As Chef d’Atelier at Vancouver fashion label Jason Matlo, Blanche Macdonald Fashion Design graduate 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 means that I head up the studio. It’s Jason’s name on the label, but we have six people here all working together. Our work now is strictly custom-made to measure. This has allowed me to do what I really love and be more couture-focused. Being able to work on garments that don’t need to be put into ‘production’ has enabled me to really work into a textile or garment, utilize all my skills and show everything that I’m capable of.”
Chef d’Atelier is 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 a multitude of skills and aptitudes: expertise in drafting, draping, garment construction and production. Working with a team, training, insuring proper execution, and managing deadlines are essential. It’s Jason Matlo’s name and reputation at stake with every garment that leaves his Gastown studio. Which is why Jason and Wen-chee’s partnership of mutual admiration is a relationship both cherish deeply.
“Jason is truly a classic designer,” insists Wen-chee. “A lot of brands today prefer celebrity names and faces to designer vision. Jason has a very specific design style but also allows me to have a voice and hand in the design, construction and finish of each look. He values my design eye, opinions and ideas and is never threatened by our collaborative approach. We share a mutual fondness in music, pop culture, and art and get each other’s sense of humour. It’s always a fun environment working at the studio.”
“She’s my right hand in here,” agrees 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 has a lot of great attributes. She knows what she wants and she has incredibly good taste. She’ll let me know when something’s not working, believe me! 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 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. 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.”
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.
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.
“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 even entered the world of entertainment, building garments for Vancouver-based TV show Supergirl.
“We were originally contacted to work on patterning, draping and building a costume for Teri Hatcher in Supergirl. It was meant to be a one-off experience but the collaboration has already continued for over a year. The deadlines and turn around time for the physical garments are extremely quick in episodic television. That can be challenging. Jason and I are both insanely detailed perfectionists so it can be stressful at times. We want the work to be exceptional every time.
“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 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. 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.
“We’ve had Hollywood celebrities like Anne Heche in our hallway, especially in the last year, but those are not the moments that stand out for me. What I love the most is working in the studio day to day. I’m a hands on person, and I love making things and challenging myself creatively and technically. The highlight for me has been having an actual career as a designer in the fashion industry. I feel very fortunate to have been able to work strictly in fashion for more than a decade. The journey hasn’t been easy but I wouldn’t trade it for anything else.”