Who did you design for before you started your own company?
My mother and I became designers by necessity. We did not design for anyone else, but grew up in a do-it-yourself household making everything from curtains, pillows to clothing. We found that we naturally had artistic talents through hands on practice. Both my mother and I never attended design school, we are completely self taught. I attended NYU as an English and Writing major and my mother studied art and painting in South Korea. We both had a passion for painting at home together and understood color combinations through our love of painting. Immigrating to the US back in the mid 70s, my mother soon realized how difficult it was to raise and support a family. Both of my parents would try to make ends meet by taking on all types of jobs. My mother once told me that she would often day dream inside dept stores. She admired the beautiful clothing being presented in the windows but she knew she could never attain them. Instead she would spend her free time at fabric stores and as a young child I would follow becoming a natural apprentice.
It must have been tough to start your own business in an industry that is dominated by big names, how did you get started?
After many years of saving up working at different jobs, factories, retail stores, my parents opened a small clothing boutique and my mother became a buyer. At a young age, I was always by her side at buying trips in the NYC garment district, trade shows and what was then, the Lower east side fabric district on a regular basis. I remember she would always complain about the selection and the incorrect fit. She was always hands on in the dressing room for her clients and could not believe how some of the clothing draped on even the most stunning women. She would always say that there was so much choice for the young contemporary category but not much selection for the updated women's category. This was about the time when I was about to graduate from NYU and I asked her "why not create our own line?" I was very much interested in the creative and business part of fashion and felt confident with testing out the waters at our first debut. We brainstormed for months and created a 20 piece "essentials collection" and went on to present in NY and Las Vegas. It was a slow but successful start with many difficult obstacles, but we stuck with it. The buyers we started relationships with praised the line and gave us the confidence to keep pushing and we seemed to keep growing from that day on. The road was definitely not easy and it took a lot of grit and strength to become established. I think we both fulfilled each other's weaknesses and powered through with our strengths. Looking back, we are both so happy we did.
What were your biggest obstacles?
Starting your own label is not just as easy as coming up with wonderful visual designs. We learned that there were so many facets and roles in the fashion business and the need to juggle and full fill every role on our own to stay afloat financially was a huge obstacle. When we initially started our label, and no one knew who we were or what we were capable of, we needed to take a lot of risks. There were times we would literally hope and pray that we were working with trustworthy mills such as fabric producers who we relied on for high quality and seasonal deadlines. It was a difficult roller coaster to ride, but as time went by, we built many wonderful relationships.
What inspires you?
My mother and I not only design clothing, but we often also design our prints and fabrics. When you are designing everything from scratch, you are inspired by everything. Living in NY, people watching is an easy inspiration. There are many unique perspectives on fashion, which is all taken in by riding the subways, sitting at a cafe, and just living your life. You can't help but be inspired. To us, people are living art. Many express through fashion and we appreciate that very much. It also helps to live in a city that has wonderful art installations with fast paced changes. All you need to do is just keep your eyes opened. Maybe that is why our brand vision has always been about celebrating the every day. Clara Sunwoo is Everyday Ready.
How do you choose the boutiques that carry Clara Sunwoo and what is your brand message?
We don't really choose them. But somehow, we meet the right buyers who share our goals and understand our message. Our goal is to have women not just look but experience and feel comfortable, edgy, empowered and beautiful. We are a cross generation, ageless lifestyle brand. We make it a point to have every piece we design fit right so you feel amazing. Every design we create must be wrinkle free, travel friendly, and effortless. Feeling chic and put together is just as important as looking the part. Many resorts, hotels, and specialty boutiques carry the Clara Sunwoo collection for these reasons.
Clara Sunwoo is a family owned label and is not carried in major dept stores. Why is that?
We have been approached by larger dept stores, but we sort of like being the secret label that everyone covets, enjoys, and still talks about. It fits our personalities. We like supporting local and we are proud that our collection is made in the USA. Being hands on is just who we are.
Who do you admire in the fashion industry and why?
Other than my mother, I admire Diane von Furstenburg as her prints are refreshing and youthful and her designs are always elegant and chic. She is also a strong independent woman who is a go getter that didn't just let life pass her by.