The 26 year old designer and Bayside Queens native is best known for her outerwear silhouettes that meet at the crossroads of fuzzy pastels and posh, streetwear motifs. Sandy’s approach to design is deeply personal. Drawing inspiration from the quiet places where childhood nostalgia lingers and the Chinatown grandmas flashing counterfeit Vuitton on Canal street, her label’s vitality has become parallel to her own.
Her love for fashion began with grade school and the Gap jeans she could never wear because her mom wouldn’t buy them for her. The daughter of immigrants, Sandy grew up in Congee Village, her parent’s restaurant in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Congee Village served up its own namesake amidst fake bamboo decor under a rosy glow courtesy of the carefully curated, neon, lights. For Sandy growing up in America meant doing something legit; becoming a doctor or lawyer -- something with security to assuage the blue-collar sacrifices made by those who paved the way. Yet Sandy struck an early penchant for drawing, taking her brother’s old notebooks and plastering them with stage outfits designed for Destiny's Child and Britney, betch.
As is the case for many first-gens, it took Sandy walking out on her dream to figure out that that’s what she was doing. Three years later, she has defined a cathartic relationship to her clothes by making sense of and immortalizing her quotidian experiences through cotton and leather. We chatted with her at Dimes Deli on a Summer night to better understand her unique design process and her love for Chinatown grandmas.
I know what you mean by the whole post-grad high thing. We’re told we’re going to do all these great things after graduation but it’s like how do we even begin? What tools do we really have at our disposal at that point in our lives other than that belief in ourselves?
When you don’t know how hard it’s going to be, nothing’s really stopping you. Not knowing all the roadblocks that I would eventually hit was really great because people ask me if I had known it was going to be so hard, would I have done it? I’m like, “oh my god, of course not.” I had shingles in January because I was so stressed out, but I mean it’s worth it, I get to go to work happy everyday and I’m sure you do too, most creative people get to do that. There are a lot of downsides to it too and because I own my business, I’m worried about it all the time and if the brands not doing well, I feel like I’m not doing well as a person. I wish I could disconnect the two but it’s not possible, I just care about it so much more.
Reflecting on it now, when you said, you could taste your brand, what did it taste like? There’s always this constant battle between idealism and reality and you really managed to fuse the two in building your label.
It all started with me wanting it first, I think a lot of people don’t even love themselves enough to dream that big. I remember talking to my brother one day after class at Parsons and I was having a really hard time and he was visiting from his school in Boston. I was crying and really upset, voicing that I felt like I would never have my own brand. He was like, “first of all, if you say you can’t do it, you’ll never get there. Who do you think is going to do it for you? You have to believe in yourself so much to the point where you’re insane and not making any sense, just believe in yourself. You have to visualize yourself there already.” That was the starting point for me. No one else was going to see this through except for me. I was my biggest fan everyday.
After graduating, all my friends from high school were getting legit internships or jobs in finance. Even my Parsons friends were getting real jobs at big, corporate companies and I was trying to start my own thing and it was very hard to go out and see my friends when they’re like, “I just got this offer, I finally got this internship, what’re you up to?” I’m like, “I’m trying to start my own brand.” Obviously it just sounds so shitty. It’s like, “your dad has money and you like nice clothes so you’re trying to start your own brand? Okay, good luck with that.” I didn’t want to talk about it but at the same time, that’s what I was doing.
Seriously! It’s alienating and it’s funny because nowadays everyone is a self-starter, everyone is their own influencer. But on the flip side, you’re alone until your peers or the Internet deems what you’re doing to be legitimate.
Or there’s no longevity behind it, right.
It’s interesting you say “longevity” because I feel like that’s somewhat in opposition to the theme of youth you were just speaking to, being a young designer. Being young kind of infers that you can fuck up, change your mind, lose and find yourself and still end up okay. How did you know that what you were pursuing was something that would last?
When I was at Parsons I remember being at presentations and really respecting what my peers were doing but I would never wear that, and I don’t know who would. I’ve always been very practical about what I do. That was my mindset from the get-go and I think a lot of that had to do with my dad, he’s so business oriented that it’s not just doing what you love, it’s this question of whether you can feed yourself and your kids.
Interestingly, there’s always this tension between fashion-as-art and fashion-as-fashion. Can you speak to this tension?
I think it’s all relative, it’s whatever you think. I think fashion is beautiful and it’s great that it gets all this attention, but for me, it’s hard because it’s my business, it’s my life and everything now, and it envelops me totally.
Do you feel like you’re creating art when you’re designing?
That’s a tricky question. No, I don’t think I feel that way because I’m making clothes that I want to wear, there’s nothing else behind it. I like clothes, I’m making things that make me happy that hopefully make other people happy too and that’s really it. It’s so simple and I wish there was more behind it but as shallow as that sounds, that’s what it is.
So where does the beauty of the process live for you?
I think it’s beautiful in the way that I’m approaching it. Again, going back to Parsons, I always thought it was weird that people would be like, “this is my collection and I was inspired by this building or this piece of art.” I was like, “I can’t be inspired by something that’s dead.” That piece of art isn’t alive and you haven’t experienced anything with it.
Everything I make is so personal to me. I don’t work with a team of designers, I design everything myself and everything goes back to my childhood or the neighborhood that I live in.
Every season at my presentations I always have journalists asking me what the inspiration was behind the collection and literally, the week before I have to make something up. There’s no inspiration. The street is my inspiration, my dad is my inspiration, the restaurant is my inspiration, it’s just life, it’s what I encounter. It’s light and people often times put such a weight on fashion and at the end of the day, these people are just trying to make money and make it happen and they’re making cool things while they’re doing it.
You were talking about being inspired by your neighborhood and I mean just looking around right now and thinking about growing up here, I can’t even imagine that. Whenever I see little kids on the street I’m like, “what is your world?!”
Yes! When I was trying to figure out what my senior thesis collection would be I was like, fuck, I can’t tell anyone what I’m actually inspired by because they’re going to think I'm a whacko. I actually was just inspired by my grandma. My grandma is my favorite person in this world and I feel like in a lot of Asian families a lot of the grandparents raise the kids while the parents are going to work. She’s my paw-paw and she lives around here so she’s probably around right now. [laughs]
I was really into Chinatown grandmas and the very particular silhouette of their pants. Literally everyone is wearing them right now, but it’s boxy, cropped and crazy florals with a mismatched top, with a book bag or a visor. I was taking photos of them secretly and that was my moodboard for my senior year thesis. I found them really beautiful because everyone in New York and downtown is trying to be cool all the time but Chinatown grandma’s are the ones who legit don’t care about what they look like, they just want to pick their kids up from school and buy groceries for dinner. I was also really inspired by aprons because of my dad’s restaurant and the workers smoking out back and all the little, nostalgic things that I would encounter. It’s all these things that make me really happy and in a way it’s very selfish because I’m referring back to myself but what else am I supposed to care about?
But I also feel like it’s very cathartic to be able to translate all these things that you so love into something physical and wearable and to be able to see other people wearing your stuff too.
Oh my god yeah, that’s why I deal with all the bullshit of taxes and all that other stuff, it makes me so happy. It’s almost like a little joke I share with myself because all this stuff that might mean so much is really just me being like well, I really like that episode of Hey Arnold when he did that thing and that’s what that top means for me.
Yeah and the process must just be very surreal, like when you finally have your first press day or Vogue feature, tell us about the magic.
The magic for me is extra magical because I don’t have a PR team that works with me year round. I have a PR team during the presentations but they just handle the guest list you know and are front of house. The magic is so good because you know that it’s all happening organically and if that press is there, you deserve it because it’s not like you pitched to them or whatever. It just happened because someone appreciates the clothes and gets the clothes. I always want the clothes to speak for themselves. I’m not the face of my brand, you don’t see me Instagramming myself and promoting myself because I could care less.
I always think about that Britney Spears quote about how the first time she heard her own song playing on the radio she was going ape shit and that happened to me not too long ago. There was this girl walking down Grand Street towards Chinatown and she was wearing my fleece. I only saw the back of her but I flipped a shit and was like, “oh my god! She’s not even my friend, I didn’t even sell it to her at wholesale, she bought that shit retail off of some online store!” It made me so happy. [laughs]
When you say, “get the clothes,” what exactly do you mean by that?
Think about it, there’s literally a new brand every week and shopping is so accessible that you could buy anything, anytime. My brand’s not a big brand, a lot of people don’t know about my brand and so that means if you bought something of mine, you’re not buying it because it has a big, Gucci logo, you’re buying it because you like that item for whatever reason.
With the constant influence of social media, how do clothes help you to define your own individuality?
I mean I think clothes really contribute to that. Every piece of clothing on your back is a conscious choice even if it’s just a t-shirt or pair of jeans and maybe that’s why fashion is something that’s timeless, you always want something and people always feel emotions when they see something in the store because they’re always trying to identify themselves through these clothes. I think it’s hard when there is so much of everything, and Instagram and social media on top of that. I really don’t love Instagram and it really bothers me when people just sit at a cafe and scroll endlessly. I mean I’m guilty of it too sometimes but I really try not to do that because too much exposure means you can’t think clearly.
Anything unexpected that you’ve run into being in the fashion industry so far?
The first time I showed in Paris I got my period on my flight home and I was stuck in a middle seat. I tapped the lady next to me and was like, “hey, do you mind if we switch seats, I’m going to be bothering you all throughout the flight because I’m going to have to go to the bathroom.” She was like, “are you sick?” I’m like, “I have my period.” She’s like, “don’t worry, I’ll just get up. Were you here for fashion?” I whipped out my lookbook of my first season ever and she was like, “wow, looks really cool, I’m going to connect you with my friend.
Her friend ends up being this amazing woman who worked in PR and was so wonderful and meets me at my studio and is like, “wow, I really believe in this.” She brings me to Barney’s because she’s friends with the buyer and I get my entire collection there and then after that, she connected me to her friend, Christine, because I was having a hard time running the business and all my money was going down the drain. Christine, is now my mentor, she’s my life and everything.
It’s just like wow, all this happened just because this one woman saw my clothes on my flight back? I only ever just made the clothes and was a nice person about it and then all these people helped me, I’m forever grateful.
That really sounds like a classic, New York story. Everyone always says as long as you’re a good person, you’re passionate and you work hard, something will happen for you.
I think people can see it. I can see it in other people too and it’s been so, so good. I was so surprised by that and so happy but I still feel like I’m trying to break in.
Where do you want the brand to be or end up?
It’s not like my goals are aligned with the goals of other brands that have multiple investors and whatever. I’m learning so much more about the brand itself as I’m designing each collection and I just want to keep doing that.
It’s cool that you say that because the brand is really aging with you, it’s growing with you, it’s like a living thing almost.
Yes! Because as I’ve told you, I’m designing what I want to wear. Yet when I look at my old collections, I don’t want to wear that stuff anymore even though I really wanted to wear it at the time, so it’s like, what am I going to want to wear next season? It’s cool because I was talking to Michelle, who I work with about this, when I’m 40 the clothes are going to be for 40 year olds and it’s not going to be about this downtown, cool-girl scene. It’s going to be about me being a mom or something.
That’s the beauty of it though.
Yeah it’s not like any other brand.