As Chef d’Atelier at Vancouver fashion label Jason Matlo, Wen-chee Liu takes a hands-on approach with everything her role requires. Which leads to the obvious question, what exactly is a Chef d’Atelier?
“It’s a very fancy name!” laughs Wen-chee. “People think that I cook. I don't! It actually means that I head up the studio. It’s Jason’s name on the label, but we have about six people here all working together. The creative process is very exciting. We all pitch in design ideas, do research, draft patterns and sew. The eventual decision of what we create depends on what looks good, what’s cost effective, and what fits into our customer profile and brand DNA. Everyone that works at Jason Matlo contributes to the design process from conception of design to finished product. And when Jason isn’t in the studio I’m responsible to act on his behalf.”
Chef d’Atelier is actually a highly revered French term; the most important position in a design house. The role embodies much more than just designing. A Chef d’Atelier needs to possess many skills and aptitudes: expertise in drafting, draping, garment construction and production. Working with a team, training, insuring proper execution, and managing deadlines are essential. The Chef d’Atelier must have style and a level of taste as the decisions they make contribute to the final look of a collection. It’s Jason Matlo’s name and reputation that’s at stake with every garment that leaves his Gastown Atelier, and the designer puts plenty of responsibility on Wen-chee’s shoulders.
“She’s my right hand in here,” explains Jason. “She can almost complete my thoughts. We’ve been working together for so many years I don't even have to articulate what I need. She can read my body language and know what I need before I actually ask for it.
“She has a lot of great attributes. She’s very honest. She knows what she wants and she has incredibly good taste. She’ll let me know when something’s not working, believe me! We’re designing a lot of pieces so it’s good to get that honesty quickly. She has a great eye, and is incredibly fast and detailed. You can always tell which pieces she’s worked on. They don’t look like they’ve been touched by human hands.”
Jason isn’t the only person blown away with Wen-chee’s sewing, creative and organizational skills. They were evident even before she arrived to take the Fashion Design Program at Canada’s #1 Fashion School.
“It is NOT our mission to make clothes that make a woman look good, but it IS our mission to make clothes that make a woman feel beautiful.”
That’s the proud mission statement greeting visitors to the facebook fan page of dace, the internationally acclaimed, Vancouver-based fashion label.
Women across Canada, the USA and even Switzerland understand what pulling a dace piece out of the wardrobe means. That same sense of elegant style has graced the pages of countless magazines across North America and beyond, including LOULOU, Redbook, Fashion, Flare, Elle, Chatelaine, NYChic and Canadian Living. For the label’s creator, designer Dace Moore, becoming one of Vancouver’s fashion superstars wasn’t easy. But there’s always been a sense of inevitability about Dace’s fashion ascendancy, even before she arrived at Canada’s #1 Fashion School.
It’s the tail end of a typical work week for Karen, having shot a Stella McCartney fragrance campaign in New York, consulted for the design team at Nike headquarters in Portland and styled a cover story in Vancouver for Style.com Magazine. Karen Langley manages to squeeze in a visit at Canada’s top fashion school before jetting off to the coveted front rows of Paris Fashion Week.
Long time best friend and colleague of BMC Fashion Director Tyler Udall, Karen Langley is currently the Fashion Director of Dazed and Confused Magazine. This past Tuesday she made an impromptu trip to visit our downtown facilities and speak with Tyler’s class.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with Karen Langley’s extraordinary career, she works at the highest echelons of fashion. To put it mildly, her successes and influences are echoed around the globe.
Karen’s introduction to the fashion industry wasn’t a deliberate one. A chance meeting had her working backstage during London Fashion week nearly ten years ago. Her hard work and genuine interest for the job caught the attention of Love Magazine’s Katie Grand and Vogue Russia’s Simon Robins. The two fashion mavens offered her an internship at Dazed and Confused where Katie was Fashion Director at the time. Within a matter of weeks she found herself assisting legendary stylist and Alexander McQueen Creative Director Katy England.
“I knew I was going to be a designer when I was five years old,” smiles Nike Senior Apparel Designer and Blanche Macdonald Fashion Design Graduate Theola Wong. “My mother sewed all the time. When I was four I asked her how to use a sewing machine. She taught me how to crochet and gave me a needle and thread instead. I started making crochet clothes for my Barbies when I was five.”
Theola’s early practice paid off. As a Senior Designer for Nike her creations now reach across the planet. The numbers are staggering. When a new Nike pop-up store in Chicago pocketed an incredible $16 million in its first week, a third of those sales were clothes from Theola’s Women’s Training line. In a word, wow.
“I can’t understand the concept of 100,000 units of anything,” she laughs when asked about the global reach of her designs. “But it’s not just down to me. I’m supported by our merchandising and branding teams. Even if you’re the best product-maker in the world, unless you have someone telling your story you’ll never succeed.”
Theola gets plenty of help from the biggest sportswear brand on the planet. But they expect a lot from her in return. Her responsibilities are top tier creations – exclusive, more expensive items that will only be sold in selected boutiques – and Women’s Training wear, essentially anything built for the gym, yoga or Pilates. She does receive creative direction from Nike, but her main focus is to stay inspired and keep coming up with amazing ideas.
“I have oodles of creative leeway,” she insists. “The Creative Directors give me a sound background with what we’re trying to accomplish. But the reality is I’m the one who’s getting paid to think outside the box. I don’t have any problems expressing ideas. I just have to be as creative as I can be.”
Sydney Gibson’s love for fashion started early. It didn’t hurt that her mother, Bet Gibson, was a Fashion and Makeup Instructor at Blanche Macdonald.
“I always liked fashion, even through Elementary School,” explains Sydney. “I always loved clothes and dressing differently. I like to think I started some trends within my set of friends. In Elementary School I had parachute pants, huge hoop earrings, and a weird gypsy look. At that time I was really into Nelly Furtado. People used to say I looked like her. That was me being influenced by music.”
Today Sydney balances her twin loves of fashion and music. By day she’s a Merchandiser at the Park Royal, West Vancouver branch of The Bay. By night she’s the lead singer of Vancouver rock band Hunger City.
“Music always came before fashion,” she admits. “Even with what I’m wearing I’ve always been influenced by musicians and their styles: female singers like Gwen Stefani and Lana Del Rey. I always knew I was good at singing and knew I wanted to sing, but when I took the program at Blanche Macdonald and started to go a little further with my job at The Bay, that’s when I realised I was good at fashion too.”
It almost seemed inevitable that Sydney would end up on a program at Vancouver’s top Fashion School. Her Mum was a core member of the Blanche Macdonald family. Which meant young Sydney was too.
Blanche Macdonald’s Fashion Design Grad Shows Deliver ‘Polish and Intimacy’ for Vancouver Fashion Insiders
‘But Still They Begin: Needles and Pins’, the 2012 edition of the Blanche Macdonald Fashion Design Graduate Show, has been hailed as Canada’s top Fashion School’s best runway show yet.
As ever, the designs were spectacular and the atmosphere electric. And for the first time, The Graduate Show took place over two evenings, one night for Vancouver’s Fashion Media and one for the Designers’ friends and family, both held at Blanche Macdonald’s elegant new Atelier Campus.
“Both shows were a huge success,” said Fashion Director Tyler Udall. “Changing venues and presentation format was a pretty big departure for us and it really worked out in the end. The Atelier campus is such a stunning space and it complimented the designs so well. It felt very chic, polished and intimate.”
Tyler (whose incredible résumé includes Senior Fashion Editor for multiple high profile publications in London and a stint as Creative Director for the Agency Fred and Associates in New York) was equally impressed with the work of the Design Graduates on display.
“I think the students went above and beyond this year,” he continued. “I often forgot I was watching a student presentation. There was a sophistication level present that went well beyond that of a first year designer. The media response has been overwhelmingly positive. I’m so happy that our graduates secured such a strong platform for that next step into the industry. They should be proud. I am.”
The Vancouver suburb of Langley wasn’t always known as a fashion hotspot. Everything changed when Blanche Macdonald Fashion Merchandising graduate Courtney Hunter opened Cashmere and Cupcakes there. Now fashionistas are making the drive from as far as Downtown Vancouver to pay a visit to the Lower Mainland’s most stylish High End consignment boutique. The bargains there are too good to resist.
“It doesn’t look like a normal consignment store,” explains Courtney. “It’s nothing like a thrift store. You’re getting designer clothes in really great shape. I love that we never know what’s coming in. We just had a Prada sweater arrive with the labels still on. We’ve had Versace bags, Alexander Wang bags, an Alexander McQueen shirt and a lot of great vintage pieces.
“Consignment stores are the ultimate sale shopping. I just found a brand new Victoria Beckham dress for $300 that would have been $1500 new. It’s stuff that’s different too. It’s not like going to the mall and seeing the same clothes as everyone else. Once you find a great deal you’re hooked.”
On the fast track of fast fashion: Fashion Merchandising graduate Kyle Ziegenhagel - Zara's Regional Merchandiser for Western Canada for Men's and Childrenswear
It’s hard to pin down Kyle Ziegenhagel. His job as Zara Canada’s Regional Merchandiser for Western Canada for Men’s and Childrenswear doesn’t leave him with too much free time. He’ll only be at home in Vancouver for two weeks every month. The rest of the time he could be in Alberta, Toronto, Montreal or even the Zara head office in A Coruña, Spain.
“It’s busy,” he smiles. “I’m not home very much, but it is fulfilling. Because I look after multiple stores and two departments I’m very rarely in the same store two days in a row. I’m always working with different people, which I like. And I really enjoy that no two days are ever the same.
“It’s my job to make sure that the information coming from Spain – whether it be standards or trends of the season or things to focus on – is implemented properly in Western Canada. There needs to be a consistency. You should be able to go to a Zara in Vancouver or Istanbul, and it should be fairly similar. But there’s a lot of room for creativity too, because the clientele in London and Tokyo aren’t going to be the same, right? My region, Western Canada is actually a bunch of niche markets. Calgary, Vancouver and even Richmond have different types of customers. You need to take the standards and make them work in each individual market.”
Fashion Design Graduate David Jack’s Outrageous Creations Shake Up Vancouver’s Fashion Scene. “People thought it was insane; like nothing they’d ever seen before.”
It wasn’t fashion that brought David Jack to Vancouver from his original home in London, England. It was fate.
“My family used to come on vacation to BC every year,” he explains. “We all fell in love with the idea of moving here permanently and it made perfect sense for me to set myself up in Vancouver.”
London’s loss was Vancouver’s gain. Since graduating from Canada’s top Fashion School David has emerged as one of Vancouver’s most exciting and extravagant high-end fashion designers. With the benefit of hindsight, this hasn’t come as a surprise.
“I’ve always been interested in fashion,” continues David. “My Dad used to take me into Central London and we’d look around all the high-end shops: things like Vivienne Westwood. That’s what got me going with fashion. I’d make dreadful things as a kid. I once attempted to make a corset for a girlfriend of mine from some old football shin pads. Needless to say, it wasn’t very good. My Mum found it recently. She was like, what the hell is this?”
Relocating to Vancouver invoked a mild case of fashion culture shock, but David soon learned how to locate like-minded individuals. A big part of that was finding a Fashion School that fit his personality and career aims.
Is moving to London, England to begin an exhilarating career in Fashion PR as glamorous as it sounds?
According to Kate Keyes, Blanche Macdonald Fashion Merchandising graduate and Junior Account Executive at Yellowdoor, the Agency of British retail icon and TV star Mary Portas, the answer is a resounding yes. Even if there were initially some cultural differences that needed ironing out.
“I ate Black Pudding the first night I was in London and loved it,” recalls Kate. “The next day I googled what it was and was horrified. I completely lost my appetite for two weeks.”
Britain’s more robust cuisines may have come as a shock. But they’re easily outweighed by the benefits that come with working in a high profile PR Agency in one of the fashion capitals of the world.
“I love the fast-paced environment,” continues Kate. “I’m always on my feet and running on adrenaline. It sounds scary being under pressure to get things done, but you’re never bored and you’re always socialising with people. It’s so much fun being able to interact with all these people in the industry. Although there’s a lot more business than fashion – more reports and maths than I expected. And I work pretty late. I’ve been in the office at two in the morning and needed to be back at six.”
Late nights and early mornings have become routine for Kate. Big name clients have big demands and she’s perpetually busy withYellowdoor, whose clients have included Mercedes-Benz, Clarks, Swarovski, Havaianas, Mimco, Republic, Matalan and West London’s Westfield Centre, the largest shopping mall in Europe. That’s the pull of Yellowdoor’s founder, Britain’s famous Mary ‘Queen of Shops’ Portas, whose work as the Creative Director of Harvey Nichols launched her into public consciousness and transformed the Company into the world renowned brand it is today. Her retail expertise has led to a string of TV hits and a request from the government to write areport about the future of the country’s high streets.
“Working for Mary is really a blessing,” smiles Kate. “She’s exactly like she appears on TV – she knows exactly what she wants and she's very inspiring.”