Mei Liu leads something of a sartorial double life. From 10 to 6 -- this generation's 9 to 5 -- the New York-based designer works full-time at Paper Denim & Cloth in women's sportswear. Her after-hours are dedicated to Priory of Ten, the line she started with two friends in 2011.
Now heading into its sixth season, Priory is the perfect example of the fact that a fashion brand doesn't become a success overnight. Figuring out a line's aesthetic and target audience are in many ways a constant evolution.
"It's like raising a child and seeing what its core strengths and weaknesses are," Liu says. "[You] boost its growth around its strength and really try to veer away from its weaknesses."
Priory of Ten was born as an in-house label for two Vancouver boutiques that Liu's friends Eunice Quan and David Lin own, called Board of Trade. Having worked at Phillip Lim for two years after graduating from Parson's associate program, Liu was ready to take a more active design role but wasn't sure that she wanted to climb the corporate ladder in a larger brand. When Quan and Lin asked if she wanted to handle design for the nascent line, she took them up on it.
"I'll be honest, I was super naive at the time," Liu says. The three co-founders didn't prepare a business plan and had only a loose idea of what their target market would be, although they did pinpoint New York as their primary geographic market, rather than Canada.
"I don't think any of us knew the type of investment, time-wise and financial, that it would take to watch the company grow. Definitely it was more of a passion project that we dove into without too much reservation," Liu says. "We kind of stumbled and grew along the way, and now I'm much wiser than I was two years ago."
Liu's background in accounting -- yes, she was an accountant for two years before applying to design school -- meant that she became both the designer and the label's financial planner. While the threesome initially tried more of a communal design process, Liu slowly took that over as well, given that she was the only one in New York and had a design background. Quan handles sales now, and Lin has come to take more of a supportive role, although merchandising is his strong suit.
Priory's product, too, has changed sizably over the last two years. Because it was born in the context of the Board of Trade stores, which cater to Canada's so-called "urban woodsman" (a.k.a. hipster) population, Liu says she tried to marry the structure and tailoring that she had learned at Phillip Lim with a more casual, sporty vibe. It soon became clear that the dissonance between her personal inclinations and Priory's sartorial mission statement wasn't working.
"I think because of my own design background, instinctively I wanted to offer something a little more... I guess you could say feminine, elegant and severe," she says.
Now in its fifth season, Priory's luxe sportswear has evolved into just that. The Fall 2014 collection translated the Canadian woods into some beautiful knits and clingy dresses. There are still touches of sportiness, as with a particularly great baseball jacket in a nubby forest green wool.
In a world where mass market retailers advertise their brightest wares on sunny-looking models, billboard size, Liu says her goal with Priory is to tap into the seriousness and solemnity that women feel, too. As Liu (very accurately) points out, people get down on themselves, and just because it's spring doesn't mean prints and flouncy skirts are the only option.
As for brands Liu looks up to most, she answers without a beat: "I love what Acne is doing. In every aspect I think what they're doing is so on point."
Priory has grown its stock list slowly but surely, most recently landing its first Japanese accounts. According to Liu, convincing buyers to get on board with their brand is less about wowing them right off the bat and more about building up trust by delivering consistently great product season after season. Buyers might watch for three or four seasons before deciding to work with a brand, just to make sure that the quality is really there.
"I think because the market is so saturated, and because buyers have such easy access to information about new up and coming designers, it's very difficult to just sell and pull people in through verbiage," Liu says. "They really just have to see something about the product that they're drawn to."
Check out Priory of Ten's full Fall 2014 lookbook after the jump.