Jennifer Koh, founder of Orientale, talks about her vision of qipao and functionality in fashion.
When you come across the word qipao written across the pages, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? We can bet at least 37 dollars and 99 cents it’s not a tailored silky dress in a soothing, neutral hue.
The perception of traditional Chinese dress is coated in vibrant colour, opulent embellishments and mind-haunting embroidery, which look fantastic under glass domes and, perhaps, occasionally on the not-quite red carpet of The Met Gala. As the industry flows into a state of ultimate efficiency, the qipaos drop the heavy-handed symbolism and get broken down to bare essentials. At least that’s if you were to believe Jennifer Koh, fashion designer and founder of Orientale.
How did you get into fashion?
I grew up doodling dresses more than anything else. My path has been clear since I was young, so I explored every aspect of fashion. I had many hobbies on the side, but my main focus always remained on the creative end. I was born and raised in Hong Kong, where I studied design and textiles in high school, and moved to New York to attend Parsons. I spent half a year at Central Saint Martins in London and eventually ended up at Parsons’ Paris campus in my final year, where I revisited my love for couture and gowns.
What inspires you?
For Orientale, I adapt historical Chinese artefacts, imperial clothing and even the tiniest elements to combine with modern minimalistic silhouettes. I take inspiration from anything. Aside from fashion, I express ideas through painting, cooking, photography and any visual medium.
What sets Orientale apart?
Orientale focuses on simplicity, longevity and slow movement. I’m not an avant-garde designer; you won’t find impractical, costume-like “art piece” designs in Orientale. We want to offer something representative of our heritage for our generation that’s appropriate to wear daily. We aim to create less and encourage seasonless fashion, hence we set up Orientale Atelier, a made-to-order service with supporting 3D tech to minimise production waste and overconsumption.
Do you design Orientale collections yourself?
I work with my clients and a tailor to produce our designs. I’d create variations of the same style to perfect each look. In our collaboration with Grace Chan, she’d tell me which silhouette works best on her, and then we’d add our oriental touches to the design, combining her personal aesthetics with a dash of romance and mandarin details to develop the best style for popular consumption.
Do you have a muse?
My clients are my muses. When I’m asked to create something for them, I visualise what silhouette would work best for them. And Grace Chan, of course. Is it narcissistic to say that I’m also my own muse? I mainly design pieces I can wear myself.
What was the hardest piece you and your team had to create?
None of our designs is particularly difficult, but I had the most fun designing and reinterpreting one of our winter pieces, which hasn’t yet been released.
Could you describe your creative process?
I do most things digitally. If I have an idea, I scribble or note it down on my phone and do a more detailed rendering when I have my computer. I look into archives and take inspiration from historic garments, but I usually pick out minor, subtle details and incorporate them into Orientale’s looks.
How would you describe your style journey?
I used to raid my mom and my grandma’s closets, so growing up I was quite experimental with my style. During my years abroad, almost all my foreign peers took inspiration from and referenced their heritage in creative projects, but I realised I’d never learned much about my own. When I was looking to wear something resembling a qipao as my graduation dress, I couldn’t find anything simple – they were often overly embellished and offered in tacky colours. I’ve always preferred clean and minimal designs, so I ended up creating my own simplified version of a qipao.
What, for you, is the biggest style faux pas?
Disrespecting dress codes or themes.
What’s your favourite wardrobe piece?
A good pair of jeans – perhaps we’ll add denim to our line later on.
What’s next for Orientale?
Global expansion and outlets for our overseas clientele, as well as product range development. There’ll be many new projects soon, so stay tuned.