bei kuo, fashion designer & muse
B: I’ve never done this before!
L: Oh my god! I was reading some stuff about you before chatting, so you grew up in Taiwan! If you could just talk about your childhood a little and kind of give us your story thus far?
B: I grew up in Taiwan my entire life and I come from a small town in the middle of Taiwan and there’s nothing happening there. I discovered and got into design, not necessarily fashion, but design in general when I was in high school so I applied for design school in Taiwan. It was one of the best design schools/colleges there. I got in and moved to Taipei, which is the capital of Taiwan and went there for fashion design. I also applied for graphic design but didn’t get in. I studied there for four years and then I graduated from school and started working for my friends who started their own label. There’s a lot of independent designers in Taiwan but the market there is so small and there’s virtually no fashion there. There’s Taiwan Fashion Week, but nothing can compare to New York or Tokyo or wherever else. It was depressing there because you’re trying so hard and your work, it’s good, but no one really knows you, you’re not earning any money. I kind of always knew that I would have to move to New York or London. A lot of people from my school, they actually went to school in London for their Master’s degree. I chose New York because the working visa situation is very friendly for international people. After you graduate from school, you can get a year long working visa. I know that I want to stay and work abroad, I don’t wanna move back to Taiwan so that’s kind of why I chose New York. I applied for the MA program at Parson’s and I got in. Moved to New York for school and Parson’s was really, really hard haha. I was in college for four years already and I thought that was difficult but Parson’s is unimaginable. I can’t even think of everything I did at Parson’s, it’s crazy. For my thesis collection, not all students can show their collection but I got selected to show mine. It was with New York Fashion Week and the show was at Milk Studios. A lot of press got to see my work and it was on style.com. After that, even though I got a lot of press and was in contact with a lot of magazines, I didn’t necessarily get a job offer and I’m not from a wealthy family, I don’t have money to just start a label right away, it’s just not possible. It’s been really hard after I graduated, I tried to do a lot of freelance works and ended up working for a really, really small streetwear label and I hated it there haha. They’re one of those hype, streetwear labels, they’re doing things for hype. All they do there is like find a jacket on the internet and then put their label on the jacket, do some small changes and send it to China and they’ll make it. There’s no design process or anything so I have no respect for them. I actually felt I was way better than them in terms of design so I hated it there and I left. It’s just one of those things that it was a job that actually paid me. I started dating my boyfriend and we somehow moved into one of his friend’s apartment where we don’t have to pay rent. If you don’t have to pay rent in New York, you save a lot of money. We lived there for a year and I saved up so much and I quit the job and was like, I want to do something that is manageable, money wise, and production wise and things that I can do in my own space and studio. I was really obsessed with lingerie. I’m really into environmental issues and I see that there are a lot of organic lingerie companies using organic fabrics and are super-eco friendly but it’s kind of boring, it’s pretty and girly but it’s nothing cool or edgy. I want to do something that’s really weird and kinky but also really concerned with the environment so that’s how I came up with my line, The End Lingerie, it just launched this year. I use organic fabric and try to produce it myself and make it eco-friendly. It’s not 100% eco-friendly, it’s difficult to do that but I’m trying to make it more environmentally friendly but yeah, I think that’s it.
L: All that is amazing! Backing it up, when you first realized you would have to leave home in Taiwan, was that a sad moment for you? Is your family all back in Taiwan?
B: My sister moved to New York one year after me but basically all my family is in Taiwan. No one’s abroad. I haven't been home for two years, it is difficult. My family is an Asian family and Asian’s don’t really say, I love you or hug each other, we don’t express our love and stuff. I definitely miss my mom and dad a lot, sometimes I just wanna talk to them and see them but it’s so far away. It’s definitely hard but I’m very happy my sister is here and she just got her working visa as well so at least I have her here.
L: Going back to everything to do with Parson’s, I saw your collection, "Tomorrow is the End of the World", online! When you got all the press and you weren’t handed a job off the bat which you know, isn’t so far-fetched at all, how did you deal with the reality of having to freelance despite being dubbed a “successful” designer?
B: I always know that being famous doesn’t necessarily bring you money. There are so many people in New York who are shooting covers for let’s say, Nylon or i-D or WWD, all of those people are struggling, they’re living in Bushwick which was a deep part of Brooklyn and no one had money, everyone is sort of famous on the internet, which is so stupid. It is depressing, after I graduated, I forgot this part, after I graduated from Parson’s, I started interning at Nicopanda, the designer, Nicola Formichetti, who was the stylist for Lady Gaga and creative director for Diesel and Mugler. They have money, they have tons of money but they’re really cheap and don’t want to pay people. They wanted to keep me because I was working for them for free and they kept saying that they really want to hire me but it never happened and all the other fashion companies are like that. After that internship, I was like, this is fucked up, this is bullshit, this company has tons of money and they’re not even willing to pay someone that works from 9am till 2am. It’s just not fair. I was really depressed, I kind of was like, I don’t want to deal with this shit. I don’t feel like I’ll be able to go back and work for another fashion company because it’s like, why am I dealing with this when I know I can do so much and they treat me badly. There are people who are doing nothing in the company but got paid cause they know how to bullshit and suck someone’s dick. I don’t understand the fashion industry at all, people work so hard and no one gets paid and people are doing nothing, showing off, but they get paid.
L: Yeah it’s all about politics in a weird way which is kind of the worst thing about it because it doesn’t have to do with talent or whatever. There are so many young creatives saying exactly what you’re saying, fuck it, we’re gonna do it on our way and you’re a part of that movement. In general, what do you think are some of the biggest changes that need to be made in the fashion industry?
B: I think there a lot of issues in the fashion industry. The first thing that I’m really concerned about is the entire fast fashion, it’s such a waste. Fast fashion makes a customer think that a garment should be $5 but it’s not. They’re paying all these factory workers in China or India, zero dollars and they’re in really bad working environments. The customers never see what’s behind the $5 garment. They gets used to paying the cheapest price but it’s not! Just pay people! The fashion companies have money but they’re not willing to pay someone that works for them so hard and I don’t know. It’s difficult to change. The fashion calendar is also stupid. A fashion label have to release, if they’re doing menswear and womenswear, they have to release like eight collections a year and it’s a lot. You need time to process it. You need time to produce it, it takes time and money. Imagine a designer having to design eight collections a year? That’s crazy. No wonder all these designers have depression or left the company because they can’t do it at all. I think the entire fashion calendar needs to be changed, the system is wrong, it’s too intense. Do people need that many fashion weeks a year? It’s sick.
L: For majority of people working in fashion, the designers or people who are making and thinking about the garments, it’s more about the concept, the theme, the message they’re communicating through clothing but that message doesn’t always translate to the consumer. Consumerism and the communication of a message don’t really go together, they don’t mesh well.
B: At Parsons they teaches you that the concept is the most important thing, that’s your fundamental, that’s the most important part of your collection. But, when it comes to the buyer or the client, no one sees the process, no one gives a shit! Like why would you spend so much time developing a collection when no one cares, the buyer only sees the price. At our end, we see the ideas and we don’t really see money. I feel like fashion school does need to change in a way because they didn’t teach us business, how to do PR and marketing.
L: Yeah things you actually need to make it as a designer.
B: Yeah school thinks you don’t really need to learn that because if you have your own label, there will be someone else to help you but if you just started, you have no money, you have to do everything yourself. It’s not like everyone is going to think you’re super talented and want to help you. Fashion school is kind of behind in a way, they don’t see how important it is for students to learn those basic business skills. They should provide it in their classes.
L: Yeah I mean for them to say, oh no, you’ll have someone do it for you, that really echoes that same privilege that everyone talks about all the time. Not everyone who goes to fashion school is related to someone who works at Louis Vuitton and can get a job right off the bat. So much of the time we think of fashion as such a high end thing but majority of the people who are interested in it or want a career in it are average joes.
B: Yeah if you go to the sample house in Times Square, and you walk in, there are 20 Asian ladies just sitting in front of sewing machines, it is not fancy at all, they’re actual people who actually produce those fancy ass garments. Those Asian ladies are sewing for maybe Alexander Wang’s garments or Phillip Lim stuff, no one ever sees that side of fashion. It’s such an interesting view every time I visit the sample house, I know what they’re sewing and at the same time they’re talking to me in Mandarin and it’s so unreal. Fashion is so fake in a way, I don’t know, it’s sad.
L: Yeah I was reading something about your collection for Parsons online and how you were saying a lot of it was based around your emotions/experiences etc. You mentioned that there were some things you didn’t want to talk about. When you were designing, what were those things and what were the emotions you were feeling?
B: For me, my collections are always based on my experiences or my feelings. A lot of the time my concepts are too abstract or emotional and it’s really difficult for me to transfer it into garments. My thesis collection, I started with performance art and it’s evolved into garments, which were for another school project and it’s something I thought I would never tell anyone. I don’t know why I chose that topic, to put it out there and everyone can see it but I still don’t want to talk about it in a way haha. It’s just something from my past that I had a really bad relationship with my family — well, it’s actually they don’t understand me in a way, it’s not that I did something bad. They’re really traditional and they don’t usually know things that I did. It’s not like I did something wrong or bad, I’m still me but they can’t accept the fact that I’m doing this. There were some really big arguments when that happened and I was running away from home for months, I was only 14 or 16. They made me go to therapy and cure it, like no, that’s not how it works, it’s not something you cure, it’s not a sickness. But anyway, that’s kind of what happened, I don’t really know why I used this experience for my thesis collection but it affected me a lot.
L: That’s also maybe why your collection was so well liked by such a wide audience though. Because I feel like people can feel and understand when you put your soul into something, fashion being connected to art, that’s always well translated. How are race and culture intertwined into your identity?
B: Actually after moving to New York, well of course, it’s such a culture shock and my English wasn’t that good when I moved here but I would say, after moving, I’ve become more Asian in a way, I took more of a liking to my own culture. I express to people that I’m from my Taiwan, this is my culture but in Taiwan I don’t that at all, now I’m proud of it. My boyfriend is white and the other day I was telling him that I just ate some chicken feet and he was like, oh you’re so gross but I enjoy the fact that people think our culture is weird or gross because I feel like they’re missing out a lot. Living in New York, we got so many people that aren’t American, I don’t really feel like an outsider or that I don’t belong. Especially the fact that everyone is not American, my boyfriend is but all my friends are from somewhere else. I think New York is special, it’s different than other part of US. After Trump became president, people said they got bullied in other states, a Muslim woman got bullied somewhere, but I could never imagine that happening in New York, I feel really safe here because there are so many cultures coexisting around you and you don’t see differences, you don’t see different colors, you don’t see different people, I feel we’re all the same even though we come from different countries and speak different languages.
L: That’s so beautiful! That’s always been the thing New York prides itself on, it’s a home for people who don’t always have a home is what one of my teachers told me in school there. Can you talk about your first impressions of the place though? The struggle of getting used to such a massive city.
B: Yeah! You’ve been to New York right?
L: Yeah I went to NYU! I miss it a lot.
B: When I first moved here, I didn’t know anyone so I found myself an AirBnB in Brooklyn in a really ghetto area. It was in Utica, which four years ago it was really bad, no white people, I am the only Asian girls who lived there. I remember the first day I arrived, other guests who also lived there asked me, do you know this area well? I was like, no, I don’t know anything. They told me, it’s not that safe, you better be careful. They were actually going out and they offered to show me around and took me to the train station. They told me that I better go home before sunset otherwise it would be really dangerous or I’d have to ask the host to pick me up from the Subway station. I was so scared! I had to make my host pick me up everytime after dark, it was embarrassing. I stayed there for two weeks and found another place to sublet in Queens. It was difficult and my English wasn't good at all. I was those typical, Asian girl, I was shy. In Asian cultures you don’t really express yourself, you don’t express your opinion, people are quiet but at Parson’s you have to do presentations to your professor every single day, talk about your ideas, the design process, and self express. For me, my self expression is through personal style, not necessarily using language. I dress up and wear things that make me feel comfortable to get people’s attention. Parson’s trained me a lot and taught me how to be social in a way because back in Taiwan, you don’t get a chance to learn that, the education system is fucked up, you don’t have time to hang out with people or time for yourself. At Parson’s, I would make videos for my presentations at first because I couldn't really speak properly. I’d put a bunch of images together and showcase my vision for things instead of talking about it. Luckily, our understood that struggle of a language barrier so they would try give us time and understand what we wanted to say so that helped a lot. I was the only student from Taiwan and I don’t want to hang out with any Chinese cause I knew I had to push myself and hang out with people who didn’t speak Chinese to me so I forced myself to hang out with non-Chinese speakers and now, I’m speaking to you totally in English. Every time I think about it, I’m proud of myself!
L: Talking about social media and how that’s a part of your self expression too in a way, at least that’s what it seems like; so what role does social media play in your life?
B: Right now or since I decided to launch my label, I have to build up an image. If you look back on my personal account, I only really started trying at the beginning of this year and I wasn’t doing anything before that. Now it’s a part of my life, I spend time thinking about a post or what picture I’m gonna post, or even coordinating photoshoots for the label and for myself. Social media and Instagram, it’s good, it’s weird, I met so many good people through Instagram. In real life, we hang out and become friends. It’s amazing because when I grew up I didn’t have the Internet and now it’s everywhere. I understand life without the craziness of the Internet, I’m in between. So for me, it’s weird and amazing how Internet changes things. I had this girl attack me on Instagram and some of my followers were defending me. It’s amazing to watch people support each other but also it’s sad that people can anonymously shit talk you because they don’t have to show their faces. But I feel very lucky that I got people showing me so much loves.
L: What you were saying too about launching your label, doing a lingerie label coming from a background that is influenced by “Asian culture” or upbringing, what’s that been like, for your parents, for yourself? It’s so important to subvert all these stereotypes.
B: I mean I don’t know how much my parents know about what I’m doing. I showed them the website and my mom tried to friend me on Facebook and I was like, no mom, don’t do that! There are definitely things that I don't want my parents to see but I’m friends with my relatives on Facebook and they will show things to my mom and it really upset me because I just want to hide it away from my parents! There are pictures that they’re not gonna be happy with haha I have all these tattoos and my parents only know about one and they didn’t say anything. I hope they never find out haha.
L: Haha I have had tattoos since high school that my family doesn’t know about, mainly my grandma though. I see her very often now that I’m home and she hasn’t seen my arms in five years haha.
B: Yeah because you know they’ll be upset and it’s easier to keep it away from them.
L: How did you arrive at the decision to start your own label?
B: The moment was right, I mentioned that I was living at my friend’s place without paying any rent for a year so I had some savings. My friend’s place is huge, I even set up a studio at the apartment and everything just felt like the right timing to do it. Working for other people is bullshit. I’m not one of those people who talk about things and never do them, it’s so stupid. I talk about it and I do it. I haven’t earned enough money from it to support myself, I still need to do some freelance jobs or do some modeling here and there to make more money to put into my label. It’s doing good I would say, I had a wholesale order with Dolls Kill but need to find more buyers. And the label was even on Nylon and other magazines. It feels good. I just need more time, it’s still a baby so I can’t expect it to be profitable right away.
L: Yeah so much of what goes into lingerie and designing it seems like it’s very intertwined with a sense of self confidence, being comfortable with your body, being vulnerable. Can you talk about sexuality a bit?
B: For me, for some reason I feel really comfortable being naked, I don’t see it as sexual, it can be, I don't mind. I sometimes feel people think sex is wrong or evil or dirty or something you shouldn’t talk about it in public, which is weird to me because everyone does it and why is it so bad to talk about? It’s weird because in my culture everything about sexuality is so behind. I don’t really know how I turned out to be like this. Growing up in Taiwan, I’m not a typical, Asian pretty girl, no one thinks I’m pretty back home but I’m kind of like whatever. I never wanted to fit in in any sort of cultural expectation or rules, I never wanted to do what others are doing. I was always doing my own thing but still sometimes, I got upset because people never understood me or they tried to talk down to me but those are the moments you will have as a girl. New York definitely makes me feel more confident and makes me feel I’m truly myself as a girl. Dating culture here helps me a lot, I know it’s weird cause dating in New York sucks but once you realized that you don’t want to commit to anyone and just wanna enjoy the moment, dating can be really fun. And why can only guys do that and girls can’t? That’s kind of how I became more open minded in terms of my sexuality and my view of my own body. I started dating multiple people. I became more comfortable with my own skin and don’t see sex as wrong thing. I still don’t understand why Instagram has to delete nipple pictures or accounts get deleted because of nude bodies. If you talk about it and you show it to everyone one, it’s going to be normal, it’ll be accepted, you have to expose people to it, everyone, everyday. It’s like marijuana, everyone is smoking it, everyone is talking about it, it’s going to be legal one day.
L: Yeah it’s empowering in a way if society can accept their own selves. How important is self-love to you?
B: Some of my girl friends got so miserable because of their relationship with guys but I’ve never been like that. I know if I’m not happy with something or I’m not satisfied in a relationship, I would end it. I want to be happy and if you feel like you are stuck, there’s always something you can do. I treat people right and if they don’t do the same, fuck you. Everyone deserves happiness. I think loving yourself is the most important thing before you start loving someone else.
L: That’s the most empowering thing for yourself, it allows you to achieve your full potential. What does empowerment mean to you?
B: I think it means loving yourself. If you love yourself, you don’t need a guy or someone else to love you because you know you’re loved. If you have a passion for something, that’s all you need to focus on.