Fashion Files

Koi

Koi Suwannagate (pronounced Soo-wahn-na-gate) is a Bangkok-bred fashion designer with a taste for feminine, one-of-a-kind designs. Since launching her brand more than 10 years ago in Los Angeles, Koi has established a signature style of intricate draping and artistic details, been recognized by major fashion industry figures such as Vogue and the CFDA and has received many accolades, including being chosen as one of Women抯 Wear Dailys top 10 collections for Spring/Summer 2009. After a great amount of success, including worldwide distribution to stores like Barneys New York and Nordstrom, as well as a knit collection for Anthropologie, Koi took a break to reassess the direction of her brand. Now she抯 back, living in NYC and excited to discuss her future projects as well as what she has learned about the fashion business from her time in the industry.

Did you always know you wanted to be a designer?
No, I didn抰 know what I wanted to be until I was 27 years old. But I抳e always liked drawing, especially on the exterior walls of my grandparents house, and have been making things with my hands since I was a young girl.

What is your favorite part about being a designer?
I like to be creative and hands-on. When I抦 designing, I like to play with texture, color and different design motifs.

You launched your line in 2001 in Los Angeles. What we抮e some of the early challenges you faced? What about early wins? What were the really exciting moments for you?
I was one lucky duck! When I started designing, I was still in fashion school and wasn抰 really following what was considered in or out of fashion. The idea for my first collection came to me at the last minute when I was turning in a homework assignment. We were asked to decorate t-shirts or something like that. I had painted my shirt, but felt that it needed more design. So, I decided to cut the sleeves into thin strips and tie little bows all around the armhole. I also cut strips on the sides and tied them into notches. When I was finished, many of my friends asked if they could buy the shirt from me. That was my early win, I guess. I then made a small capsule collection with the same idea. The whole collection was bought by a high-end boutique in San Francisco and re-ordered two weeks later. I was overjoyed! They said the idea was quite fresh. Then everything else started happening very quickly.

How would you describe the Koi Suwannagate woman? What is her style?
She is into her own choices. She抯 different and she does not follow fashion. She prefers things that are timeless, handmade and exclusive. But, she also likes things that are a bit modern in that she likes things to be incomplete and interesting-looking. She抯 not afraid to be different.

Where do you find inspiration for your designs?
Women匢 love the female body. I design by draping fabric instead of sketching. I like that my designs evolve throughout the process, and I never know what I抣l end up with. I also love vintage clothing and trims.

In 2007, you debuted your collection at New York Fashion Week to high acclaim from fashion press and retailers. How did you feel showing you抮e your designs on such a huge platform? What was it like to receive such high praise following your debut?
It was definitely a great opportunity for me to learn how other designers work and, in general, how the fashion industry works. Before then, I was operating in a vacuum. I learned so much from the experience and got to appreciate all the production that was put together to support the clothing image. It was so unexpected when we learned we were one of WWD抯 top 10 collections for that season. It was really a great honor and I was humbled, but, oh boy, the whole company was so exhausted!

That same year, Vogue and the CFDA nominated you for the prestigious Fashion Fund Award. What was that experience like for you? How did it influence your designs and your business?
It was huge for the business. It was an amazing time in my life to be part of something like that. I wish I was the kind of person who knows how to use a given opportunity and multiply it into millions, but I抦 not. I抦 not trying to build a huge business匢 am more artistic I guess. I prefer to keep my business small and close to my heart so that I want to get up every day and be excited to make something with my hands. I like working in my own way and on my own timeline. With the nature of my design, I抦 not meant to have a big business. Or, at least, one that抯 just about selling clothes. I can抰 be happy seeing my designs lose their quality from cheaper production. So, I抦 getting back to doing what I do best, which is making clothes by hand.

You took a break from designing for a few years. What were you doing during that time? Do you feel like the break from the industry altered your approach to design or your views of the industry as a whole?
I got really burned out and needed to clear my head. I knew I didn抰 want to keep going the way I was, and I needed to stop in order to see things more clearly. I lived in the Virgin Islands for two years, basically putting a pause on my company in Los Angeles. I was also traveling and spending time with family. During that time, I tried to figure it out how I wanted to approach the business in my own way and not follow others.

You recently moved to New York and are back to designing. What can you tell us about the current collection you抮e working on?
I抦 going back to my core. I want to do one-of-a-kind pieces. I have incorporated fur into my cashmere designs, which I have not done before. I抦 quite satisfied with it.

When you抮e not designing, how are you spending your free time?
I started yoga, and I find that it really centers me. I work all the time and I also cook a lot. I also like going to museums and flea markets.

A lot of designers have a sort of clothing uniform. Do you think that you always dress a particular way? What抯 your style uniform?
I always get dirty, so I stick with simple pants and a t-shirt.

What is your hair routine?
I wash every other day. I like the natural look.

What do you think is the chicest hairstyle to wear with one of your designs?
I always like women with a natural look. If you have a good haircut, you can be a bit messy with your look. I like hair that falls around the neck at the moment.

Do you have any advice for young designers hoping to break into the industry?
There are so many designers in the industry, yet all the clothes look relatively the same. You need to find you own DNA.

Love it? Share it!