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.
“I’ve always loved sewing,” continues Wen-chee. “My Mom taught me hand sewing when I was young and I’d make little pouches for my Kleenex. I’m glad she taught me, as I still have to do a substantial amount of hand sewing working with Jason. I took Home Economics in high school where we’d do simple projects. I loved the process of it. I’m still fascinated by how you start from a design, then draft a two-dimensional pattern, and turn it into a three-dimensional garment. I would study patterns and sewing instructions growing up. I was intrigued why the patterns curved at a certain point on the body. You can have the most amazing design, but if you don’t have the execution skills, it will only ever be a design on a piece of paper.
“I did an internship with a local tailor in Grade 12. That’s when I started using a sewing machine regularly. It was at this time that my passion for garment construction and the world of fashion really began.”
After graduating from UBC with a degree in English Literature, Wen-chee’s parents let her know that she had their blessing to follow any career path she chose. She decided on Fashion Design, and immediately found her ideal school at Blanche Macdonald.
“I liked the program. I liked the way the courses were broken down. It was only a one-year program, and very intensive. I really liked the facilities. I already had a foundation in sewing, but pattern drafting with Brenda Swinglehurst was really challenging for me because I’d typically worked with the metric system before that. Brenda is an amazing teacher. I would recommend her to anyone. When we had the Graduation Fashion Show I chose to do eveningwear. I did beading on all my garments and I remember all the nights I spent embellishing them. Seeing them onstage on real models was a great feeling.
“Going to Blanche Macdonald definitely prepared me for this industry. It’s only a one-year program, so everything happened very quickly. You get a real sense of what’s happening at an industry pace. We’re always looking for interns and Blanche Macdonald students have the strongest skills. I went to this year’s Grad Fashion Show and it was amazing!”
Wen-chee had decided that she would make fashion her career, and with the help of Blanche Macdonald Career Director Joy McLean she interned at Gucci in Vancouver, learning about receiving merchandise and organizing stock, while furthering her sewing skills at an alterations shop (“I had to be very fast and very accurate”).
Soon after that Wen-chee took a job posting from Blanche Macdonald. Working as a designer’s intern she had the good fortune to be introduced to Jason.
“I was very star-struck when we met,” admits Wen-chee. “I couldn’t look at Jason at all! I’d watched the TV show ‘Making it Big’ when I was a student. Jason was one of the contestants doing the fashion challenge and he won the competition. This was years before Project Runway. I found out he had a studio in Yaletown and was looking for help. I sent him an email and that’s how we connected.”
“Wen-chee was interning for another designer at the time and I placed her on a short contract,” explains Jason. “As soon as I saw how good she was I thought, we better offer her a job and put her to work straight away! She just stayed on with us since then.”
Wen-chee has played an integral role in the label’s expansion. When she began, Jason Matlo was only producing a ready-to-wear collection. Since then they’ve added a bridal line, a range of cocktail dresses in their own secondary label, Babe and an ecommerce division.
“I started on a short contact with Jason and never left! I have a motto I live by, which I think is applicable for every field. Make yourself indispensable and you’ll be moved up. Act as if you’re indispensable and you’ll be moved out! I’m willing to put in the time. I missed many nights out and worked countless weekends. I’m prepared to work if it’s needed. I believe in our products, I take pride in what we do and I always try to exceed expectations.
“Every day is different. I love the people I work with, I love the creative process, and I still get excited about the art of garment construction. Whenever I start a new garment I’ll map out a sequence of procedures in my head, and try to think of the most efficient way to achieve the end result. I’m constantly thinking about sewing and a critical path to the finished product.”
Looking at these photos of Wen-chee enjoying fashion events you might think that every day is draped in glamour. The true pleasure, she insists, comes from the satisfaction of a job well done.
“Going to parties and events is one of the perks, but it’s a very small part of what we do. At events we network, build contacts and increase our brand profile. Most of the time we spend working in our studio in jeans and t-shirts covered with bits of thread and paper. Summer is our busiest time – so we miss out on a lot of sunny days. Sometimes I have to work through the weekend, or I get called into work at the last minute because a client wants something on a short deadline. I have to sacrifice a great deal, but Jason is always appreciative and really fun to work with.
“One of our proudest achievements is seeing our clothes hanging in The Room at The Hudson’s Bay Company. The Room is considered one of the most prestigious stock lists in the world. Knowing that I’ve been involved in the process of elevating our brand to this esteemed position within the Canadian fashion industry, feels like the icing on the cake.”