with raw material suppliers, manufacturers and logistics, especially in China. In the past I have written about the unique relationship approach that is commonly found when working with Chinese businesses.


Much of the garment manufacturing industry is still somewhat inflexible - one is either a large scale manufacturer, or a tailor who works on conventional designs. There are much fewer sample manufacturers out there who may be willing to work on small scale productions continuously. The same goes for fabric suppliers, some of whom would occasionally ask me why I am only buying their existing supply instead of ordering a 500-meter bolt. In this in-between spot, business relationship becomes more intimate and have to be taken care of properly, especially when the operation involves constant design changes, custom sizing requests and pattern manipulation. As a small business owner, I have to provide incentives for makers and manufacturers to work on difficult requests, and often a harmonious working relationship is as important as monetary compensation, if not more, because loyalty is highly prized in China.

Maintaining harmony within a network of small business owners is not dissimilar to getting along with distant relatives. The world of modern fashion design romanticises late nights spent in the studio with coffee and cigarettes. No-one speaks of the difficulty in managing human emotions; the clashing egos that get in the way; the sensitivities that might cloud one’s judgment; and any adverse life situation that a party you deal with is in. Fashion business guides speak of the importance of finding a reliable manufacturing partner, and they’re right to mention that. What is often missed out is the difficulty in maintaining a good business relationship that goes beyond the formalities of contracts, the misunderstandings due to failure in communication, or the frustration of not knowing what can go wrong, until it goes wrong. Vendor relationship management is a soft skill that can hardly be taught in school. It only comes from the experience of dealing with people over the course of time.

Another issue that I have observed amongst my peers near and far and within my operations is the challenge of staying relevant. A singular vision is no longer sufficient in this volatile market. Oversaturation of an aesthetic or a logo or any recognisable feature of the brand will push the brand out of favour fairly quickly. The next strategy would either be to acquire new market - which in some cases can be very costly - or evolve, even if it means compromising one’s vision.

With the exception of fast fashion and luxury brands that has cemented the power of their logos, a clothing brand has to remain steadfast to its DNA while avoiding being called a one-trick pony. When a brand is forced to evolve, it raises the question of what accounts for its essence, be it construction, fabrics, silhouette or even graphic elements. Every brand has to navigate these treacherous waters effectively; veer too far too quickly and it risks alienating existing fans, like Damir Doma after 2011. Change too slowly, and there will be no reason for existing fans to buy another product that is similar to what they already have in the closet. We can see that Vetements interpretation of anti-fashion and marketing gimmicks disguised as ironic wink-wink you-only-get-it-if-you-are-part-of-the-tribe symbolisms is losing its popularity in the last couple of years.

What makes this business endeavour even more complicated is the rise and fall of trends. Brands that bank on a narrow, single aesthetic will fall out of favour when it refuses to move on as the trend itself is dying. Back in the late noughties, the goth ninja trend spawned many fans and brands. But as time passes, the crowd who appreciates it grew older. Life gets in the way and eventually clothing purchases mattered less. The brands who did not adapt to stay fresh in the minds of younger demographics, or evolve to suit the needs of the existing maturing market will see their business shrink and eventually fall off the radar. Rick Owens, who was one of the most lauded designer by this crowd, steered clear of irrelevance by constantly reinventing himself - from drapey luxe-grunge to refined space warriors to alien rock stars - at the same time retaining the essence of his brand through the use of signature materials and Brutalist silhouette. The younger crowd loves his unapologetic, sexually-charged and borderline absurd shows, while the older crowd appreciates the craftsmanship of his garments.

Rick Owens addressing the crowd at the 'art orgy' organised with Centre Pampidou, 2019

There are of course a multitude of other challenges that exist in running a fashion business. Many young fashion brands struggle to attain traction and attention in this saturated market. And in many cases, attention does not necessarily lead to sales, as consumers are becoming more fickle, thanks in part due to fierce competition across all price points. Consumer confidence is also affected by global economic and political uncertainties looming over the horizon.

There is no magic formula in building and running a successful fashion brand. The year 2019 might be remembered as the year of bankruptcies, from Barneys, Forever 21, Roberto Cavalli, Sonia Rykiel, Charlotte Russe to Payless. This industry is adept in creating smoke and mirrors that hide the true health of a business. Every good-looking model hides a struggling team, a designer clueless about cash flow and bottom line, or an unethical manufacturing network. Fashion is never glamorous, but it is very good at pretending otherwise.

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Where Will We Go After Faking Sponsored Contents?

September 20, 2019

by Gracia Ventus

The Atlantic loves to report on current trends of Instagrammers, which is frankly quite eye-opening and often baffling. In one such news, an article titled "Rising Instagram Stars Are Posting Fake Sponsored Content" explores the recent evolution in social behaviour, mainly from three perspectives: the wannabe influencers who "fake it til they make it" at great time and personal expense; the brands who both benefit from free promotion and are harmed by the lack of control they have over the content; and the professional influencers who have experienced a marked decline in their revenues as Instagram is overrun by these aspiring competitors.

Before Instagram, before social media, before the Internet was conceived, Theodore Adorno spoke of Kulturindustrie – or Culture Industry - in which popular culture disseminated by the media, corporations and ruling elites becomes a tool to pacify the masses, ultimately making them resort to easy pleasures and standardised consumption in order to forget the challenges of real life. Published in mid 20th century, Adorno was only talking TV. He hadn't seen anything yet.

By fostering a virtual, global market by which a minority of users are sponsored to advertise relevant consumer products, the very identity and business model of these influencers relies completely on the Kulturindustrie to operate. The formula to regurgitate influencer content is a simple one: mix one part lifestyle, two parts graphic aesthetics, sprinkle in a positive caption and finish with a question to prompt comments to artificially propagate awareness via Instagram's increasingly fickle distribution algorithm. Following this method is not only easy, it also feels "right". The more this formula is repeated, the more accepted it gets amongst consumers (which is a well-documented cognitive reaction called mere exposure effect), until it evolves to the next big thing. Which brings us back to an important aspect of the Kulturindustrie, ie. rewarding conformity. In our capitalist system, the more conformist the masses, the less effort, time and resources it takes to sell an idea or product.

[ Read: The toxicity of celebrity culture ]

Lightly touched upon are the various influences that might motivate this behaviour. At face value, there is always the financial incentive. But realistically the chance a company will want to pay someone to wear their products is about as probable as the average video game addict being chosen to become a pro-gamer. What also may lurk in the psyche of the aspirant is the validation of the purchase itself. That expenditure could be wrote off as content that could be used for their Instagram. To others, being sponsored could be a kind of social "flex" on their peers – which the article has highlighted as becoming one’s way to win the popularity contest in school - justifying their purchases in a highly visible and quantifiable way. Not only does this enforce the idea that materialism would enrich one’s social life and increase likeability, it also validates the notion that it’s acceptable to resort to crafting fraud in order to make it to the top.

[ Read: Consumption should be the tool that assists us in doing the hard work of finding our authentic self and caring for our physical, mental and emotional health ]

As a passive audience, we are visually bombarded with all manner of sponsored contents throughout the day online and offline, and we probably have a friend, acquaintance or relative who has postured their purchases on social media. Remember the fake wedding proposal to get brand sponsorships? For those of us participating and consuming this content day in and out, at what point does it become too much? We have reached a time where we can no longer have faith in journalistic integrity will we then arrive at an age where we doubt our peers and families?

Comme des Garçons Ribbons Coat

Wearing my favourite Comme des Garçons ribbons coat, now into its seventh year