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Vivienne Tam Talkasia Transcript

LH: Lorraine Hahn
VT: Vivienne Tam


LH: Hello and welcome to Talk Asia. I'm Lorraine Hahn. My guest today is fashion designer Vivienne Tam. Born in China, Vivienne moved to Hong Kong when she was about three years old, and her early years in the former British colony provided the basis of what would later be her signature- east meets west style. She sold her first designs out of a duffel bag to American department store Henry Bendel in 1983. But it was her controversial MAO collection, featuring images of the late Chinese leader that catapulted Vivienne to international superstardom a decade later. She continues to impress the fashion world and her clothes are now coveted by celebrities and fashionable women alike. Vivienne, it's good to see you. Thank you very much for spending a bit of time with us here. You have spent, you in fact are spending a lot more time here in Asia, in Hong Kong in particular. Is this maybe a shift of focus for you back to this part of the world?

VT: I always come back here for my inspiration. I loved Hong Kong, because I grew up here. Without Hong Kong, I cannot be who I am, at this, I mean, who I am and I loved Hong Kong you know, I love Sham Shui Po area, especially because all the amazing trims you see every trims are there, and fabrics you know, I can see it you know, every season I collect big bags of fabrics and trims you know and for each collections. And then to Sham Shui Po area, no, to Sheung Wan, to like meeting my friends and seeing like great movies and like new developments and new, new shops, and new cafes and it's so exciting.

LH: You grew up in Hong Kong, but you only really got international fame after you left when you went to the United States. Is it sort of international fame before local popularity?

VT: At that time when I left, you know, I realized, I mean I grew up here. I always shopped in those Chinese department stores, I loved Chinese products. And I was always thinking about how to really change them and transform them into something fashionable and not like those gift items for a lot of you know, foreigners. I thought this was so beautiful, all those craftsmanship. And also I learnt about the Chinese History and literature and I feel there's so much, you know, I mean, it's an amazing culture. But everybody looking forward to only the foreign brand, only love foreign brand. I wanted to develop like, why not look into our culture, develop our own brand. And I love the culture, you know, and I love you know, I mean the feeling of the Chineseness. I want to do my own designs. Therefore, you see my designs are with the Asian, like with the Chinese history and cultures and all. That's how I developed and there's no chance for me to develop here, that's why I moved to New York.

LH: Myself like many people, really got to know your name and your clothes by the very strong motifs, two in particular. The Mao and the Buddha motifs, why did you decide to use these two motifs?

VT: You know, I think it's ten years ago, that's '95 my collection, that's my Mao collection. At that time, China is growing so rapidly, very speedy. And I can see that, those changes, and when I went to Shanghai and Beijing, every part, everywhere you see Mao images, as like a lucky charm. He became God to everybody, and I saw the artists too, using Mao images in their work. And then I met, I was introduced by my friend Danni Yung to one of the artist called Zha Hung Chu and I love his work, you know, the Mao images. And I thinking suddenly I have this idea, why not bring his image into fashion, into clothing. And then I worked with him in New York. He was placed in New York at that time, and I worked with him for six months, developing images, and then to really be able to work in a clothing, in a fashion manner. The colours, and the feeling of the images.

LH: And you didn't feel that Mao would be controversial?

VT: No, at that time I feel that I wanted to let the people thinking about Mao is about representing China. He is such a strong icon, and I want to soften up his image. Because he's such a serious, and people like making fun of him, you see the artists, and I think that by putting him into clothing, and let more people learn more about him in the Western World, and then soften his image and also letting people know that China is more open up also. It's just that kind of feeling that I love to do, and of' course during that collection, I've gone through a lot of struggles with the manufacturing here, the sampling factories, the printers. And it's because of that I'm learning a lot about the restrictions and freedoms.

LH: What do you mean struggles? They didn't want to print it?

They are afraid of 1997, they're real scared about, that they will get...I mean, all sort of problems they don't want to deal with. They don't know what's in the future, even in Hong Kong too. And I realized that Hong Kong is really not that free. I mean, there's a lot of. It's very difficult for me to, certain things I can't talk about. I mean, we even have to wrap the paper after printing; we bring it to the factory. We don't want people to see it, they don't want to, people have this kind of angriness towards the image.

LH: Yes, that's right. Some people do not like Mao.

VT: It's quite interesting for me. Some stores, they were very excited when the buyers were very excited. Even magazines burrowed the samples for the cover, issue and all that. And then like, finally they had to drop it because of a political issue. And sometime you know, even for windows display, they were supposed to promise me for window display, for department stores, and at end, they had to drop it because of the political situation at that time. And it's quite interesting for me to learn about all that. But anyway, Hong Kong you know, because I have other stores, I am able to showcase all of the images altogether in the windows display. And wow, people are knocking on the door, the sales girl was so scared. Vivienne, what should we do about it? All these lot of angry people knocking on the door slam on the windows.

LH: What about Buddha? Did you have the same problems?

Buddha, we have minor problems. But Mao is a serious problem. But anyway, later on, you know, a lot of copies. Counterfeit. And it was a big success. A lot of copies selling everywhere in Hong Kong.

LH: We spoke very briefly about China, and the fact that you were opening stores there, you're going back to China and seeing how much the place has changed. But Chinese people now are also embracing your designs, and your fashion concepts. Why do you think this is? Is there such a huge change in China?

VT: I think you know as I talked about China is changing so much recently, and socially and economically, it's so successful. And I want to be part of it. It's so exciting moment at this time. So exciting, so innovative. And I want to build that link, you know, with the culture, bringing the rich, the old history that's already passed, and to bring in the new developments. I want you to know if you look into my new collection, there's a lot of thinking about the past, I go to visit all the different places, let's say minority Chinese places like Yunan, or I'm thinking about Duongwang all the time. I want to think about the right timing for doing the Duongwang collections and Mongolian collections. Their dress is a part of their lifestyle. It's not just a product. I would love to learn about how they wearing it, why they wearing it, why they're using this colour. And then I how I'm going to transform for a modern way, because when I do my designs, I'm always thinking about offering modern, the modernity for, in my clothes.

LH: Vivienne, we're going to take a very very short break. When we come back, we'll ask Vivienne about sourcing her fabrics, and more about the inspiration behind her designs. Stay with us.


LH: Welcome back to Talk Asia. My guest is Vivienne Tam. Vivienne, we talked a bit just now about some of the influences. But what about your major influences?

VT: My major influence is like, I would love to you know, to be able to link my work to the people. I feel that myself have a social responsibility and I want to show the people my work and how I link, I want to build a bridge between my work and to the people. And to see how I bring in like the richness of the past and to become the future. How to develop you know, like my lifestyle products, and also the developments and experimental work, like the new artists and all from China, and from all different parts of the world. I would love working in co-operation with young people, and interesting things. I think that's exciting, not just about doing fashion. And because meeting people and talking to other artists, it's very inspirational. And I want to put this into my work.

LH: This new collection that's coming for autumn/winter. Where did you get the idea for that?

VT: The autumn/winter collection? Actually, I go to Shanghai and Beijing, and I see the Chinese Opera. I love the opera masks and the opera costumes, and the colours, the drama of the accessories, and the whole feeling, the atmosphere, the staging and I love it. But I then I think about maybe I tie in with silhouette in the 40's. I always try to tie my collection tie with the Chinese, like a theme from Chinese, but then mixed with the Western kind of silhouette.

LH: You are now a successful designer. Are you also good at business, the business side of making money?

VT: Because I started my business, I did everything. I love doing everything. And I am very hands-on. When I started the company, when I opened the office. I started everything by myself, you know. I know nothing about the business. I was just very very naive about the collection, like twenty pieces, twenty-two pieces. I mean, wait, the opening days for Henry Bendel and know nothing about what is called fashion business. I just want to, I always want to show my ideas and my concept and hope that they will love it and then will buy it. And hope that more people will wear it. And then when I realized that the people love it and that they feel excited about it, I said, "Ooh, maybe I should open my office in New York." The experience of it is so exciting because I don't know anything. I'm learning about, I go beyond. I ask people, and by asking people, I'm learning about, because by not knowing it, because you want to do it, you find a way to do it. I feel that. You really want to do it, you can make it happen. It's like I don't know any cost style numbers, I don't know the price. And I think, what is my price? So I went to the department store, I figured out where I should sell to, and I figured out what kind of price they doing.

LH: There are so many, you know, brand names out there. Established brand names, new and upcoming designers. How do you stay competitive?

VT: I'm listening to the buyers, and I criticize myself. Every collection I look at it, what is wrong about it, why is it not selling, why I like it but other people didn't like it, you know. You've got to be humble. And learning, every day is learning new things, and open your eye to look at what other people is doing too. Even though I like it, but other people don't like it. So why the buyers, like all the press like it, the buyer didn't like it, I listen to all lot of the people who are not in the fashion business, the people in the fashion business, and always keep on learning and improving it, and think about new way of doing things is so important because so many competitors, 20 years is less, now is a lot more. How do you stay in business? You keep on inventing it. Renewing yourself, have a new vision. And criticize yourself, and including criticize by other people. I think that's very important. You've got to be humble. And learning, every day is learning new things, and open your eye to look at what other people is doing too.

LH: In terms of your desires, where do you draw the line between what looks beautiful and what is really practical and wearable?

VT: I think that the clothing now since its multi-function, you can travel with it. For me it has to be travel easy, and able to be multi-function for modern women.

LH: When we come back, we we're getting tips for healthy living the Vivienne Tam way. Stay with us.


LH: Welcome back to Talk Asia. My guest is fashion designer Vivienne Tam. Vivienne, what do you wear when you are relaxing at home?

VT: When I'm relaxing at home, I still wear my clothes because I'm always on the phone to New York, and I'm still wearing my clothes and all. My clothes are very comfortable. So let's say that I always wear my clothes. It's kind of weird I'm always wearing my clothes. Day and night, I wear my clothes because I have to feel it. It's very important for, I'm representing one of those modern women, traveling all the time, and I feel I have to feel comfortable. If I feel something wrong, I have to change it, I have to improve in my designs.

LH: Interesting. Healthy living. Something you live by. Why?

VT: I think it's very important because we are crazy working all the time, and we need some space, especially in Hong Kong. Like me, when I come back here, I work in a factory area, no air. I think it's important to get some time off, but then I ask myself I think I need some more sleep. It's important to get more sleep and healthy living is like, I think it's important to take care about your own diet, conscious about what you're eating, and have more sleep and yeah, that's important, especially when you travel. I think it's important to listen to your bodies and take some time.

I'm actually talking to you is like talking to myself. Vivienne, you need to take care of yourself. And I just try to be more cautious about now, to do some exercise. I'm doing yoga every morning, because it's so important because when you have a concentrated mind. If I did yoga in the morning, I feel the whole day is very concentrated and I feel more productive. And I'm really really calm, and more productive, and I can make my decision easily.

LH: You live in New York, you're based there, you've been there for a long time. Why New York, I mean, would you ever think about coming back and living here?

VT: I may come back here, but not for a whole year. I'm a person that loves traveling, always traveling and seeing new places, new things, new way, new places for me.

LH: I wanted to ask you about your childhood. You were born in China during the cultural revolution time, about right, roughly? What do you remember most about? That you were that time?

VT: I was very young, I know that for my parents it was a very difficult time, so that's why it's making me feeling that I want to do something really good. This will is really strong in my mind to do something really like, to be able to what I wanted, and to have my parents no need to work, and then to really look after them. And I think that is really my responsibility. That's my drive, this is the drive behind me to do what I'm doing at this moment and also watching my mother making home clothes and she's my idol you know, basically.

LH: Is that how you started sewing?

VT: Yeah, I love sewing because b by watching her, you know, she just cut her trousers on the fabric, no pattern, like that. It was incredible. So I see her dressing up herself and I'm making clothes for my brother and sisters, I'm making clothes for her, she's making clothes for me, and we go shopping to the fabric free market. And she always told me, we have no money but we can make our own clothes to be very special because you have to buy something special, you have to have a lot of money. But we can make our own clothes to be very different. We can be different you know, so I always remembered that word, to be different. And you don't need to have money, you can be different, you can be yourself, be very special.

LH: You were not born with the name Vivienne Tam, right?

VT: I was born called Yin Yok.

LH: Why did you change it?

VT: I changed it because I went to those Christian schools, and the English teachers, they don't know how to say Yin Yok or the Chinese name. So everybody, they required everybody to have an English name, so I remember I watched the movie Gone With The Wind, and Scarlett, and I say I love Vivienne, that name. And I remember that last scene, remember? So I say she's really strong, I love the name Vivienne, so then I then used Vivienne-that name. And later on I remember there is the Italian or Paris, a French spelling. (LH: Vivienne) yeah, with the N, I think that looks more feminine. That looks more interesting. So I added that later.

LH: Dressing regular people, people who buy your clothes, dressing celebrities, any different?

VT: It's no different to me. Dressing celebrity is the same as dressing anybody. I love to see my clothes on anybody because it reflects differently on different person. I love to see my clothes on different person. Because I love my clothes enhancing someone's personality, not overwhelming. And when I see the celebrity wearing I'm really excited about, but the same equally I see other person wearing it too. I just love, for me seeing the people wear my clothes give me the most inspiration, to how to line on them, how to line on the body and on a different body line differently, the lines and the patterns.

LH: You also took time to write a book, put together a book. (VT: Yeah, China Chic)Yes, what prompted you to do something like this?

VT: I never think of writing a book actually, it was Judith Regan, my publisher. There's one day they called me and said, Vivienne, do you want to write a book? And I said really? I mean, writing a book? I don't really know anything about writing a book. And they said why don't you think about this? So I talked to my staff and I think about it maybe that's a really good challenge because I always like to take a challenge, and to do something different. Maybe it's better than doing designing or something, because I've been doing designing for a while, and do something different can be a different channel of creative.

LH: Are you going to do another book?

VT: I'd love to think about that, because this book, I put my heart in it, and because if I think about, if I commit myself doing something I want to do it the best. I mean, I think it's very important the reason why you're doing something, you want to make it the best. So I get the book, the award, the book design and then, the book cover design award. I'm really really happy about it and I would love to do another book if there is the time. There's a lot of other things I love to do.

LH: Branching out maybe to lifestyle products or things like that?

VT: Yeah, I'd love to. Like the China sheet lifestyle products. Like a Chinese department store, but this is my dream when when I was young, to make the, to transform the Chinese department store into a new China department store. Everything is new, but made in China, but new concept.

LH: That will be very very interesting. Vivienne, thank you very much for spending time with us. We really appreciate it. And that is Talk Asia this week. My guest has been fashion designer and style guru Vivienne Tam. I'm Lorraine Hahn. Let's talk again next week.

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