Steven Tai: A Label to Watch for Chloé, Stella McCartney Fans

If you dig tomboyish silhouettes and futuristic fabrics, you'd better get to know Steven Tai.
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Eliza Brooke
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If you dig tomboyish silhouettes and futuristic fabrics, you'd better get to know Steven Tai.
Steven Tai's Spring Summer 2014 lookbook. Photo: Steven Tai

Steven Tai's Spring Summer 2014 lookbook. Photo: Steven Tai

Fans of Stella McCartney and Chloé, take heed and get Steven Tai on your radar, now. The 29-year-old Central Saint Martins grad may be London-based, but he's making waves on both sides of the Atlantic, having been chosen to show his spring collection in New York in the VFiles show in September and won the Chloé award at the Hyères International Festival of Fashion and Photography in 2012.

The young designer's eponymous womenswear label has a Stella-esque simplicity and tomboy slouch that's right in line with the sportiness we've been seeing on the runways over the last few seasons. But despite the easy cuts of his clothing, Tai has been working his tail off recently. In the background of our Skype interview, members of Tai's team were sitting on a couch bent over laptops. They were pulling an all-nighter in preparation of bringing their fall 2014 collection to their Paris showroom.

Such was the case when Tai was prepping for the VFiles show. Tai says he didn't know much about VFiles prior to working with them, but a friend suggested he get involved. So two weeks before the show he found himself pulling together a range of pastel laser cut and silkscreened looks.

"I had nothing ready because I wasn't planning for New York, and you guys are first. So I actually said no in the beginning," Tai says.

But realizing how good of an opportunity it would be, Tai eventually agreed. VFiles requested 15 looks, which Tai first told them he couldn't deliver. Two sleepless weeks later, he had the full 15.

The label usually shows at Toronto Fashion Week, partly because it's home for Tai. He was invited to show by Paola Fullerton, the founder of Canada's The ShOws who regularly invites Canadian designers who work abroad to show in Toronto. It's an infusion of new blood in what Tai describes as a rather "corporate" fashion environment.

He counts brands like Stella McCartney and Chloé as influences -- "a kind of boyish, tomboyish vibe" -- along with Japanese designers like Undercover and Junya Watanabe. As a male womenswear designer, Tai says that his collections are always going to have a slightly harder edge.

When asked what sets his work apart from others', Tai says it comes down to the fabrics. Thus far, each new season has brought out a new textile technique. Two seasons ago, he did a collection using silicone fabrics. Spring/summer was a mixture of silkscreen, deep press, laser cut and adhesives ("a lot of processing"). It's difficult and costly to produce in this manner, Tai says. But the price is worth it.

"When I look at my sales report, those are the things that sell," Tai notes. "If you don't do it, you're not going to sell at all. It's more about learning how to do something interesting with textiles and learn to curb the cost of it."

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They're still learning how to be thrifty. Tai's advice on cutting the costs of silicone manufacturing: "Don't do silicone, I guess?"

"It's a bad thing, but I get really bored easily, so we have all these new completely new techniques every season, which is costly. That's what I get stoked about."

Tai launched his brand in 2012 with his Chloé award winnings. That same year, Mercedes Benz selected him to show in Berlin. More than the money, it's the personal connections built by these opportunities that have built Tai's brand.

"That makes a difference between you being a person in a room making clothes that no one's ever going to get access to or know... and getting it to someone important or someone relevant and getting their advice [on] it. I think that's the biggest thing," he says.

That's not to say life has been a breeze for Tai. It's still a hustle. In many ways, Tai is a case study in leveraging the grants and funds that have become available to young designers to lift their brands off the ground.

Tai is also part of London's Centre for Fashion Enterprise program, which is something like a multi-leveled incubator for young designers. Brands like Mary Katrantzou and Peter Pilotto have passed through its doors.

The first level gives designers a crash course on PR, brand management, marketing and production, and the second level -- which Tai is currently in -- gives the designers more one-on-one instruction. Later on, the participants are given grants and studio space.

"You literally leave thinking, 'How else would I have learned this? There's no other way. Like, no one else would tell you this," Tai says.

Tai did study business before coming to Central Saint Martins, so he already had a leg up on other creatives who struggle to deliver their ideas in a pragmatic way. Tai's family also works in production, which is a "huge benefit" on that front.

There's also something to be said for talent. Tai's label may be young, but it's promising. He's releasing his fall 2014 look book soon, so we'll be keeping our eyes peeled for that, as well as for Tai's entry into more retail doors (he's currently sold at Vfiles). We suggest you do the same.