In our long-running series "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion and beauty industries about how they broke in and found success.
Fashion is all about storytelling, and we know for certain that telling stories will never go out of style. While designers are responsible for weaving their backgrounds into their work, it's the publicists who help them paint the full picture of who they are, where they came from and what they're selling. Though their efforts often blend into their camouflaged backstage personas, there are some whose work speaks so loudly that it's impossible not to notice them, even if they're wearing PR's all-black uniform.
Christina Tung, founder of House Of, is one such publicist. Her holistic approach to public relations has made her a force of good in an industry that could use an intervention. She's also a great reminder that there's no right way to tell stories, but that the best stories are those we don't hear often and the ones that open us up to new perspectives.
Tung is one of those rare PR mavens whose depth of experience in jobs far outweighs her breadth: Having only held two PR positions, Tung launched House Of in 2015 with the goal of creating an agency that would champion designers with a unique point of view and that use their work to drive positive change. Its diverse roster includes Chelsea Paris, JW Pei, Serendipitous Project, The Series, Ookioh and YanYan.
Tung talks about her brands' successes like a proud older sister or mother, who's relishing in the hard work of people that she truly cares about. Their creations are as precious to her as her own; Tung founded her own label, SVNR, in 2018, after spending a long, rainy weekend repurposing beads to make one-of-a-kind jewelry. Conscious consumption is the foundation of SVNR, as is amplifying the work and vision of others, which is why she's collaborated with several of her well-respected peers on capsules, including the handmade bag brand Petit Kouraj and stylist Mecca James-Williams.
On top of managing own agency and making upcycled wearable treasures, Tung has built her own personal platform, and used it to hold space for important conversations. She launched an Instagram Live series, 5.6 Living in Asian America, earlier this year to give a humanistic look at the APPI community and to more closely examine the issues it faces. Ahead, she reflects on the most illuminating moments to come out of those discussions, as well as how Tung has navigated working in fashion with thoughtfulness and a genuine desire to uplift all voices that deserve to be heard.
What interested you in a career in fashion?
I always felt like I connected with people through fashion. It was something that my mom and I did together. My parents were both in the medical profession — my mom was a dentist, retired now, and my dad is a retired emergency room physician. I wasn't around any business people, necessarily, when I was younger, particularly not anybody in fashion, so I didn't really think about it as a real job. I thought I would maybe pursue medicine, but I didn't think that my heart was really in it. I did go to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, and I was undeclared for as long as I could possibly be. I finally ended up majoring in writing seminars, which is basically creative writing, and then double-majoring in film and media studies, just because those were fun and interesting classes for me.
How did you land on public relations?
They didn't have any fashion classes, so I just gravitated towards what I enjoyed and kept putting off the idea of, what am I going to be when I grow up for real? I was also producing events for my sorority and working in retail selling baby cribs, which actually takes a lot of customer service.
I was also making clothes and designing jewelry on the side — mostly buying vintage stuff in the stores and then cutting them up, reselling them, stuff like that. My friends were buying my pieces, and I had a little booth at the fair.
With all of that interest and experience, one of my mom's best friends suggested I go into PR. I literally had no idea what that was.
What were some of the first steps you took to get experience or knowledge into the world of PR?
I was very clueless when it came to business stuff, so I just Googled 'New York City PR firms' and sent over my resume. I ended up at LaForce + Stevens for a year and a half, and that was my boot camp. That was the real foundation for me. James [LaForce] was such a fantastic mentor, as were my direct bosses, and it made a lot of sense to me. From there, I went in-house to Marc Fisher, and I was there for about eight years.
Eight years is lifetime in PR. How did you avoid becoming an agency-hopper, and when did you decide it was time to leave?
My business partner has worked everywhere in the industry — she's probably had 20 jobs, and I've had two. [I have] depth of experience. After eight years, they started to restructure. Their needs were different from what I was able to provide, so I was let go.
Looking back, getting let go is what I needed to grow. I think that they saw that, at least — that what I had to offer and what they needed, it wasn't a fit anymore. That's always this thing to remember: It's always a two-way street.
Did the parting inspire you to start House Of?
I was lucky enough to take a break, and I went to India for two months. I was freelancing a bit. It was one of those stereotypical, quintessential soul-searching moments where it was like, 'What do I have to offer here? What am I good at? What am I interested in? What do I enjoy? What do people need? What can I do for people that they actually value?' It really did come back to PR, but I felt like I had a different approach.
When I started House Of in 2015, it was really more with a holistic and genuine approach, I think, than a lot of mercenary publicists. I really felt like if I can design the life that I want and the environment that I want, I can choose who I want to work with and really champion the people that I think are talented and creative and have a mission that's going to make the industry — and the world — better.
I started working with some emerging designers and some larger brands, also, that were trying to revamp and become more relevant. I brought on a business partner in 2018. She really helped shape the agency so that it was beyond just me. Now we have a team of six, and it's amazing what a small number of people are able to do.
What do most of the designer/brands you work with have in common?
Sustainability, diversity and inclusivity are core to the House Of mission, and often make up our designers' raison d'etre. We work with a lot of 'identity designers' whose cultural identity and life experience informs their work and is seen in their collections, whether it be form, function, materials, process, prints or colors.
When you're looking to work with someone, what are some things that stand out to you? What makes a brand a great fit for House Of?
Obviously, there's the product and whether their collection and aesthetic is relevant right now. But beyond that, what's important is their mission: What makes them essential to the industry?
We hear every day about over consumption and overproduction, so there's so much to be said about why people feel a need to create more. That's part of the storytelling that we can help flesh out for them. When I have these client calls, I ask all the requisite questions: What are your goals and objectives? But I really am so interested in what brought them to design and what they're looking to achieve, not just in a financial, monetary way, but in a grander perspective, to get to know them as a person to really believe in them.
I'm really happy to say I have very strong relationships with my designers, and I'm rooting for them from a friend's perspective. I'm rooting for them obviously from a PR agent perspective, but also as a person, because I think they're all great people that I feel are talented and deserve success and deserve for their vision to be recognized.
Are there any projects or collaborations that some of your designers have done recently that you're super proud or excited about?
During the pandemic, I think everybody had some sort of mask collaboration, and I felt like a lot of them were coming from maybe less of a genuine base. But we worked with a lot of our designers who were selling masks to donate back to reputable organizations. There was one that I was volunteering a lot of my time towards, particularly in the beginning of the pandemic, called Last Mile. They were based in New York and making sure that they were getting quality products to the healthcare workers and essential workers that need it the most. I was on the team for procurement; I saw firsthand all of the considerations that went into the purchase of products, verifying and legitimizing it, working with reputable factories and manufacturers. We were very, very careful and vetted all of our sources. We were able to deliver tens of thousands of masks to Elmhurst and a lot of other hospitals that really needed it. We worked with Abacaxi, Giovanna and JW Pei on that initiative, where every fashion mask that they sold was able to get an actual N95 or a N95-equivalent to the health care worker.
Even beyond the pandemic, all of your brands — including your own — have given back. For instance, SVNR is currently donating a portion of proceeds to Building Black BedStuy. Is that something that you've always been passionate about?
I have always felt like if you have any means to be able to help people who have less, that's a real privilege and a real opportunity. I see having a brand as a vehicle for being able to make change, to inspire change, whether it's within the industry or within society, because you have this platform that's a little bigger than just you as a person. It's a major opportunity, to be able to use that voice to say something that progresses us forward.
You used to make magic out of vintage wares on the side, but how and when did you decide to launch SVNR?
In 2018, I think it was like a rainy Memorial Day weekend — I didn't have any plans, and I just had some jewelry that I wasn't wearing anymore. I went to the Bead District and bought some stuff. I thought I would craft for the weekend.
I was seeing a good friend of mine who had a sales showroom at the time and wanted to give her some earrings. She took a picture. She had a lot of buyers following her, so everybody was messaging her like, 'What is this brand?' So, she was like, 'Do you want to start a brand?' I was like, 'What? Did people want it?' She said we could just start an Etsy store.
I took some pictures on my iPhone and made a little line sheet and sent it out to my list of editors, not expecting anybody would actually get back to me. Literally within five minutes, Monica Kim, who was the fashion news editor over at vogue.com, wrote back like, 'Who has the exclusive? What's the launch strategy?' That got me to think that maybe there's something here.
How did you come up with the brand name?
There's a lot of designers that name their brand after themselves, and I applaud them because that really puts all of them into the brand. I wasn't quite brave enough to do that, and I wanted to keep myself separate from the brand because I didn't want to internalize the success or failure of it. If people liked it, great. If they didn't, great. I'm doing this for me. I really like the stuff that I'm making. I'd still be doing it whether it's a brand or not.
I didn't have that soul-crushing pressure that I think a lot of designers have and feel sometimes. And having worked with these creatives and seeing it firsthand and seeing the sale or closure of their brand, it feels very heavy. I just didn't want that to affect me personally.
Did you approach the name of your PR agency with the same mindset?
When I started House Of, a lot of people were like,'Why wouldn't you just name it Christina Tung or something after your own name?' That was what all of the PR agencies were doing at the time. For me and for what I'm trying to create, it's not about me at all. If I don't have the brands, then I have no work. House Of felt right to me because it's an incomplete phrase without the brand — we're here to amplify, but we're not a separate entity. That's how I wanted it to be, that we were like a seamless transition, a seamless team with the brand. I had so much in-house experience that I felt like I really wanted it to be holistic, an extension of the brand.
There was a lot going on in the world last year. How did that make you either rethink or just evolve the way you approach your business?
In the post-George Floyd Black Lives Matter movement, I had a lot of complicated feelings of, 'What can we do?' I felt like I really needed to take some real action and also introspective action, in understanding what ways my implicit biases have real-world effects.
From a brand perspective, there's a lot that's out there in the industry that feels very calculated or performative. I delved deeper into the storytelling of our different designers much more in the last year, and it made me realize we gravitated towards a 70% BIPOC roster — not on purpose, not seeking it out. That felt very reaffirming for me, because I wasn't doing it for any kind of cachet. It was just who I thought deserved to have some more visibility within the industry.
It's one of those things where, from a PR perspective, we're always trying to put our brands and our designers front and center and keeping their messaging relevant to what the writers are writing, which is always trying to stay relevant with what their readers are reading. It's always that cycle of trying to anticipate and trying to create interest in what we find interesting.
You started an Instagram Live series called 5.6: Living in Asian America. What prompted you to hold these important conversation on social media?
I had some hesitation, obviously, because it was like, 'Do I have the bandwidth to do it? Do I have the ability to give this the attention and thoughtfulness that it deserves?' It started with the Atlanta killings and the rise in AAPI hate crimes. I was having a lot of personal conversations with my friends within the AAPI community and outside. Those were so illuminating for me, and I wanted more people to hear them.. Some of the conversations were with my designers. Some were just with my friends. I decided on Instagram Live because I liked that it felt like listening to a conversation with a friend. We had some really great turnout and commentary and questions and feedback. It just felt really supportive.
There were so many different topics that I wanted to cover, and it was so hard to do it within one hour. That's why I wanted to create a multi-part series, so that we can go deeper rather than try to cover too much in a single episode. The themes that I found most interesting were really around assimilation: That was like the entry, the gateway into fashion, trying to feel like you belong and feel connected to other people through how you dress. Especially with women, I think there's a very socialized interaction where it's like, 'You look great. Who is this? What is this?' That starts very, very young, and that's just the way that we as a society have been coached to interact with women.
We talked a lot about the model minority myth, appropriation versus appreciation, colonialist mentality, climate justice and how that plays out and how that might've played out within your experience. Also, talking about media coverage and what that really looked like and felt like. There were a lot of great themes throughout, but what was so interesting to me was just hearing people's personal experiences — how they grew up, where they grew up, what they grew up valuing and believing.
As the series went on, I realized that the value here really is more about humanizing people that you may not be familiar with. If you don't live in a really diverse area, you may not ever come into contact with somebody who doesn't quite look like you in any kind of genuine, peer-to-peer way. It may be that they're doing a service for you of some sort, but you're not having a conversation where the power dynamic is equal. Even just seeing these conversations where it was like, 'This was my experience growing up in middle school, and this was what was hurtful, and this was what I remember, and this was why I dress the way I do or look the way I do, or this is how people treated me based on how I looked.'
What feedback did you get from these conversations? How was it illuminating for you?
Every comment, from an emoji to a real thoughtful monologue or shared experience, felt like bringing people together and reinforcing that we all have different experiences, but they're rooted in the same human emotion.
I had a moment where one of the designers behind YanYan was talking about how they're really close with their factory workers, and that they get really disappointed when styles get canceled. They felt responsible, and, of course, they have feelings about the product that they're making, too. I just never thought about how much they would care about the things that they're making. Of course, the designer cares when a buyer doesn't want a particular style — it's their vision. But the makers who are actually making it also felt like, 'Wait, why didn't they want to buy this one?' That was another moment for me where it was like, 'Yeah, these are not nameless, faceless, factory worker robots in a large warehouse space. These are people who show up, and they take pride in their work just like anybody takes pride in their work.' Everybody takes pride in their work when they feel like they did something well.
Is there a fashion person or a brand right now that you really look up to or you think is doing great work?
From a designer's perspective, I think Mara Hoffman has been adding a real standard for sustainability and for that mindfulness with production design. She's such a hero to me. Rachael Wang is a really great friend of mine — I always look up to her and her perspectives on current events and things that are happening. She actively speaks out about what a lot of people just consume passively. Céline Semaan has built an incredible program with Study Hall; she really thinks outside the box in terms of what's needed and how to provide it in a way that s just outside of a capitalist system. I think there's so much of what she does that a lot of other people would try to monetize in a very aggressive way, and she's just providing resources for good.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.