For Snow Xue Gao, who traveled from Beijing to New York City to continue studying fashion design at Parsons, starting her namesake brand immediately after showcasing her graduate collection in 2016 sounds like an ambitious decision. But when you get the approval of and exposure from Rihanna — the singer wore Gao's pinstripe blazer at the 2016 Global Citizen Festival — perhaps that's all you need to take the leap into starting your own label.
There's more that contributes to Gao's success so far. With only three official seasons under her belt, she's already garnered a LVMH Prize shortlist nomination this year, as well as the 2017 Swarovski & Vogue Talents New Generation Award and put on her own presentation and runway show — plus, garnered a slew of retailers that has tripled since her fashion week debut with VFiles.
"I'm kind of surprised that our first season got six stores because [buyers] didn't really know how the production quality is," Gao tells Fashionista from her Garment District-based studio. "They wanted to take risks and bring in a new designer’s first collection. It really encouraged myself to keep doing this thing." (Currently, she boasts more than 20 stockists around the world.)
Gao's path to pursuing fashion didn't come easy. While studying fashion design at the Beijing Institute of Technology, which was predetermined because of her results from a major Chinese college entrance exam called gaokao, Gao had zero knowledge of fashion and industry at large. Her freshman year mostly involved foundation classes in drawing and sketches, and she assumed her future would involve a career in art. "I don't really know what the difference is between design and fine art. Why should we separate it? We're all doing art," says Gao. "In the first year, I was struggling with this."
By Gao's sophomore year, things started to click, especially when she was learning to take inspiration and turn it into a collection. "I just realized, 'Oh, this is also a way you can explain your idea,' and it can be the same thing with your drawing, or your singing," recalls Gao. "It's just another platform to explain the story you want to tell people. It can also be part of art." She finally realized she truly enjoyed the process of making clothes.
"It's not like you're designing a building, and it takes years or so many materials and a team to make a thing happen," says Gao. "With clothes, the process is shorter and more for my personality. I wanted to see the result quickly, and when I'm done with a small collection, I just look forward to the next one." Once she was done studying in Beijing, she wanted to move on to the next step and a new city and country — by getting her MFA at Parsons.
Gao described her first two years in New York City a few different ways: Her education mostly involved project assignments rather than traditional classes. She worked hard and learned a lot, but was often stressed. The environment — a small class of about 11 students — was highly competitive. "It's not about just graduating. It's not about just passing a class. It's about being the best," says Gao. "It's not about doing a lot of work. It's about doing beautiful work — and the professor pushing you.”
While Parsons helped Gao hone her craft, an apprenticeship for the longtime (and legendary) Brooklyn-based tailor Martin Greenfield made Gao fall in love with suiting. By combining her knack for handmade tailoring techniques and Chinese culture, she's developed a beloved brand identity that revolves around East-meets-West influences while feeling entirely fresh, cool and, above all, wearable. A tie-front, double-breasted jacket that's layered with a silk kimono is one of Gao's popular, takeover styles, along with a matching pair of trousers with the same silk fabric peeking out from the bottom. The "Snow Shirt," another signature, nicely balances elements of a kimono and a traditional dress shirt, as well as a modern interpretation of the qipao that's asymmetrically cut with twisted knots and pinched-dart details.
Gao's design process stems from a past stint in styling during her last two years in Beijing. From a 3-D perspective, she experiments with draping vintage clothes and past seasons' samples on a friend. "She'll be the model and I just do styling on her body and take a lot of pictures," explains Gao. "For example, I'll twist a vintage kimono and one of my classic suits together, tie there, try this proportion. From one fitting or styling, we can get maybe 200 pictures for our inspiration board." Her small-but-mighty team of three also develops their own original prints. For the next Spring 2019 collection, they're working with a few Italian mills to develop a lightweight, almost transparent suiting fabric.
With a solid co-sign from buyers, celebrities and stylists, Gao plans to grow her namesake brand by connecting directly with her customers. The decision stems from an experience at the beginning of year, when she spent two days observing shoppers at one of her retailers, the major department store SKP in Beijing. There's also a custom-made suiting service in the works; appointments will be made via the label's website. Gao hopes to rent a space in Manhattan that could facilitate as a luxury tailor shop — complete with ready-to-wear pieces for sale, as well as a fitting corner for measurements. Earlier this spring, the idea slightly came to life, as Gao hosted a pop-up in her own studio. "We posted on social media and lot of people came," she recalls. "We sold a lot of pieces, but I think what's interesting is you're getting face-to-face feedback from the customer, the people who really buy the pieces."
See Snow Xue Gao's Fall 2018 collection in the gallery below.