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On the Job With: Vickie Au, sustainable fashion designer

By Mina Chan 9 September 2022

Welcome to On the Job With, an interview series on Localiiz that chronicles the highs, lows, and unexpected quirks of various lesser-explored occupations around Hong Kong. From paint-toting plumbers to beer brewers, every job has more to it than meets the eye. For our latest exploration into weird and wonderful jobs, we chat with Vickie Au—a fashion designer—about how working in fashion goes beyond just designing clothes.

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Photo: Vickie Au

“When you’ve worked in the fashion industry for a long time, you come to understand that fashion design is about more than just fashion and clothes. I consider myself an entrepreneur, maybe a fashion entrepreneur, and sometimes even a social innovator.

“When I started in 2019, I had a target. I wanted to do something new. I’m concerned about textile pollution from the fashion industry, so I wanted my brand to be based on sustainability, from the materials to the supply chain. I think it can be difficult for people to connect fashion with sustainability and social good; that’s something I want to change.”

SS22 Luv Patchwork Handmade series. Photo: Vickie Au

“I like to create new things. I wasn’t very interested in fashion—I actually applied for the interior design programme when I was in university! But when I went for my interview, the professor told me that I had to make big pieces of furniture by myself. I didn’t think I could do that, so I thought a garment would be easier to make than furniture. I changed my subject immediately. Now, I think fashion is the best way for me to express my creativity.”

Photo: Vickie Au

“I want to demonstrate through my designs that it’s possible to not only use second-hand fabrics because there’s a concern from people about hygiene, but you can use new fabrics to do sustainable fashion as well. There are two main sources for my materials: one is collecting swatches and unwanted fabrics from manufacturers to remake into clothing. We use different ways to create patchwork patterns to show our aesthetic and craftsmanship. Another way is to buy new fabrics with sustainable certificates from textile manufacturers.”

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Photo: Vickie Au

“Every time I design a collection, it’s a race against time. I have to think of an idea, but I only have a limited time and quota for pieces I can demonstrate. Over the span of a year, you won’t be able to design for more than two months. In the remaining 10 months, you’re overlooking the entire process to ensure that your design is created according to your vision. But the conceptual stages are my favourite parts of the process.”

“I created a community engagement programme where we partner with local NGOs and Hong Kong artisans to host workshops with the intention of empowering women in hopes of improving their income. We inherit knowledge from experienced patternmakers and then teach local women to create high-quality patchwork patterns for the collection.

“Some people say I’m crazy for using the sewing method to create patchwork patterns since printing is much cheaper. But I chose this technique because I wanted to involve women in the community and demonstrate their hard work without sacrificing the importance of craftsmanship and create sustainable materials for a luxury fashion brand. It’s not a profitable endeavour because of the high costs, but I want to do this for the social impact.”

Photo: Vickie Au

“It’s hard to sustain a business that uses sustainable materials and employs many workers. Due to the higher costs of sustainable materials and providing salaries, the final product is a lot more expensive, compared with the same non-sustainable product. Fashion design is not merely about creating a beautiful design—if you want your business to succeed, you need to factor in the numbers. I have to consider how much my clothes should be priced so people will buy them. If I set a lower price, I can’t afford to use ethically verified materials.

“If you don’t have good distribution channels, finding the brands to help you sell your product is difficult. I engage with communities, NGOs, and corporate companies. Our business model is designed to balance between providing for daily expenses for my team and having a good social and environmental impact. It’s only when you have brand equity that you have the ability to help others who cannot earn through fashion.”

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Photo: Vickie Au

“Of course, there are ways to lower the cost of sustainable fashion products, especially for larger brands—they can do this by looking at the scale of the economy. When consumers are willing to believe in something and buy it, then sustainable fashion becomes the majority, and manufacturers are willing to take the leap.

“You might think what all of these manufacturers are doing is trying to make more money at all costs, but they are merely reflecting consumer needs, not actively trying to ruin the environment and profit off of it. It’s a symbiotic relationship; when there’s demand, there’ll be supply. When the demand grows, manufacturers will purchase more sustainable materials, which will lower the final product’s price for consumers.

“Covid-19 was proof of this. During the pandemic, when business was slow, manufacturers would reach out to me: ‘We have space. Is there anything you want to try out?’ Choosing between profit and innovation, they chose to bet on the latter.”

Photo: Vickie Au

“A lot of people don’t know the definition of sustainable fashion. Sustainable fashion isn’t just about being eco-friendly; it also addresses issues like feminism and gender equality, fair trade, and vulnerable members of society. But in Hong Kong, sustainable fashion is only about environmental concerns. Beyond our city, the definition of sustainable fashion is much broader. According to research, Hong Kong’s knowledge of sustainable fashion is far behind by 20 to 30 percent compared to other countries, though this is not surprising!”

Photo: Vickie Au

“When I talk to my creative investors and supporters, they say, ‘You have a lot of creativity, but you’re doing a lot of community work.’ And when I reach out to NGOs, they say, ‘Your clothes are so beautiful, but we don’t need such luxurious things.’ It’s a conundrum where I’m stuck in the middle. Hong Kong still has a large disparity between doing social good and fashion. I want to change the industry by taking this path to set an example.

“I apply for international design awards every season, like the Red Dot Design Award. When I win these awards, people will understand that overseas fashion institutions are willing to prioritise fashion related to sustainability and social good. Hong Kong is progressing in this regard, but it’s slow—that comes with any institution—but the chance came with the launch of Fashion Summit, an eco-fashion hub at Centrestage in 2021 and this year.”

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Photo: Vickie Au

“I always hire fresh graduates who are just starting out in the fashion industry. I tell them to rifle through my cupboards, which are stacked with recycled fabrics, like swatches and scraps from manufacturers, and to use them and try to incorporate them into their designs. It’s important to try to make something with your own two hands.

“In fashion, work-life balance can seem like a scam, but it really is important. If you like to do something, you can do it twenty-four-seven. If you have passion, you’re willing to put in the work. As a fashion designer, there really are no boundaries. But life isn’t just about work. You also need to prioritise your well-being. Oftentimes, a project isn’t about putting in more hours. If you can’t complete it that day, it’s just that you haven’t planned well enough.”

SS22 Luv Patchwork Handmade series. Photo: Vickie Au

“You need a lot of perseverance just to take the first step into fashion. It takes determination and hard work, and it has many limitations. It’s very cheesy, but it’s all about your intentions. I didn’t have to do sustainable fashion. But everyone entering the industry, including myself, must ask themselves: ‘What do you want to express through your designs?’”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Mina Chan

Writer

Inquisitive by nature and a lover of all things creative, Mina thrives on exploring the cultural and artistic side of the city. When she isn’t researching (read: obsessing over) the latest niche topic that catches her eye, she enjoys sipping on iced lattes, singing along to her favourite West End musicals, and reading books recommended to her by her friends.

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