Richard Chai on Kate Moss, Couture and Making It in Fashion

Kerry Pieri

Vitaminwater is all about the design kids lately. Although, fashion often gets a bad rep for being a cut throat industry, it’s also one based on apprenticeship and mentoring. The beverage co. is leveraging the latter outlook through a partnership with the CFDA and a t-shirt competition for new designers that carries a $5,000 grant with it.

Designers including Rag & Bone, Chris Benz, the Vena Cava girls and Richard Chai are also designing tees, so that when the winner wins, they’ll be in good company. Many of those designers are also going to fashion schools around the country to speak and lend some guidance. We chatted with Richard Chai about his involvement with the next generation of fashion designers, what couture means in a diffusion line world, and of course, what he thought of Kate’s dress.

Why was the vitaminwater partnership a good fit for you?
I drink it! But also, it was the whole initiative behind it and the idea of mentoring and sponsorship. Starting online years ago myself, these are the sort of things that enabled me to have my company corporate sponsorships and competitions are really important as well as having mentors along the way even as a student in fashion school.

Why do you think its important to give guidance to up and coming designers?
I think its important to share your experience and words of wisdom so to speak. The beauty of fashion is that there is no one way to have a career, but hearing different avenues people have taken is great, knowing what others have done. Ive done these speaking engagements with high school and college students and although my experience is different than others, I think it can inspire people. When I grew up, I didnt have that access thats available now, I was waiting the 3 months to see what everyone was doing in magazines I never got to hear first hand from designers. I think people have this idea of the glamour and celebrity of fashion and they dont know about reaching the customer and everything that goes into design.

What do you think students are most surprised to learn when you speak to them?
A lot of people dont realize how young I was when I started. My first apprenticeship was when I was 17 working under Abler Elbaz at Geoffrey Beene. I wasnt even a fashion student yet. I went in with sketches and I was hired it was an incredible opportunity. There were kids there who had already graduated from university. It helped form me as a designer and how I see the world of design.

Who do you credit as your personal mentors?
Obviously my parents, but, in terms of my career, all of the people Ive worked for who were gracious enough to let me into their creative worlds and live and breathe their aesthetic and be part of the process and their creative vision. I think in terms of mentors you have so many of them in life. Its amazing how much someone can inspire another through words.

What advice do you have for people looking to break into the fashion industry?
I think they have to realize its a tremendous amount of work, if you want to be successful in anything, you have to work really hard. In fashion, youre always 6 months head, working on multiple seasons. If your idea of fashion is watching a show, its probably not going to work, but if you love it and want to dedicate yourself to it, you have to be incredibly passionate. I think often people dont see the reality of it. Fashion school is difficult and I dont want to say it pales in comparison but being a designer requires a lot.

As far as your own work, why do you think its important or beneficial for a designer to have a diffusion line?
I think the reality of the world has changed a lot, especially with accessibility. People who were buying designer clothes started mixing jeans with high end designer pieces. The customer has changed, theyre very informed, especially with the internet. [Diffusion lines] are great to broaden your business.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, couture is underway. What place do you think couture still has in fashion?
For me its art and its pure in our world of design. Its not about the bottom line, youre not thinking of it as a business structure. I think its so important and its fantasy, its what the industry is about. With so many contemporary and diffusion lines, you need that aspect.

And lastly, what did you think of Kate Moss wedding dress?
I was surprised how traditional it was, to be honest, but shes Kate and shes amazing and she can wear anything.

To get in on the competition and vote go to vitaminwater‘s Facebook page.

Photo: Richard Chai Love Fall 2011, ImaxTree

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