This interview first appeared in the print edition of RAIN magazine, fall 2016.
New York is a fashion capital of the world for womenswear, but now things are start- ing to heat up with the launch of Men’s New York Fashion Week. Their collections are imaginative, luxurious and daring. They’re defining a new generation of men’s fashion. We chat with the creative directors of Private Policy, PLAC, and Matiere, three up and coming labels that are catapulting men’s fashion forward in New York.
Mark Benjamin: Thank you Siying and Haoran for meeting with me today to talk about your fashion line, Private Policy. You both went to FIT, right?
Siying Qi: We went to Parsons.
MB: Oh sorry! I know, if you mix that up…you mistake a Parson’s student for FIT and vice-versa, they’ll get really upset. Kind of like the Harvard versus Yale thing.
SQ: That’s true. Haha.
MB: So, where are you two from originally?
SQ: We’re both from China. My family lives all over China, but I was born in the North West of China, in a province near Tibet. We moved to the cap- ital of China, Beijing, and now my family lives in Guangzhou, which is a very big city near Hong Kong.
MB: How about you, Haoran?
HL: I’m from Qingdao. It’s located on the east coast of China. It’s very close to Japan and Korea.
MB: Ah, so together you two cover both sides of the country. How did you get to New York? How did you decide to study here?
SQ: I went to high school in North Carolina. I was a culture exchange student. It was great for me to see what the real America was like. From there, I thought, I’d go into fashion. You know, the best school for fashion in America is Parsons, so I applied and got in. I remember thinking, “Yey, I’m going to live in New York!”
MB: Very nice. How about you Haoran?
HL: My family has always had an art and design background. I knew how to do many things in that world since I was very young. I wanted to use my skills and apply them to the real world, make them functional. That’s why I thought I would study design. When I went to high school in Canada, that’s where I learned about fashion and decided to pursue it.
“Pop culture inspires us,but now we also impact pop culture. It’s a two-way thing.”
MB: That’s great. Why men’s fashion?
SQ: In school, I actually did men’s fashion, and Haoran did women’s and textiles. In Parson’s, most students, including myself, start out in womenswear. I loved it, it was very creative, but when I had the chance to choose between men’s and women’s, I decided to choose menswear. I liked the idea of having a box, something very rigid. Because of that box, I get to challenge it, and I find that very interesting. But, now our brand is genderless, and again, we’re challenging a lot of boundaries, both in menswear and womenswear. We’re challenging all kinds of boxes! Haha!
MB: I ask a lot of people why they design women’s over men’s. A lot of the time they come back and say, “Oh well, menswear is boring. It’s the same. It’s a suit. It’s repetitive,” but I think that makes the level of creativity that much more important. I think, it’s more creative if you can come up with a way to change it. Thom Browne did a really good job when he started challenging that box, too. Where did the name Private Policy come from?
MB: That’s what I thought of when I first heard the name.
HL: We thought, why not name ourselves, Private Policy? It also fits into the idea and concept we want our brand to be about.
MB: That’s interesting because one of
my questions for you is, does fashion follow any rules?
SQ: I think there are sort of game rules, an atmosphere.
HL: We don’t want to follow any rules. We just want to create our own structure within the fashion industry. We don’t want to follow the greater fashion trends each season.
MB: I think that can be difficult and challenging. I’m a photographer, and I’m constantly inspired, whether I want to be or not, by other images that come across my Instagram, or whatever. Is it the same for you? Is it hard to put on those blinders?
SQ: Well, we don’t try to isolate ourselves from others, just to be original. We don’t want to try to create something that no one’s ever seen, which is impossible. We really think about what’s true to our hearts and what’s true to our friends. We don’t really say customers, but we see them as be- coming part of our friend group when they become customers. What they really want is important to us. That really helps us see what it is we want to design. It helps us come up with our next inspiration. If something inspires us, or something our friends are inspired by, we pick that topic instead of researching what’s on-trend.
HL: When we started, we saw a lot of downtown people, people hanging around the Lower East Side, SoHo, and Chinatown. We always got in- spired this way. That’s how we got our basic silhouettes for the brand.
MB: Yeah, the proportions on the pants, for example, are really interest- ing. They’re, as you said, genderless. It could be women’s. It could be men’s. I also really like the velvet bomber in the fall collection. It’s nice with the fringe, and the proportions are amazing on anyone.
SQ: Yeah, we design a lot on the street. For other interviews, we’ve been asked to be interviewed in the studio to see our design process. We’re like, “You can interview us on the street because that’s where we talk about things. We talk with friends, or we see someone wearing something interesting walk- ing down the street, or we see a video in a gallery, or a museum. Something that inspires us and makes us think, “Oh, that’s so relevant to how we feel this moment.” Then, we can translate that into clothing. We don’t try to make clothes to fit in a box. We just see what’s around us, and react. After the resulting pieces come out, we listen to the response. When people think everything we’ve done is so relevant, we think, “Oh, yeah, that’s because we are getting inspired from everything around us.”
MB: Maybe this is going out on a limb, but when I first saw your clothes, I felt a deep Spanish influence.[Siying and Haoran laugh together.]
MB: I don’t know why. There was just something about it that read fun and Spanish. Does that mean anything to you?
SQ: Well, I have been there. It is true we want to make clothes that are fun and energetic. Things we feel in New York. We are really influenced by the city, and the city is so energetic, but at the same time, serious. We also love colors. Maybe, that’s where the Span- ish connection is.
MB: Yes, I love it. The color palette is beautiful. They’re not basic colors. They’re beautiful pantones, you know, something very subtle, and something not easy to do!
HL: It’s always hard for us to find col- ors when we research fabrics.
MB: Like in photography, even. I think it’s very easy to take great looking black and white photos, just as it is easy to make a black and white collection, but it’s incredibly hard to get color right.
HL: We’re a New York brand, and most brands here are black and white, or a neutral color.
“Everything is impacting everyone across the world… it’s so globalized. Even within industries… fashion…fishing…politics… everything is so mixed, so we want to make clothes that reflect that.”
HL: What we thought, originally, is that once you’ve collected all your basic black and white pieces, you’ll start buying interesting color pieces. That’s what we think about a lot at Private Policy.
MB: Yeah, I love that one iridescent colored shirt. I think it’s so cool.
MB: What number collection is this?
SQ: The newest one is Spring/Summer 2017, so it’s our third collection, but we always want to say its our second- and-a-half collection, because the first collection we had was a very small cap- sule collection. It was six looks, and we did it in one month. It was just about us getting our basic ideas out there. To get people to know we’re starting a brand called Private Policy, and it’s for everyone to have fun with.
MB: Are you feeling that momentum? SQ: Yeah, I think so. When people try our stuff, they don’t feel like they are being put into another box. They can mix and match with their own personality. They can have their own interpretation of our ideas, which is great. If they’re interested, then, we can tell them about our inspirations. I think it’s very natural and organic.
MB: Tell me, how has being a part of the CFDA’s men’s fashion week been? You started the brand at around the same time as the fashion week launched, right?
SQ: I think the presentation we had was a great way for us to show our ideas to more people. We got more press coverage and more people to come. We got more feedback and became more confident in what we’re doing. This collection is inspired by a news report about enslaved fisherman in South East Asia. We really want to raise awareness about the issue, so when people come to our show, and ask about the inspiration, we get to talk about it. They are touched and want to also get the word out.
MB: Tell me about that. Tell me about the inspiration.
SQ: One day, we saw a news article through a friend. This article asked the question, “Are slaves catching the fish you buy?” We had never heard about this before. Fish are everywhere. People never think about who’s actu- ally catching the fish, though.
The article talked about how there are big fishing companies in South East Asia that go to poor countries and lie to men who cannot find jobs. They tell them you can come and fish for us. The men say okay because work is scarce. They get on big ships that go to the middle of the ocean, and then the company tells them they are indebted to them. That’s how they become slaves. They have to fish and do everything asked of them, day and night, without rest, without food… they’re slaves.
All the fish caught end up being sold to places, like American supermarkets, for cheap prices. Some, even end up at cat food companies. When I first read the news, I thought, “How come they can’t escape? You are men. There are a whole bunch of you.” I did more research and found YouTube videos called, “Slaves at Sea.” Those videos have actual fisherman who were slaves and then escaped. They explain it’s very hard to escape from the middle of the ocean, but also many of them are foreigners and don’t speak the same language. The fishing companies are mostly from Thailand.
If you get caught after you escape, they can kill you and just dump your body in the ocean. That’s why many of them end up stuck on the boat, for up to four years. It is insane.
We were really touched by the story, so we thought, “Why don’t we make a collection inspired by that?” Not literally. That’s why when you first see the collection, you wouldn’t get our inspiration. That’s not what we want. At the end of the day, we are selling clothes, and we don’t want to make a profit off their tragedy. Instead, when we get interviewed, and people ask us, “What’s your inspiration,” we can talk about the whole idea. We have symbolic meanings within the collec- tions, like the stripes, the treatments of plastic bags – that’s the biohazard plastic bags.
We try to raise awareness about the issue, and hopefully there is someone more powerful out there that can do something about it, or at least as cus- tomers, we can be more aware about the products we’re buying.
MB: We think everything is labeled today, but things even as horrific as that, can get through the cracks. It’s very sad. The other person I thought of when I first saw your collection was Jeremy Scott. In the sense that he really captures pop culture, does what he does with it, doesn’t care, and puts it on the runway…puts people in Hershey’s dresses, or what have you. I think he has divided fashion into two camps: those who embrace pop culture, like Moschino, and the people who are trying to uphold fashion on its pedestal. How do you feel about that?
SQ: We talk about how pop culture and designers are getting closer and closer, because we’re all part of it.
I think it’s because all culture we have now is pop culture, at least in the western world. We try to look at what’s going on in pop culture, but more about real culture…what’s going on around us. We read the news, read books, and hear stories from friends.
HL: Also, I think fashion as a form al- ways reflects what’s happening around the world. Like when Chanel cut the skirt shorter, it was a reference to feminism at the time. It’s always relevant to the time. Pop culture inspires us, but now we also impact pop culture. It’s a two-way thing.
MB: Are there any other designers that inspire you? Anything outside of fashion you always come back to?
SQ: We really try to look outside of fashion. We try to make something authentic, because we don’t want to be in a fashion bubble. We think fashion is a part of the world, especially with what’s going on in the world today. Everything is impacting everyone across the world…it’s so globalized. Even within industries…fashion… fishing…politics… everything is so mixed, so we want to make clothes that reflect that. That’s what everyone is feeling and at the same time. I think, that’s more authentic than thinking about what color zipper we want. Instead, we think about the overall picture and what message we want for the collection. It’s more meaningful, personally, but it is also more inter- esting for our audience.
MB: You’ve spent time in Europe, right? I’m sure you stay tuned to the Paris and London shows. How do you see the American market for men’s fashion versus what’s going on there? What do you think men’s fashion will look like in ten years?
SQ: I think America and Europe always have this comparison going on. My professor once told me, “The golden age of American fashion was when its casual style influenced everyone around the world.” People starting wearing t-shirts and jeans, instead of suits. I think that’s something Amer- ican fashion contributed back then. Today, when we talk about menswear with our friends, we talk about how menswear in London is more avant-garde. It looks more interest- ing, and it’s more show-like. In New York, it’s more basic and safe. It’s not good or bad, either way. In America, people have a different feeling. That’s why, in our fashion week, it’s reflected a different way. In Europe, it’s a different culture. I think New York’s men’s week is getting more experimental because people are asking for that.
MB: Do you currently sell abroad?
SQ: We actually do market weeks in Paris and Shanghai, and now we do a fashion week show here. We will also do a market week here, too.
HL: We try to be a global brand, instead of focusing on one market.
MB: Yeah, you never know what works. You might have a huge fan base in New Zealand because some obscure culture reference really res- onates there.
SQ: Yeah, because of our personal backgrounds, we have been very international since we were young. Traveling and living in foreign countries has made our viewpoint worldlier, instead of thinking, “Oh I’m Chinese,” or “I’m American,” or “I’m a New Yorker.” We just think we are making clothes for the people that share our ideology, instead of making clothes for one location.
MB: How many looks are in this last collection for fall?
SQ: Sixteen or seventeen. We don’t really design by looks, we design by pieces and combine them together. Some people have this reaction to our collection, that it’s not very uniform.
HL: We think of our looks as unique people, but that everybody is connect- ed to each other.
MB: Yeah, it makes editorials fun too. We get to style it and make it our own.
SQ: I think it goes back to our name, Private Policy. You make your own rules of styling. You make your own rules of what you think you should wear. That’s why our brand is fluid between genders, ideas, and styles. In the end, when you look at the whole collection, it’s still cohesive, because it’s from the same original point, it’s from the same vision.
MB: How is it going to be in the future when you’re creating forty looks?
Do you look forward to that? Do you think, “Wow what kind of world can I create with forty looks?”
SQ: Definitely. We think of fashion as a media to communicate with other people. More pieces are more of an opportunity to do that. We’re very excited about the future.
MB: One of my biggest influences, and it seems to be a permeating influ- ence among other artists, especially in New York, is Andy Warhol. Does his work mean anything to you?
SQ: His art definitely influenced a generation and really marked an era. I watched a lot of movies and read a lot of books about him. I loved how he worked…the factory he had. I think that’s such a great platform to have… all those crazy people to collaborate with. That’s what we try to do with the brand as well. This season we had friends collaborate by contributing illustrations. We used those on t-shirts. We asked friends in music to create music for the show. Our friends are also coming in to do documentaries. When we do styling, we even talk with our friends. We help each other. I think that kind of collaborating spirit helps to keep us creative.