Yoon Chang is an alumnus of Parsons School of Design and, subsequently, Cynthia Steffe's design team, where she met merchandising director Je-Won Hwang. The two soon decided to join forces to create their own line.
Whistle & Flute launched in Fall of 2007 and was featured in Gen Art's emerging designer showcase shortly after, winning the org's best new ready-to-wear designer award. Now, the line can be found in small boutiques all over the U.S., Hong Kong and London, as well as Saks.com. However, success hasn't come easy for the young design duo. Yoon and Je-Won spoke to us about how they're making it on their own with the added challenge of this shaky economy.
How did your line come about? Yoon: We used to work together at Cynthia Steffe. I was head designer and J was merchandising manager. We both worked together really well and had a similar aesthetic, so we decided to collaborate and start our own business in 2007. It was really a perfect marriage of abilities and talents, because I worked in design and Je did things like fabric research and merchandising. How did you raise the money? Je: It's entirely self-funded.
Yoon: We've had support from our family. It's really a labor of love right now. We are so passionate about it.
What was the scariest thing about going out on your own? Yoon: Leaving the comfort and support of working for a big company and going off on your own is definitely the scariest and ballsiest thing we've ever done. It was also exciting, but knowing the funding would be up to us and we'd have no one else to rely on was scary.
Je: I think whenever you leave your comfort zone and go out and try to do something different and new, it's always scary. And who would've expected this economic downturn?
How has that affected you guys? Yoon: It definitely stunted our growth and kind of threw every initial plan we had out the window, so we've just been trying to tread water. The positive aspect of the economy would be that we've really been able to focus on our brand and what we'd like to do with it.
What is your fashion background? Je: For both of us, Cynthia Steffe was our first job and we were there for many years. It was a really good experience--since we were there for so long, we were able to learn different things and wear different hats.
Yoon: I went to Parsons School of Design--I won a scholarship to go there. I also did a year abroad in Paris which was really exciting. In Paris, I got to experience a much more couture aspect of design, which was great because in the U.S., especially around then, the focus was more on sportswear and marketing. I also got to see all the couture and ready to wear shows.
Who has helped you the most along the way? Yoon: Our family has been really supportive. We were also really lucky in that we made so many friends and contacts while at Cynthia Steffe that have continued to support us. Also, shortly after we started our company, GenArt invited us to be a part of their showcase. That was really exciting because we got a lot of exposure.
Je: A lot of people have been supportive and helpful along the way. There's a misconception that people in the fashion industry are rude, and it's so competitive, but there is actually a lot of love and support out there and we really appreciate that. Was GenArt your big break? Yoon: Yes, that definitely helped us get exposure and motivated us. We also won the International Style award from Genart shortly before it shut down. These kinds of things not only increase our exposure, but help us and give us fuel to keep going with our collection.
What are your biggest challenges now? Yoon: Financial. Because of the economy, keeping cash flow going so that we can keep going is the toughest thing. Also, the kinds of stores we are targeting are small boutiques, and the economy has been especially tough on them. A lot of them are suffering and closing and that affects our distribution. We're just really trying to make sure the cash flow is there so that we can still produce amazing clothes. Where do you see yourselves in five years? Yoon: I'd love to do presentations and get more exposure. We're also interested in collaborating with artists. We love the idea of bringing the fashion medium to another area like art or architecture. Also, accessories! We'd love to do shoes.