Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Taking Flight

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We are Owls is the brainchild of high school friends Connie Lui, Ling Chen and her cousin Emily Chen. What started out as camaraderie over late night hang out sessions turned into an amazing line of luxe scarves that are just in time for the crisp, cool fall. Recently, I sat down with the ladies of We are Owls over a great meal at Fatty Fish -- not to be confused with the "Fatty" franchise -- on the Upper East Side of NYC. We're all addicted to Japanese food so there was no better place to discuss their new line and first season.

The sky is the limit for these talented, beautiful birds.

How did you ladies meet?
Emily: Well, obviously [Ling and I] are cousins; just two weeks apart but more like sisters in a way. She used to come over all the time because she’s the only child and my family is like five; I have two brothers and two sisters. So we’re more like sisters. I treated her like my little sister. She was our little sister.
Connie: And Ling and I met in high school; LaGuardia [High School]. And Emily I met because of Ling and we just started hanging out. It just happened. We became really close friends. Watching movies, whatever. Then we all went to college. Emily went to FIT. [Emily] went for fashion and I went for photo but we’d always see each other and then I transferred to Parsons and [Ling] was already going for fashion so it was pretty interesting.
Ling: It’s like ten years.
Connie: More like fifteen, sixteen years. However long I’ve known you, Kizzy.

What was the impetus to create We are Owls?
Connie: We always wanted to create something together but it just never happened. We talked and talked about starting our own line but we never knew what it was until it just happened one day.
Emily: We knew it had something to do with fashion.

Ling: Definitely!
Connie: But we didn’t know what it was; if it was going to be a clothing line or whatever -- accessories. Then we were having brunch one day and one of our friends -- she’s actually writing our press release right now -- she was like why isn’t there a line that’s doing this...and it just sparked this idea in our heads. We were like dude, we can totally do this. We have all the goods.

So, you had the showroom and buying component, and you have the design and media branding.
Emily: It just made sense we had to do something now. It was now or never.
Connie: All the pieces fit together. It was like, “oh my God, you can do the designing [Ling] and you know all the production.
Ling: We researched it.
Connie: Emily built all these relationships from working in the show room and had the sales experience.
Emily: Our showroom had a West Coast location. I took care of all international account and East Coast too. They were really supportive -- everyone.
Ling: Everyone who worked at my company was really supportive too.

It’s like what we spoke about earlier. [Connie] coming from Sub Rosa and having people who helped you roll out the site.
: Right. I have the experience in branding and I come from graphic design and I can do all our look books and when I went to FIT I majored in photography so I can shoot all our products. Working at a digital agency I knew the importance of social media and all those things. We had all the pieces.

: Also just talking about support; our families have been very supportive financially, emotionally everything; just loving the brand.

Support is definitely something amazing to have as young designers. There are a lot of people who strike out and they have no support system what so ever. Even if you are incredibly talented; if you don’t have not just the financial backing but people who’re really providing that support from the heart.

: It is and I think it’s from building those relationships and the friendships we’ve developed over the years from working and meeting new people. that alone; just meeting good people and working with good people.

: The energy has to be good.

Why “We are Owls”?

Connie: We’ve always been fascinated by the beauty and the mysterious quality of that particular bird and we really relate to it. It wakes up at night and does all the hunting and whatever it needs to survive. We have our day jobs so we get together after work at night and we’re inspired. So we’re relating ourselves to owls and that’s how we came up with the name.

I just love the imagery and as a kid I really liked owls although they freaked me out a bit. I always thought of owls as really intelligent animals.

Connie: Right.

And the way they spin their heads almost 360 degrees. Do you feel as if you do that with We are Owls because you cover all the bases in terms of production; photography; branding; buying and design?

Connie: [As] three women, each of us have really distinct styles ourselves. When we design we keep in mind all the different markets that we’re trying to cover.

Emily: Like what I like and what our buyers will like.

Just sitting here and looking at the three of you I already see there’s a huge difference.

Emily: Yeah, you can definitely tell by the way we dress. There are the trendy people we have to appeal to then there are the more conservative people so we’ll have some safe pieces. Because the three of us are so different and we work well together...

Connie and Ling: We compromise!

Emily: We listen to each other.

Ling: We value each others opinions.

You pointed out that you design for multiple types. Men can wear these too. You design for so many different people. There are a lot of designers who have their heads up their bums and they don’t think about the customer. They believe they’re the only ones that can dictate fashion because they are fashion designers so that’s refreshing to hear.

Ling: It’s also easier because it’s an accessory so we can do that. We design for everybody.

: Some stuff is unisex and my boss will wear them and my friends will wear them.

Connie: We have some of those pieces. I like very gender neutral stuff. I like things that can be worn by a guy and I like those pieces and I think there are girls that like that too. We try to cater to that as well. Emily on the other [side] of the spectrum is very trendy and feminine. She likes that kind of stuff. It’s interesting because we all understand and like such similar things but we may not wear what the other person wears. I really like Emily’s style. I like the bags and I like the shoes and all those things she buys. I wouldn’t necessarily buy them but it’s still to my taste. And it’s the same thing for them [in relation] to me. That’s how we work so well together.

Emily: That’s where understanding is.

Ling: There is trust.

We are Owls L-R: Emily Chen, Ling Chen and Connie Lui

Another important factor!

: At the end of the day we all have the same goal.

: We let each other run the area that they know well. Emily knows the market. She sells to those people. I trust when she gives me feedback on what we should do; “Guys, this is a little too crazy. Tone it down. The same applies to me when I say dude, this logo is going to totally rock out.

Emily: Ling’s the designer and we just let her do her thing.

Connie: She’s the vision!

Emily: We believe in her vision.

Ling: Yeah, they let me design.

No micromanaging?

All: No!

What’s the creative process like with three people? It’s not that men don’t have their own thing going on but I’ve heard men working together in a room and it’s not nice at all.

Emily: When [Ling] designs she’ll take my input.

Connie: Usually Ling comes up with the concept; the idea. She gets inspired by something. I’ll let [Ling] speak to that.

Ling: Yeah, I’d just get inspired by something and throw it out to them to see what they think. Sometimes we’ll change or add on to it.

So, you start designing from there?

Connie: We defer to [Ling].

Emily: We’re like yeah, that’s a good idea.

Ling: (Laughs) They’re like do it! Do it! So I just do it.

Do you go to the factories? What’s the production process like?

Emily: Mostly Ling does the production process.

Ling: Yeah, I deal with the factory. There is trust there. We haven’t gone back for production but I am thinking about going back for spring. There’s a lot of email, talking on Skype.

Is it difficult managing the time?

Ling: We’re always pushing. Always pushing -- emailing everyday.

Connie: That’s the nature of the beast; the nature of fashion. No matter how far ahead you begin or start you always end up short of time.

Ling: Time is so tight. There is a language barrier. He speaks really good english but I feel that I have to use simple words.


Ling: Yeah. It’s always the tech packs. If I get that clear then it’s fine.

Do you see scarves being it for We are Owls?

Connie: No, it’s just the beginning.

Emily: This is just our beginning.

Connie: We’re taking over the world! (Everyone laughs). One little thing at a time.

You watched too much Pinky and the Brain in high school.

Connie: Yes, I did.

Emily: Eventually, yes.

Connie: What we really want to do is make sure we do what we’re doing well and perfecting that. Owning this part that we feel is missing in the industry; accessible luxury.

Ling: We try to keep it at a really good price point.

Connie: Our stuff is quality; the highest quality. We want to keep the price as low as possible and accessible to everyone. It’s really learning and perfecting this for now.

It’s not just luxury, also quality. I can tell from looking at the pieces that they are high quality pieces. I feel as if people get confused by luxury.

Connie: That’s what we want to maintain for our brand.

Emily: We inspect everything before it ships.

Ling: We quality check every single piece. Every single piece.

That makes a huge difference for the consumer. It’s good to know they have me in mind.

Emily: Someone’s paying for that we want to make sure it’s in perfect condition.

Connie: We put ourselves in the same shoes as the customer. If I am spending this much money on something it should be the best quality. That is really important to us.

You’re selling out [of scarves] right now. Do you create small orders?

Emily: In the beginning we cut to order. We wanted everything to be perfect.

Connie: It’s our first season so we played it safe because we didn’t know where it would go. It beat our expectations. We were surprised.

Emily: It’s not that we don’t believe in our product. We do. It’s been amazing.

Connie: It’s a huge risk to take when it’s your first line and first season. We just wanted to make sure we had the best quality stuff; on time shipment and you know making sure we get what people want.

What did it feel like when you got picked up by your first stockist?

Emily: Oh my god, I called [Connie], I called Ling.

Ling: It was surprising, especially when we got Shopbop’s order.

Emily: We were just so excited.

Shopbop was your absolute first?

Emily: No, but it was one of our biggest! One that we really targeted.

Connie: We were like “we made it!”

Emily: Then Ron Herman picked it up and [Henri] Bendel.

Connie: And then a ton of awesome international stores that we didn’t expect; like this great store in Germany called CVG. She also had a showroom and wanted to represent us. That was a confirmation for us that we are creating a good product. It gives us the confidence to say wow, we are doing this! We’re going in the right direction and are putting out something good.

You’re getting a welcome reception not just in the US but all over the world.

Emily: All over the world.

Connie: In Japan.

Emily: We’re in really good stores.

Connie: Taiwan, even Russia.

I can’t remember the last time I went to the site before and saw nothing. Then I went back a week ago and was looking through all the stores you’re in and I was like what the...?

Emily: We’re in more than 100 stores for our first season. Everywhere, international and US.

Connie: And it goes back to this being the right time because Emily had the relationships.

Emily: We had the showroom.

Connie: We felt confident enough to do this. It felt right because I would like to think that we’re smart ladies and we don’t usually jump into something if we don’t feel confident. This was one of those rare times when we were like, if we don’t do this we are missing out; we’re totally going to regret this. It’s been an amazing first season.

Now the fun part. I’d like each of you to describe your own personal style and how you’d wear a We are Owls piece.
All: (Laugh)
Connie: Oh no!
Kizzy: Who wants to go first?
Connie: I think Emily should go first.
Emily: My favorite piece is the Carmilla. I would wear it for fall with all my beautiful jackets. It’s easy. I just throw it on with my dresses or denim when I’m going to work. There’s no dress code.
Connie: [Ling], I assume it’s hard for you because they are all your babies.
Ling: (Laughs) Actually, I am over fall. I’m on to the next season.
Connie: Like, we gave you this -- go fend for yourself.
Ling: Actually, I think I’m going to wear the black and white leopard. It goes well with all the clothes I have. My uniform is usually jeans and a t-shirt. If I go out at night I wear a pair of heels.
Connie: I would say if I were to wear anything for fall it would be the one I designed. It’s the poem one. For me it’s a huge statement to the current state of the world. How I think people should stop, think and listen to things around them. It’s an old rhyme I found from somewhere. It’s anonymous and I don’t know who wrote it. It goes something like:

A wise old owl lived in an oak

The more he saw the less he spoke
The less he spoke, the more he heard
Why can’t we be like this wise old bird

Connie: That was something I found to be really meaningful for me at the time. As a graphic designer type for me is really important. I decided to do calligraphy for the piece. So that’s what I would wear and my style is really, very simple. Very black and white, neutral. I like our scarves because it’s a highlight accessory that makes my outfit much cooler.

You do wear a lot of black and white but when I see you there are a lot of textures going on and that makes it richer instead of oh look at me, I’m James Dean.
Connie: Thanks Kizzy. You’re going to make me sound so much cooler than I really am.

Who is We are Owls for?
Connie: It’s for everyone!

1 comment:

Lindsey E. said...

Love it. Hootie-hoo! Wish I weren't so poor. I'd be ALL OVER those scarves.