“We want our communication to feel very welcoming and relatable, so as opposed to being superior, we like to do something that feels warm and welcoming.” – Steven Tai
Entering the top floor gallery of the Elms Lesters Painting Rooms, in a quiet alleyway behind Covent Garden, one immediately encounters an atmosphere unusual to the Fashion Week hysteria. Steven Tai’s Autumn/Winter 2016 collection featured a mode of presentation that aimed to relax its audience. On one end of the gallery, a table was laid out with an array of cupcakes and tea served to its audience in ornate tea sets, while on the other end, a room presenting the designer’s new collection which saw a room filled with models dressed in his granny-inspired ensembles as they engaged in activities such as sewing and reading for leisure. The walls, draped from top to bottom in a range of floral prints, while the floors covered in Persian rugs, evoked an atmosphere that was highly reminiscent of the imagery portrayed in many of Henri Matisse’s paintings, like La leçon de piano (1923) and La femme en jaune (1923).
We spoke with the designer about some of his ideas behind the collection, which is when he told us that “it kind of has to do with the idea that I always feel like I’m really old and boring, because my friends would be like “let’s go out!” and I’m like “I’m just so tired!” and think, “why can’t we just put on some Netflix?” From feeling this way, I then realised that actually a lot of my friends are like that too. I decided to play on the idea we see in Freaky Friday, where the mum and the daughter switch bodies, so on the outside you look young, but on the inside you have a very old soul.” The collection “played around with materials that are nostalgic, and a bit granny-ish, mixing that with our own textiles and patchwork, and putting all of that together.”
The identity behind the Steven Tai label wasn’t conceived overnight nor clear from the outset. Rather, the designer tells us that “it was a long, soul-searching process trying to find out the identity.” He goes on to explain that there were “many attempts that resulted in failure, and many attempts that were a success. Kind of similar to the design process: you don’t know until you do it, and you learn from doing it. It did take a couple of seasons, but I think we’re on the right track now.”
Comparing the advantages of a presentation to a runway mode of presentation, he tells us that the former works much better in his favour as it provides a much clearer narrative, which simultaneously corresponds to the rhythm of his label’s nature — calm, gentle and never hasty. “I think that in terms of building an image and an aspiring identity, the runway has less flexibility in terms of expressing a message for young designers like myself. It depends on the designer, but it does work really well for us, especially in terms of our budget and scale. It is more feasible logistically, and it is more practical.” Immediately after expressing this, Tai went on to express that “setting up the space was probably a lot more effort, than it would be to set up the catwalk,” immediately retracting his statement before.
With all of the controversy over the fast-moving pace in the fashion industry today, Tai’s show certainly provided a pause to reflect on the time we spend stressing over external factors, often neglecting time to ourselves and our own needs. Indeed, Tai himself admitted to his work process being affected due to commercial pressure. The characteristics imbued in his work allude to a subtle empowerment of the woman, which serves as a gentle reminder that continuously encourages self-building qualities. The women portrayed in his collections are never unrealistic depictions of an empowered female, but according to Tai himself, “should always be someone very relatable, creating a kind of next door feeling to her. We want our communication to feel very welcoming and relatable, so as opposed to being superior, we like to do something that feels warm and welcoming.”
Words by Alysha Lee
Photography by Lillie Eiger