7 AAPI Designers On Fashion, Personal Style, & Launching A Small Business

Benz Seo

Launching a business can be daunting, whether you’re a college sophomore studying for exams, while dreaming up sustainable and whimsically chic outerwear, like Dauphinette’s Olivia Cheng, or putting your own name on your devastatingly cool footwear concepts, after a decade of designing for an established brand, like Labucq’s Lauren Bucquet. […]

Launching a business can be daunting, whether you’re a college sophomore studying for exams, while dreaming up sustainable and whimsically chic outerwear, like Dauphinette’s Olivia Cheng, or putting your own name on your devastatingly cool footwear concepts, after a decade of designing for an established brand, like Labucq’s Lauren Bucquet. Because either way, interpreting one’s self-expression, individuality, and vision through distinct fashion designs — and sharing it all with the world to hopefully embrace — can feel like a massive risk. Plus, success takes hard work and business acumen, not to mention crucial lessons learned on the job, as a few designers will happily share, sans ego.

For this group of AAPI creatives, designing and running their own labels also offers an opportunity to share their culture and heritage through fashion. Their common goal in creating a community of like-minded values and passions through style also feels especially impactful right now, in a monumental time of representation, speaking out, and reaching out.

Los Angeles-based Isadora Alvarez takes pride in using “low-impact” fabrics, which are either recycled or sustainably-farmed, to create her laid-back and inclusive surf- and-skate-inspired wear at Back Beat Co., while in New York City, Faraz Zaidi tells a diverse range of cultural and political stories through his function-focused streetwear line Profound. Kara Jubin’s KkCo (pronounced “kaye koh”; the second “k” is silent) encourages human wearers — and pets — to express their individuality through playful and unconventional pieces designed and manufactured locally in L.A.; Sheena Sood’s Abacaxi (“pineapple” in Portuguese) celebrates travel and culture through vibrant prints on natural and upcycled materials; and Jessica Tse’s Notte wants you to enjoy life and be joyful through her imaginative jewelry pieces.

To celebrate Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, we asked our favorite designers and entrepreneurs to drop some honest wisdom about starting their own business, share what fashion really means to them, and explain how clothing helps them take up space, whether for personal reasons, professional, or both.

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned in founding your own business?

To do things that are meaningful and impactful. Every product that I make, I try to think of a reason for it to exist because I know the world doesn’t need more T-shirts, and the world doesn’t need more jeans. So, it’s like, “what is the purpose for this thing?” and “who is it benefiting?” and “why do it?” I try to add a storytelling component and meaning to everything that I do. I’m a Pakistani-born immigrant who moved here to the States at age 3. A lot of my design comes from my upbringing and the roots of my culture, so I try to bring a lot of that and present it to the West.

“I try to add a storytelling component and meaning to everything that I do.”

How does fashion help you take up space?

Some of the most influential things in our society are music and fashion, especially for culture, youth, and just our entire generation. Anything that I do in terms of occupying spaces in fashion or business or entrepreneurship, it’s always with the intention to solve a problem — whether it’s just finding a solution for someone in their closet and making the right pair of jeans or creating a narrative and a storyline that sort of connects to the person on the other line. So I think that I wouldn’t exist in this space if there wasn’t a reason for me to exist, and more often than not, I think that reason is that I’m spending a lot of time making meticulously designed, well-thought-out products. That also resonates to people in a conceptual way.

What’s one fashion moment from growing up that you always remember?

I’ve always been into sneakers and shoes, and changing the colors of the laces to match my shirt. I was always very color-coordinated and I would always try to look at what I was wearing and modify it in my head. Like, Oh, if this zipper was black instead of brown, or red instead of purple. I was always very conscious of color and patterns. As far back as I can remember, I’ve always paid attention to those things. I actually have photos of me when I was 5 changing the shoelaces on my shoes. Then once I got to an age where I can actually make stuff, I had a realization of the fact that, with anything in life, you could change it and you could create it and you could build it from scratch.

Courtesy of Isadora Alvarez

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned in founding your own business?

Where do I even start? On a personal level, I learned that running a business takes a lot of mental stamina and you have to have a lot of it to survive. On building a business aspect, a great team is invaluable, especially if you hire the best in areas you’re not very good at. (Hello, finance!) On a broader scale, running a business can make an impact on your community and society if you build the business around giving back. No matter how small it is … that still has an effect, and for me it’s the most fulfilling part.

“A great team is invaluable, especially if you hire the best in areas you’re not very good at.”

How does fashion help you take up space?

To be honest, I’m just really happy to be here to inspire other people. I came into the space because I felt that there was nothing that fit the aesthetic I had in mind, exactly. We don’t make high-fashion clothes, but we don’t make boring basics either. Everything that was happening when I put up Back Beat Co. fit into those two categories, but none in between. We just wanted to have some fun, have cool, low-impact clothes, and create a community in the process — a community that cared about the planet and people. Happy to report that we created a space for that.

What’s one fashion moment from growing up that you always remember?

I grew up on an island in the Philippines where we barely had cable TV growing up. My biggest fashion moments were watching No Doubt music videos on Channel V and MTV Asia when the satellite cable was working. Growing up in a small island town with very little access to stylish, fun, trendy clothing — and in a conservative country, like the Philippines — those channels and the music videos opened up this whole idea of self-expression through clothing. I think that’s when I realized that clothing, hairstyle, makeup, and shoes are all visual representations of who you are and the lifestyle you believe in.

Jessica Tse, Notte

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned in founding your own business?

Listen to your gut and trust the process; mistakes are part of learning and building. Don’t constantly compare your brand with others; everyone has a different founding story. Stay focused, work towards your goals, and let the journey inspire you.

“Listen to your gut and trust the process.”

How does fashion help you take up space?

Fashion gave me the creative space to grow and inspired me to build a brand doing what I love and being who I am. When I lived in Florence, Italy, our apartment was right next to Ponte Vecchio, the famous old bridge that’s lined with some of the best fine jewelry shops. I would walk across it almost every day, and seeing all the jewelry just gave me so much joy and it was always a highlight of my day. I think that was the moment I knew I was going to start a jewelry brand. I wanted to create pieces that would give people the same feeling that I felt. I don’t take for granted that I’m now able to share stories and things that we care about as a brand with a bigger voice via our platform. I hope Notte can inspire others to find what they’re passionate about and follow their dreams, too.

What’s one fashion moment from growing up that you always remember?

I wore a black dress which was simple but sparkly to my prom. I really liked that, but it also felt like a very safe choice. So it’s not totally a fashion regret because I did love the dress at the time, but I definitely wish I found my love for bright colors sooner and wore a brighter color instead. Now, I look at colors very differently. They help express how we feel and I love using bright colors in my designs as mood boosters. They don’t have to be “safe choices” and they don’t need to be taken so seriously. I think that’s what makes putting on our pieces so much fun.

Kara Jubin, KkCo

What is the most important lesson you’ve learned in founding your own business?

Probably to be flexible. You can plan only so much and then the rest is going with the flow. A lot of the lessons I’ve learned and solutions I’ve found are reactions to issues or things changing or not going the way I originally planned. And a lot of the times, it’s for the better.

How does fashion help you take up space?

It’s given me the opportunity to have my own voice and share my perspective on things. It really sounds cliché to say it’s such an art form, but it is. It’s just my creative space and it’s my art form and it’s just more tangible. It’s an outlet for me to share perspective.

“[Fashion is] an outlet for me to share perspective.”

What’s one fashion moment from growing up that you always remember?

My mom used to sew and make all of my clothes. I remember her in our dining room with her sewing machine set up and she would use the whole table to make patterns. I would go to the sewing or the fabric store with her. I distinctly remember that and she would make full ensembles for me, like I had matching hats and dresses and all that. I was also the youngest of five boys, so I think that is probably why. I really just remember that and her love for it. She collected all old W and Vogue magazines, so we had bookshelves in our basements full of them. She worked in a science field, so she just likes to make things. She also had a crazy closet of her own. She just loved the world of fashion and clothing.

Lauren Bucquet, Labucq

Courtesy of Lauren Bucquet

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned in founding your own business?

Staying super flexible and really nimble. When you’re a small business owner, being able to react quickly to when timings change or when the circumstances may arise has really helped to stay on top of the business and make sure that we’re operating in the most efficient way. Like during a global pandemic, we were able to completely pivot our marketing plan and change some of our buys and rethink what we’re doing. On a broader scale, just keeping in mind who I am — and want to be as a designer — and keeping our perspective unique and special. We’ve seen much greater success when we’re producing something that’s completely our own look.

How does fashion help you take up space?

Having a personal style sense can give you so much confidence. I love the feeling that you get when you put on something that’s super unique and you style it in a way that feels really you. You go out into the world and you do feel like you have armor on. That’s really important and shouldn’t be undersold. I think fashion gets a rough reputation, but it’s super important in allowing us to formulate our own identities. And, again, it can give you so much more confidence when you’re able to express yourself in a way that’s not vocally or verbally.

“Fashion gets a rough reputation, but it’s super important in allowing us to formulate our own identities.”

What’s one fashion moment from growing up that you always remember?

Speaking of confidence and clothes or fashion being able to transform your everyday experience, I do remember the first time I got a pair of boots that really made me feel like a new person in a really exciting way. I got a pair of 9-eye [now 10-eye] Doc Martens to go to middle school for the first time, which was a super intimidating experience. I remember begging my mom for these Doc Martens for I don’t know how many months, and she finally let me get a pair before I started sixth grade. I remember just walking in and feeling like I owned the school. That’s the first time I had an experience with fashion that really showed me the power that it can give you from within.

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned in founding your own business?

Trust your gut and make a lot of mistakes. Mistakes are the kind cousin of consequences, so pursue them, listen to them, and let them strengthen you — they offer a lot of important, directional feedback.

“Mistakes are the kind cousin of consequences, so pursue them, listen to them, and let them strengthen you.”

How does fashion help you take up space?

As a teenager, I was not confident. I had very little self-esteem. I come from a mostly white, conservative town, and none of the systems I was living in felt designed for me to succeed. Escapism is an overused term at this point, but it truly felt like I was structuring a world apart through my dressing; it’s a positively liberating feeling to find a way to speak when you haven’t yet learned how to be an effective communicator. Fashion pushes me to believe in the idea that I could be an optimist. One day, recently, I realized that I am one.

What’s one fashion moment from growing up that you always remember?

When I was in preschool, my mom sewed for me a pink coat with a leopard print collar and buttons, and a matching leopard beret. It was my absolute favorite outfit, and while waiting in line for the school bathroom one day, the girl next to me started picking her nose and wiping it onto my dress. That was the first time I could distinctly remember experiencing anger as an emotion!

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned in founding your own business?

I’ve learned the power and extent of my own capabilities through the process of founding and building a small fashion business. Not just in terms of finding out all of the tasks I’m able to handle on my own — so many different tasks as a small biz owner — but also in terms of facing setbacks and figuring out ways to overcome them. That teaches you a lot about the depths and power of your own resilience.

“I’ve learned the power and extent of my own capabilities through the process of founding and building a small fashion business.”

How does fashion help you take up space?

Fashion is one of the artistic mediums through which I can express myself, tell my story to the world, and share other untold stories about my heritage and communities. There’s also a certain confidence and feeling of being yourself, being in your own skin, that fashion can give you, and that confidence can help me to take up more space.

What’s one fashion moment from growing up that you always remember?

The summer when I was 10 years old, we went to India for a cousin’s wedding. When we got to Delhi, we all had custom outfits made for the occasion. I remember every detail about going through this process with my mom and aunts. I got to choose the color of my silk organza lehenga. I picked purple, which is still my favorite color, and one that you see a lot in Abacaxi collections. I always remember that experience because my fascination with design, color, textiles, and the custom garment-making process from that young age definitely had a huge part in me becoming a designer later on.

The above interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.

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