Steven Tai: I be not up all night
Meet the cool nerd who goes to bed on time.
Staying up all night to finish a piece of work is never someone’s Plan A. If you’re down to 2am in the early hours of deadline day, one can assume that the last two seasons of Peep Show could have waited until next weekend. Any art school graduate knows what it feels like to turn down an invite to the house-party of the century, to finish an assignment on time. Or alternatively, for those of us with a craving for an active social calendar, it is our sleep schedules that pay the price. In his latest collection, ‘Sleep Now, Work Later,’ Steven Tai reflects on the reasons the fashion industry keep jammin’ jammies on the runway, the importance of being awkward and why we should embrace our nerdy alter egos and cancel more plans.
When we last spoke to you, you were preparing for London Fashion Week, how did it go?
It went really well. The last week was focused on styling, model casting, invitations, music and set design. There were also a lot of small changes we needed to complete before the presentation. It is always a strange time in the last week before the presentation, as everything from the concept, to the clothes, to the sales needs to come together. My team has learned to become a lot more organized over the years, but even though it isn’t stressful, there is an underlying sense of nervousness when you present a new collection to the world.
Did you catch any z’s the night before?
Yes! I learned my lesson from last season. It is much better to treat the penultimate night before the presentation as the last night. And any all nighters should be completed before the night before the show. That way I can avoid feeling like a half asleep zombie during the presentation.
Let’s talk about ‘Sleep Now, Work Later’. What is your concept behind the A/W 17 collection?
‘Sleep Now, Work Later’ is all about the time that we wish we had and that we haven’t been able to take advantage of because of work commitments. So the collection is very much about being attached to your bed. I really like the idea that we never get to sleep as much as we would like to. It took about 3 months from the initial concept to the final presentation.
“I THINK IN REAL LIFE, OR ON THE HIGH STREET, CONSUMERS ARE MORE INTERESTED IN DRESSING TO LOOK WEALTHY.”
Pyjamas are not new to the Fashion Week crowds. Malene Birger’s S/S16 showcase in Copenhagen made satin on satin look like a high-end pantsuit whilst more recently, the lingerie designer Stephanie Seymour displayed her new collection in Barneys in NY, explaining that people are wearing pyjamas out now more than ever. Why do you think this trend isn’t catching on in real life?
I think in real life, or on the high street, consumers are more interested in dressing to look wealthy. In the fashion world, more ideas can be pushed and wealth can be displayed through taste and how ‘new’ something is. However, in real life, most people still hope to invest in pieces that make them look wealthier than they are. Pyjamas are difficult to navigate in that ideology, given that it might be associated with being ‘sloppy’ instead.
Do you have a favourite piece from your collection?
I have quite a few, but maybe one of my favourites is a cashmere coat that has a very interesting cut, to make the body look Napoleon Dynamite. The texture is amazing and there is the added detail of a tag that looks like one you would find on a bed sheet. It almost looks like a blanket and I really like that, because it feeds into the overall aesthetic of the collection.
Growing up in Vancouver, were pyjamas as big a deal as they traditionally have been within British culture?
Yes! PJs were all I wore during my childhood. When I grew up, I was so surprised that people slept in boxers or nothing at all. I loved my pyjamas and I still have sets of them at home, but nowadays I wear my AEANCE wool trousers and a cotton t-shirt to go to sleep.
Your S/S 17 collection reminded me a lot of Jan Brady in terms of personality and style (especially the famous round rimmed glasses on your models). What’s your fascination with the idea of the ‘nerdy girl’?
I think my fascination with the ‘nerdy girl’ is twofold. On one side, I really love the idea of embracing the qualities that are normally not very desirable or sexy. But in that confidence, there is an attractive quality that feels honest and authentic. I believe all of us are nerdy in some aspects. We have all experienced awkward situations and silly moments in our lives. I want to celebrate these moments and show that we are all connected, because they happen to each of us, even the cool kids.
Do you think an element of innocence is a crucial feature in your work?
Yes, innocence is very important to my collection, but it doesn’t necessarily imply a sense of inexperience or being unaware. Instead I think it has a lot to do with a committed faith in people. To me, innocence means joy, a purity and celebratory attitude that is important for someone to embrace if they want to be compassionate about their own quirky traits and attributes.
“I ALWAYS RELATED TO CHARACTERS IN STORIES THAT WERE OUTSIDERS OR GEEKS.”
You have told us before that the women you see wearing your collections must appreciate their own private time. This immediately brings to mind all of the girls who would turn down a night out drinking to stay in and read a book instead. Why is this time important?
Lately, I have been concentrating on the mental state achieved when living in a busy city like London, and I realized just how important these distractions are to everybody. The women I design for are quite quirky but still feminine. She should be almost an extension of that energy, an individual and confident in being alone. It’s about recognising how cute being awkward can be.
Did you find it was your ambitious drive that challenged your sleep schedule as a student, or instead the amount of work that needed to be completed?
Before I moved to London to study at CSM, I thought it was going to be a breeze as I already had completed a Bachelor’s degree in Commerce back in Vancouver. I thought art school would be easier, but in reality it was one of the toughest programs I’d ever experienced. I had never pulled an all-nighter before I moved to London. In the first year of studying, I think I got into the routine of pulling one or two all-nighters for every different project. I was so shocked at the idea that a creative project could never end if you don’t teach yourself how to stop working.
“I WAS SO SHOCKED AT THE IDEA THAT A CREATIVE PROJECT COULD NEVER END IF YOU DON’T TEACH YOURSELF HOW TO STOP WORKING.”
Since graduating, has this amount of work increased? I know you’ve been busy showcasing your work all over the world and winning awards in what seems like every single country. Do you make time for ‘you’ time?
My workload has definitely increased since graduating. But the last year or so has become better. I have a strong and fantastic team and I make better business decisions. So I can try to learn once again what it means to have time to myself. I am still figuring out what I am when I am not working, and try to play videogames and watch a ton of Netflix when I have time to relax.
In contrast to the chiffon layering of your Summertime designs, what materials do you resort to when producing for Winter?
Typically we use heavy materials, but because of the concept of this collection, we are using lighter fabrics that speak to a relaxed vibe. We have a lot of knits that we developed and manipulated ourselves, and digital-print silks. One of my favourite things about this collection is a collaboration that we did with an eight-year-old girl named Elfreda, who drew pictures of sloths that we then printed onto fabric, so we have a pyjama look based on that.
What keeps you awake at night?
Honestly, I usually pass out the minute I get into my bed unless I am thinking about the brand, the business, a garment or a set. I generally sleep for about 5 hours every night, going to bed around 4 or 5am and waking up for 10am. As my phone is also my alarm, I’m immediately back on it when I wake up. Sleep and time are both huge sacrifices in this industry, because it takes time to build a business and a lot of things can’t be rushed if you want to do it properly.