From Missoni to Marna Ro: How Designer Sunjoo Moon Is Making It in Fashion

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Lauren Indvik
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Sunjoo Moon. Photo: Marna Ro

Sunjoo Moon. Photo: Marna Ro

In our long-running series, "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion industry about how they broke in and found success.

Sunjoo Moon is nothing if not adventurous. When she was just 17, fresh out of a private girl's school in her hometown of Sydney, Australia, she persuaded her parents to buy her a plane ticket to Paris under the guise of improving her French -- and secretly scouted out design schools. Her subsequent career in fashion has seen her at some of the world's most prestigious textile and fashion houses -- Cerruti, Missoni, Kenzo and Thierry Mugler among them -- and eventually as the owner of her own eponymous line and boutique in Paris.

But perhaps Moon's biggest adventure took place in 2008, when her husband, a Parisian native who loathed Paris, persuaded her to move (or, in Moon's words, brought her "kicking and screaming") to Los Angeles. For a year and a half she commuted back and forth between Paris, where she continued to run her own business, and LA, where her three children also lived. Eventually, something had to give, and Moon learned to embrace LA's fashion industry and attitude, melding her girly, Parisian aesthetic with Californian bohemia, first as the creative director of the label Of Two Minds, and now as the creative director of Marna Ro.

We recently sat down with the designer when she was in New York. She told us about her school days with Isabel Marant, how she started her own label and what she thinks about French versus Californian style. (Note: the transcription below has been edited and condensed.)

"I was born in South Korea and moved to Sydney, Australia, when I was nearly three years old and had my childhood there. I went to a private girls' school and my whole life was in uniform -- hats, blazers and ties -- from five until 17. I guess that was the creative in me; you have to look different when everyone looks the same.

I started making clothes when I was 15. It was sort of a post-punkish era. I had an idea that I could paint fabric and make clothes. My mother wouldn't let me buy fabric, so I took the sheets, hand-painted them, sewed waistbands in and figured out how to make clothes. There was a place in Sydney that would buy clothes from young designers, and I took mine in and sold a dress for $200. I kept making clothes my last two years of high school, and made all this money selling what were really hand-painted sheets.

A fall 2014 look from Marna Ro. Photo: Marna Ro

A fall 2014 look from Marna Ro. Photo: Marna Ro

I graduated from school at 17 and went to Paris. I told my parents I was going to do a French course in Paris, but in fact I went there to look for a design school. And then I found a a design school [ed note: Studio Bercot] and I came back and announced to my parents I was going to study fashion design and they said, 'Aren't you going to be a doctor?' And I said no. I finally got them to agree to design school, and if I still wanted to go to medical school I could after. They placed me at their friend's house in Paris, but I left three days later, saying it was too far from school, and pretty much immersed myself into this young Parisian culture. I couldn't really speak French that well, but in design it doesn't matter as much, and I had a great time, staying out until the morning. At design school I met Isabel [Marant]. She tells me that I taught her how to speak English, and she taught me how to speak French.

The reason I wanted to go to design school in Paris wasn't necessarily about learning how to be a designer, but understanding how the French fashion industry, how French fashion works. For me, French fashion was amazing because it's a trade that's handed down.

My first job was at Cerruti, where I was the young design assistant. Everything I learned about how to sew and how to hem I learned there. People used to call it the school of Cerruti, you go to Italy, you learn all about fabric. I spent five years there and then I was contacted by the Missoni family to come in as their women's designer. They are the most authentic, most generous, most amazing family. In Italy, everything is about family. At the time I was living in Paris, so I was flying between Paris and Italy. Then I started Missoni Black Label, which is suiting, and I learned all about tailoring, which you don't learn at school. That's another handed-down craft. I had an amazing five years [at Missoni]. Rosita [Missoni]'s house was next to the factory, and she had us over for lunch and taught you about Italian cooking and lifestyle and culture. In France that's quite rare, you don't have that same sense of family.

I was then contacted by the LVMH Group and went to design Kenzo Jungle [ed note: Kenzo's diffusion line]. It was a big, successful commercial line, also in Paris, very corporate, but really an amazing experience. It was all about color and prints, which is always something I've naturally gravitated to. Then I was contacted by the Clarins Group, which owned Thierry Mugler, and went to design the Thierry Mugler couture womenswear. It's not haute couture, but higher end ready-to-wear. I touched there so many different facets of fashion -- tailoring to knits to colors and prints, plus lots of evening dresses and leather and fur.

Photo: Marna Ro

Photo: Marna Ro

When you work for big houses you eventually want to do something for you. So I started my own line while I was working for fur companies [on the side]. I opened a little boutique in Paris just off the Bon Marché, with a studio in back. I wanted my own boutique because when you work for the big couture houses, you have design teams, you run off to factories in Italy and Germany and buy prints in London and give talks to the sales team, but you're very cut off from the end customer, it's such a big machine. Now, if I made the clothes I wanted to see how they were in the store and talk to my customers. I often worked up front and I funded the business myself -- it was really for me personally, for my personal expression. Prices ranged from $200 to $1,000, we sold to Neiman Marcus in the U.S. and throughout Europe and the Middle East and Japan. It was very girly, quite colorful. I used to say they were dinner party dresses, for girls who went to dinner parties and art exhibitions and worked during the day. It is the way you dress in Paris -- you get up in the morning, you get dressed, you go to a cocktail, to dinner, go home. In America, in Los Angeles, everyone is super casual and then you get dressed up to go out at night. In Paris, the way you dress in the morning is how you'll be at night. The clothes were what I wanted to wear and also filled a hole in the market.

So I had my own boutique and I was consulting and advising design teams and happily living the Parisian life. But my Parisian husband did not want to live in Paris anymore. All he wanted to do was move to the States. I literally left kicking and screaming. We moved to Los Angeles in 2008. My sister and brother-in-law work there in the film industry. The first year and a half in Los Angeles, I kept the business and the boutique going. I'd spend 10 days in LA and then 10 days in Paris. I was used to traveling around, so it didn't seem like a big deal. But I had three kids and I was still acting as if I was footloose and fancy free. So I decided to close down the business, but I didn't do anything until I placed everybody first. I couldn't have done it any other way.

Los Angeles was totally different and I had to figure out how I would approach things. In Paris, you open the door and you're taken up with the dynamism and energy of the city. In Los Angeles, you open the door and there's nothing. It really made me rethink everything and what it is that I do. Through Isabel [Marant] I met the owner of [now defunct label] Of Two Minds and became the creative director, it was about a year old then, and it was the perfect situation for me to bridge my Paris life to my California life, because I really discovered California with this brand. There's a real crossover between the Parisian girl and California girl. A real Parisian girl has a causal nonchalance to her. Parisian girls don't do their hair, they don't care about makeup, but they care about style and accessories, very simple and black, they have a natural sense of style. California girls -- the natural, almost hippy ones -- are similar. I think that was what the brand was about, California cool meeting Parisian chic. The [label] was compared to Isabel Marant's because we are friends, and she is the coolest girl on the planet, but she has a boyish cool whereas I am very girly. I did Of Two Minds for about three years. There were terrible times, at the end.

I was contacted by the owner and founder of Marna Ro, Naza [ed note: CEO Nasarudin Nasimuddin], early last year. He lives in Malaysia and came to Los Angeles and we met and we really clicked. We had this same vision of creating a lifestyle brand for an international citizen. It's me and three others on the design team, we have this whole in-house atelier with five sewers, a cutter, sampling in house, which is exceptional for Los Angeles. That's when I became the biggest fan of Los Angeles. I never thought I would find technical know-how here, but it's not that dissimilar from the workrooms in Europe.

If I have advice for design students, it's this: If you have a true love for design, and you have really strong conviction, then stick to your guns, believe in what you believe in, never give up, take it through to the end. In life, whether in design or film or whatever, anyone who sticks to their convictions makes it through, whether you're working for a big design house or your own business. At the end of the day it's about you as a person, how you're going to drive that, what suits you best expressing your aesthetics."