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In The Studio With Gemma Hoi: Bridging The Gap Between East & West

It’s impossible to talk about who’s on our radar without mentioning Gemma Hoi, the practiced, persistent, and undeniably passionate emerging designer. At 18 years old, while most have only just figured out what passions to foster or careers to commit to, Hoi was hired as the youngest designer at Design East, a design company in her native territory of Macau. Now, at 30, Hoi has already garnered a number of accolades to her name, including recognition from Women’s Wear Daily, CFDA, Teen Vogue, Parson’s, and even a window display in New York City’s iconic destination of high-end retail, Bergdorf Goodman.

It’s worth noting as well that Hoi’s father is a menswear designer based in China, and though she was born fortunate enough to have been exposed to fashion throughout her upbringing, it is evidently the young artist’s tenacity and unwavering enthusiasm for her craft that has procured her a seat at the table of emerging talent this New York Fashion Week. 

Occupying a unique position within the American fashion landscape, Hoi stands at the intersection of Western and Eastern culture—with professional and personal backgrounds that travel across cultures between New York and China. Embracing the role, Hoi has acquired significant responsibility as a designer that bridges the gap between different spheres. She employs within her garments a universal perspective and discourse that prove relatable and applicable to a variety of consumers, apparent in this season’s collection that draws inspiration from the wave of American feminism that came about during WWII. For her Fall/Winter 2018 collection, Hoi focuses on the fashion revolution that was informed by women’s adopting of denim in the workplace, now wholeheartedly embraced on today’s streets. 

Alright, let’s get started with your background. Who is Gemma Hoi? 

My name is Gemma Hoi and I’m from Macau. I graduated from Parson’s School of Design in New York and am actually the second generation of a family in the Chinese fashion industry. That has definitely influenced me coming to New York to study fashion, because I’ve wanted to become a designer since I was a kid. 

And what was your relationship with like to fashion growing up then, considering your father is in the fashion industry? 

My father is a menswear designer, so he’s definitely influenced me a lot when I was a kid. Since I was a kid, I always thought about how I could balance the creativity and fashion marketing, because I know that there are so many beautiful pieces in the world, but I think now the world is full of beautiful clothes, so I choose to only make meaningful clothes. 

What was your family’s response to your pursuit in fashion? Was it supportive since your dad is already involved in it? 

Actually, no. My dad did influence me a lot, but in the past few years for example, I got scholarships from Parson’s and support from different organizations that basically just believed in me, because I got into a couple of competitions in the past few years, and I think they know that I know what I’m doing with my own brand. 

Did you find the American fashion landscape hard to break into coming from China? 

No, actually I think that I’m lucky in that way. I’m from Macau, which has a very diverse culture—mixed European and Asian, so for me it’s really easy to find a balance between Asian culture and Western culture.

Yeah, that’s understandable. What was the biggest challenge then? 

My first challenge was definitely the language. I received a conditional admission from Parson’s, but a few years ago, that didn’t even seem possible. I never would have thought that I’d have a chance to attend Parson’s and have my own fashion show, because I was unable to send all of the standard application materials. I was so glad then that even though my english wasn’t that good, Parson’s offered me a conditional admission after seeing my work. Art has no boundary. My life changed after that.

So can you talk a little bit about this new Fall collection, and maybe touch upon its connection to your previous collection? 

Sure, so this collection is called ‘Time Traveller 1940s,’ and I was inspired by the uniforms of American female factory workers. I think that the 1940s were a dramatic time period, when America was involved in World War II, and there was also a second wave of women’s rights movement after the 1920s. I think that this history symbolizes the rising from the ashes of women’s rights and also embodies the spirit of freedom, courage and democracy. So I think that denim is a symbolic fabric, and perhaps the most in American history. It has even influenced the evolution of women’s gender. I hope that the audience can view my collection from a symbolic point, and even more with the history—more so than just product. 

It’s also pretty apparent that in both your new collection and previous you commit to certain textiles. In the previous it was a white fabric, and here your collection is clearly all about denim. 

Yeah, our opening garment in this collection uses the white fabric to connect the two collections together, because for me it’s more interesting to incorporate meaningful ideas to the garments more so than making just beautiful pieces. Since I did grow up in the fashion industry, I do care about the quality of garments, because that is the base. What’s more interesting to me is how can I engage meaningful ideas with the garments. 

I also want to touch upon how your position within the industry kind of bridges Chinese culture with American culture, which is incredibly prevalent in this collection being that the inspiration for it is totally American, but you do consider yourself a Chinese designer? 

Totally. I mean when we talk about women’s rights and empowerment, it’s universal. As I always believe that garments are not just pieces of clothing, but they have power. There is a study from Northwestern University, your style and the clothes you choose reflect and affect your mood, health and confidence. There’s also a book called Women Are Changing the Corporate Lanscape, that also mentions that your style and clothes don’t only affect your confidence level, but also success. So, I think that all of these ideas are not really about Chinese or American, it’s about the spirit which is universal. But also, since I grew up in Macau, which is a mix of Western and Eastern cultures, it has definitely made it easier to understand… I do have language issues though!

And what’s your design process like? I can tell there’s a lot of research that you put into it. 

Research-based, yeah. I think I’m different than other designers in that I like to read into the spirit more than the beauty of a piece. Some designers get inspiration from architecture, or flowers, but I enjoy reading the spirit, which most people might not understand. For example, for this collection I looked into working conditions of female factory workers and denim was the fabric of choice. At that time, it was World War II and most men were enlisted to the army, so there was a big lacking of laborers, so that was the start of women wearing uniforms which were typically made of denim. It’s the whole ‘We Can Do It!’ movement, which isn’t only about America, it’s applicable to the universe. I think it’s interesting. 

Are there any designers that you particularly look up to?

My previous hero, of course, was Alexander McQueen, but I recently discovered my new hero: Maria Grazia Chiuri. I really love her work and I’ve gotten a lot of inspiration from her. I like to play with materials too, and I want to make things that are more wearable for more girls, because I hear a lot of girls telling me that couture is so beautiful, but it’s not accessible and not wearable. I realized that maybe I could do something. Of course everyone in top tier luxury brands are all masters who I admire, but I know that there’s still a market in between of girls who want to be able to wear couture designs. Why do we love art? Because when we see the piece, it makes us excited, and feel emotion, and we cherish that moment. I want to do the same with garments as a designer, as an artist.

That said, do you have anybody in mind that you’d love to dress in your pieces? 

Oh yes. Rihanna! Rihanna! I actually really want to see this piece from my new collection on her, I think it’d look so good! The piece is off the shoulder and very wearable. I actually told the manufacturer to create this denim, so it’s silk cotton and very comfortable—way more than other cottons. I really care about how my materials are produced. I still have room to approve, but I’m always researching. But yeah, Rihanna is my favorite. I actually met her! I was a finalist at the Parson’s Benefit Show, so she was there and we took a picture! She was walking past me and asked if I was one of this year’s designers, I said yes and she asked me for a picture! She’s so kind and sweet, I really hope to meet her again. I know she loves to support emerging designers and I really appreciate that. 

Can you tell us one short-term goal and one long-term goal? 

I feel like this show is the end of a beginning and the start of a new one. Actually, before this year I was working so hard to focus on the technical and design studies, and I’m so grateful to have my first show already. Yesterday Vogue actually reached out to say they were attending and I was like, “What!?” So I’d say it’s the end of my focus in technical and execution, and the start of my focus in design and spirit. Years ago I was hired as the youngest designer at Design East when I was 18. I realized, however, that my talent wasn’t enough to support my dreams, so I had to be humble and work hard. I quit everything in Macau to be humble and restart my life to go to Parson’s. I realized that to become the designer I wanted to be, I had to keep learning. I hope this is the end of a chapter and the beginning of an era. 

Stay tuned for more from inside the studios of our favorite emerging designers.

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