Charming, driven and funny – I spent an hour drinking coffee with fashion designer Bao Ta in the timelessly edgy Soho, London. He offers an intimate and inspiring insight into his journey to becoming a fashion designer of ‘accessible’ couture creating unique womenswear items.
So, lovely to meet you Bao Ta! You came from a family of dressmakers – did this have an impact on where you are today?
Well, I’ve always beaten my own drum. I don’t know how much you know about Asian culture but they either want you to be a doctor, pharmacist, lawyer or accountant. When I was fifteen I wanted to make my parents happy so I naturally went through the Science route, but I was so miserable! I wanted to please them but at the same time it wasn’t who I was. So I retook the whole year and started again doing Textiles. It was like night and day, I thrived there! The teacher at the time saw how passionate I was. My mum, being part of the Vietnamese culture, was very talented at hand embroidering so perhaps subconsciously, my love of designing was always there.
After your final year as a student at Westminster university, you gained sponsorship from Copenhagen Fur, how did that feel?
That was very exciting as they only sponsor two people per year from the whole of London! I was picked as well as another guy from the Royal College of Art. We were flown over to Coopenhagen and stayed in a beautiful, five star hotel and – being a student at the time – I thought it was amazing and felt very lucky. We were taken to various studios and shown how everything is done in the fashion industry. Seen as my colour palette was electric blue [at the time] I got to work with turquoise mink. Copenhagen Fur have actually sponsored me again for my upcoming collection [Autumn-Winter 2014.] They sent me six mink for it: three black and three burgandy so I am excited about that.
Let’s talk a bit about your work experience: what was it like working for Cynthia Rowley?
After my second year I wanted to do a year out. I’ve always loved New York so decided it’d be more interesting to find work there than in England. I then started researching designers and sent some of my stuff to Cynthia Rowley [American fashion designer] and they loved it! I thought I’d learn a lot under her. I probably shouldn’t say this – but it was a little like The Devil Wears Prada! She was a bit night and day to be honest. I worked with the production team where we got to see some designs after the catwalk show. We did some pattern cutting and re-did samples. I was lucky to learn so much – with Boudicca [Haute couture brand in London] I had to hand-sew buttons – I didn’t learn anything. The first day with Cynthia, they gave me a dress and asked me to redesign it and then put it through production. So I did the pattern cutting and changed the design and then showed it to my director who passed it to Cynthia – she liked it and put it in production! I mean, that level of responsibility you would never get over here. In America, I think as long as you back up with what you’ve got they will give you the chance. If you work really hard that is: no procrastinating or wasting time.
Your company then started in 2013 and was sponsored by The Princes Trust (a youth charity, http://www.princes-trust.org.uk/) – how did this happen?
Somebody told me about the enterprise so I got in touch with them – I told them my style was namely Luxury Womenswear, and luckily this was a new thing for them. At first they were weary as it costs so much to produce. There is a limited loan and grant, £4000, which is not very much in my area of expertise. There also is an intense training course where I was taken through every single thing: business aspects such as cash flow, taxes. It was a good way for them to sift people out as many were like: “this isn’t for me!” It was a good way to see who wants to be dedicated for the long run. After the course, they then find you a mentor similar to your industry. I had a lady called Loretta (who helped bring Estee Lauder over to England in the sixtees). She was great – I mean, I didn’t know how to do cash flow or a chart of my predictions and she supported me in all that. Other courses were about SEO and we even learnt how to talk and communicate with clients and create press packs. It was fantastic because all these courses were free as part of the enterprise. It took me about a year to get everything right and to create a business plan.
And how would you describe your items within the fashion industry?
I would say they are wearable, haute couture. They are unique, glamourous items for modern women.
What would you say is your speciality or unique selling point in the items you create?
Well, all my clothes are individually hand-made in London and this sets me apart from a lot of my competitors like [Alice] Temperley who, even though Luxury, has her garments made in China or India. I really wanted to bring back the English heritige, I felt it was important to channel that and get everything made in london. The reason why my brand is expensive is all down to the cut. My items are wearable but there is a visible hand finish. It is all to do with how the final product comes together.
Your clothes are made from fabric that is sourced world-wide – where do you get it from exactly?
I try to go through a lot of British suppliers – but sometimes you can’t. New York has a massive fashion district compared to London, I mean –there are whole streets dedicated to buttons! When I lived in New York I was so amazed by it. In London, it’s a bit more limited, there are areas like Shepherds Bush and Berwick Street [Soho]that are expensive. I worked with Première Vision where there are six halls – tailoring, seduction, technology, sportswear: it caters for everyone. Most of my fabrics are French and Italian and famous for their impeccable standards. This sets me apart from competitors like Temperley.
Who would be your ideal woman to dress?
I love Keira Knightly! I think she is so classic but has that edge because she is so young and elegant. She adopts two worlds – she can go for something casual to something glamourous in an instant – she’s a real chameleon.
Do you think the women in your life have influenced your desire to create beautiful, modern dresses?
Well, I love dressing a woman who is comfortable in her body but at the same time who isn’t shy of showing it off at the right place and at the right time. In terms of my family, my grandmother died when my mother was sixteen and was left to look after her sister. My mother has worked hard all her life so I’ve seen how strong and how resilient to life she is. I think that reflects in my designs. I want to dress women who reflect those values.
If you had to chose a signature item, what would that be?
For me, I would say the pleats are my signature. I haven’t seen anyone do pleats like that. It is all about the manual labour and the intensive prep work.
Would you ever break out to accessories?
Perhaps later on. The thing is at the beginning you have to focus on what you are good at. You need to focus on what your unique selling point and start branching out after – you don’t want to be jack of all trades. You’ll get that trust later on. For example, on the course [at Westminster university] there were lots of girls wanting to do fashion. This one girl wanted to mix men’s tailoring with streetwear womenswear and I am thinking – they are completely different, the two can’t be combined together! It is important to specialise and move forward in one area at first.
Would you ever be interested in applying your skills to menswear?
It doesn’t really interest me, no. I would feel restricted working solely with menswear because everything is too particular and too precise. Womenswear is fluid and changes all the time.
Can you explain to me your most disappointing and exciting moment of being a fashion designer so far?
Two years ago I planned to start out my own company with a friend. On the day we were going to get our investment, she let me down. That was during a time when everything was difficult so I would say that was my biggest disappointment. But I believe that everything happens for a reason and it made me push even more without necessarily relying on other people.
An exciting moment however…looking back, it must have been during my final year [at university] in front of the panel of judges (including the editor from Elle) where we had to show seven pieces of our collection that we wanted to appear on the graduate catwalk show (they don’t pick all final year students!) I was accepted on this show and at the end only three out of seventeen of us got press (I was on of the three!) So I got a fantastic comments from the Evening Standard. Also, seeing a celebrity [actress Jodie Whittaker] wearing your clothes is very exciting.
Do you have any advice for aspiring young designers?
I think it is so important to have hunger and determination. A friend of mine (who also models for my clothes) has that hunger – we push each other. I believe in hard work. I think you have to follow your heart and follow what makes you happy. At the end of the day it is your life and you have to stick with that life. If you are passionate about something, go for it and persevere! It will pay off
Keep an eye on Bao Ta’s exciting progress via his website http://www.atelierbaota.com/ and follow him here on Twitter: @baotaLondon. He has recently reached his target via Kickstarter and is on track to finish a sensual and modern Autumn-Winter 2014 collection. You can also see him at the Oxford Fashion Week starting on 10th March 2014.
This first appeared in Vulture Hound Magazine at www.VHmag.com