Sumie Tachibana is a fashion designer, based in Los Angeles, who specializes in creating bespoke couture garments, unique accessories and custom designs. On March 15th of this year she presented her couture collection Armour | Amour, in Los Angeles Fashion Week showing 5 couture looks for the Concept Show LA FW2014 on at the Mack Sennett Studios as the finale designer for the fashion presentation event. The collection, inspired by love and the protection of armour, was presented in sharp, sculptural brocade textiles that formed a bold and regal look. Weaving in silver threads and black & white print with black and navy base colours, Sumie’s dark foreboding silhouettes expressed a beautiful feminine strength that rocked daggers of contrasting fabrics, harness and helmet-like architectural forms with voluminous ruffles at thigh skimming lengths. These looks are not for the meek of heart.
Tachibana designs are known for their multi-textured, multi-paneled intricacies using black as the base and sourcing rare and luxurious fabrics that add balance in their contrasting textures and shades of black, white, steely greys, metallics.
After graduating with a degree in Textiles & Apparel and Apparel Design, Sumie immediately went in the direction of building her fashion business.
Though having to take some sidesteps into other professions to fund her career they were certainly of some advantage to her knowledge of running a business and doing as much of it as possible with a DIY work ethic.
While still living and studying in Texas she worked in accounting and photography growing skills that came in useful later when she started up her brand.
After graduating top of her class and with Best Cotton Design Award and most Avant Garde Award, she worked as an Assistant Design Intern at Blackmail Boutique in Austin, Texas.
Once she had saved enough to finance her move to New York, Sumie worked as an Assistant Designer for Francis Hendy and as a fabric buyer for Elie Tahari.
She also freelanced as a Wardrobe Stylist, Sewing Instructor and Fashion Designer and styled ad campaigns for Verizon, Corbis, Korean pop star music video and portraits
Sumie Tachibana has been featured in numerous publications and media including WWD, Vogue Italia, Zink Magazine, New York Magazine, Hope Street Magazine, ABC Local News, Time Out Magazine, and Vestal Magazine. Celebrity clients include: Kat Von D, Cyndi Lauper, Alicia Silverstone, Alan Cumming, and Charlotte Sometimes.
In 2003 you are a graduated from The University of Texas in Austin with a degree in Textiles & Apparel and Apparel Design, was this your first education or experience in fashion design -
My very very first experience in sewing was when I was about 10 years old. My mother’s friend was teaching a few girls how to sew for the summer. I made a basic top with matching shorts (bright red hawaiian floral print!!!) and a sailor top with a matching skirt. (white and navy)
After that, I didn’t touch a sewing machine until college.
Originally, I entered college as a business major. Close to the end of my college years, I switched over to fashion design.
Can you tell us about your experience with this course -
It’s a four year education college program, so the focus was more well rounded in terms of general education, but seriously lacking in its specific major, fashion design.
It’s not like an art college where you have to apply with a portfolio and already know how to sew.
I learned from the very beginning….for example, the first day of class was learning how to thread the machine.
What impressed you most about the course… what aspect of your studies do you feel you had the most benefit from -
I cannot say I was impressed with my fashion design education from UT Austin.
At the time, I didn’t really care for it, but to this day, I still benefit from learning Textile Chemistry. I have a much better understanding of fiber characteristics in fabrics because of it. This helps determine drape, fit, care instructions, and even how well it retains color.
A side note: At UT Austin, the fashion design program was under the college of Natural Science. Because of this, students in the college of Natural Science had to take many MANY science classes including: Organic Chemistry 1, 2, and Lab, Biology, Zoology, etc. as well as Textile Chemistry 1, 2, and lab.
One of my favorite classes were history of costume 1 and 2, and any of the art history courses I took. History is always an inspiration.
In 2002, midway through your studies, you undertook a Summer Intensive course in Fashion Design at Parsons School of Design, was this part of your course or a self-initiated venture and was it a worthwhile addition to your studies -
It was something I felt I needed to do to further my education. Fashion Illustration wasn’t a big focus at UT Austin, so I took several courses at Parsons over one summer. It was definitely worth doing. Illustration is still not my forte, but it’s something I need to do all the time, especially for clients.
Did you have a graduate show? If so how did you prepare for it -
Yes we did have a graduate show. We had one semester to work on our final collection between 3-7 designs. I did 5 looks total. Most of the looks had 3 pieces to it. (e.g. jacket, top skirt). Over winter break, I organized a group of classmates to fly out to New York to go fabric shopping. By then, I already had ideas of what I wanted to design, and was drawing at the hotel, researching, and shopping during the trip. For the rest of the semester, I created a chart of what I had to make and how much time I had to make each piece. I still do this to this day. You have to pace yourself. Like a long distance runner, you don’t want to burn yourself out at the first part of your race……a good steady pace, then sprint to the finish line!
Were there many important industry figures at your grad show, have you any advice for students in dealing with important contacts -
There were important industry figures from the city of Austin, such a popular local boutique owners and more established local designers, but not any big name fashion industry figures.
Now that you have graduated and had a working experience, what do you consider to be an essential study for design graduates preparing to enter the fashion industry -
To work for a fashion corporation as a fashion designer, you definitely need strong computer skills in Adobe programs…..photoshop, illustrator, and other CAD programs.
But more than anything, you must be quick on your feet, incredibly organized, good at math, good at talking/socializing, and knowing how to design to sell is key to climbing the corporate ladder
What was your own first step after graduating -
I had been working two jobs while I was in college to save up money and move to New York after graduation.
(worked at the University’s accounting office and worked as a wedding photographer)
So I moved to New York with a classmate and started applying to fashion jobs while teaching students how to sew and selling my designs in local boutiques.
Was this a step you had always planned to make or did you find that you had to make new decisions based on opportunities or the industry climate at the time -
Moving to New York was a plan I always had in mind. Not having a corporate job immediately after graduating college was something I did not expect.
I graduated at the top of my class with honors, but it meant nothing in New York.
Competition was incredibly tight. I’m competing with Parsons and FIT students as well as all the other kids that moved from other states like myself. It took almost a year to land my first full time job at Elie Tahari as a fabric buyer.
To prepare yourself for starting your own business what were your main priorities -
One of my main priorities was to find a local manufacturer that can do high quality production with intricate designs. This was a lot harder to find and incredibly expensive. Many of the companies said my designs were too complex for production. It’s mainly because I use several types of materials to make one piece. For example, the Marie Corset blouse that you purchased. I ended up testing a few in Manhattan’s garment district and finally picked one.
Another priority was to find buyers, boutiques, and getting press.
Did you experience any challenges common in starting up a design business -
My biggest challenge was getting people to trust me as a company to buy from. When you are a new designer, buyers are reluctant to take the risk of trying a new line.
They are thinking if they can trust you as a business person……can you meet deadlines, is the quality going to be good, etc? And will their customers buy a new brand?
How did you overcome those challenges -
My first two seasons, I completely flopped and made a ton a mistakes. I signed with a small showroom in New York that only took money and never made sales or got me in press. Instead, I started selling online myself and taking my designs to local boutiques to sell on consignment. And by being in boutiques, I was able to connect with stylists and photographers to get my work in Press. It also helps if you are in a popular boutique…..then the owners help connect you with press as well to advertise their boutique and the designers they carry.
In regards of financing your own start up, did you have a particular solution-
I worked corporate for about 3 years while teaching and selling in boutiques part time. I saved up enough money to be able to quit and start my business.
I also did virtually everything myself to keep the budget low. I did a lot of the photography myself, worked on the website, really everything from start to finish. The trick or key is doing everything on the lowest budget possibly while still keeping the quality to the standard of your brand.
On a side note, in many books and articles I’ve read, a lot of times it says don’t do everything yourself. You have to learn how to manage and hire work out. But when you don’t have that kind of budget, it’s really useful for you yourself to know how to do graphic design, websites, photography, etc. in addition to the fashion design, pattern making and sewing.
Have you discovered any funding method that is useful to new designers who wish to run their own business -
I know some of my colleagues have used Kickstarter to get funding for their business. I’ve personally never used it before.
Your work displays a deep understanding of fabric and how it can be used, what do you look for first in a textile -
I’ve always had a taste and appreciation for quality fabrics, even before I was a fabric buyer. But once I became a fabric buyer, I learned so much more about fabrics and felt I had a huge leg up as a fashion designer. We received samples from some of the most elite fabric mills in Italy, France, and Asia.
When I go into a fabric store, I pretty much start touching every fabric possible.
I’m listening and feeling the “hand” of the fabric. How thick is it? Is it smooth? Is it drapey? Is it sticky? What kind of texture does it have? Does it feel cold? Is it fuzzy? Can you hear a swish when it moves?
I like to use fabric beyond the expectations of how it is traditionally used or paired with other fabrics. I also love to manipulate the fabric. If it’s soft, perhaps I want to make it more structured! The possibilities are endless.
When sourcing your materials you seem to prefer European produced fabrics, can you tell us what attracts you to these over other places -
Overall they are very forward with their textile designs and cater to the higher end market, which is what I design. I also know more about Italian mills because I worked with many of them during my time at Elie Tahari.
Have you visited any textile production factories – if so, what was your experience -
Only in the US, a cotton textile mill. I feel pretty indifferent.
What do you think about the new digital textiles that are emerging from technical sources, as opposed to natural, such as 3d printed or heat, light and even sound reactive -
I personally cannot see myself using it, at least any time soon, but I think this kind of experimentation and advancement is great and fascinating.
Over 10 years ago, I visited a showroom where they had these kind of materials, material connexion. With the heat from your hand, it could produce sound, no wires!
Another one was you can mold this netting fabric, and it retains the shape until you mold it again.
In your company you also offer design tutoring and employ interns. Has this contact with new designers shown you anything about how the industry has changed over the years -
I think the biggest change is how much social media has become an important role in interacting with potential and current customers. It’s definitely something that my interns have taught me more!
In 2011 you hosted a one-day ‘trunk show’ event to showcase young designers, can you tell us about it
Hosting trunk shows are a great way to network and meet other designers, a well as increasing your customer list by sharing each other’s list when inviting to these kind of events.
Two of the designers were my former students. The rest were other local designers that I new of or was referred to me. The great thing about this trunk show was that some of my favorite local businesses (upscale flower shop, restaurants, and ice cream shop) sponsored the event. It really felt like a sense of warm community spirit supporting the small businesses.
Do you have an encouragement you would like to give to emerging designers -
For those wanting to work for a fashion company, you have to be aggressive and good at networking….climb the corporate ladder.
For those that want to start their own fashion line, this is an incredibly tough business!! It’s a big risk. Only do this if this is the only thing in the world you can do and truly passionately love it. If money is more important to you, then go back to corporate or switch careers.
Sumie also runs a You Tube channel where she hosts a series of intern experiences, interviews, guides and advice for Fashion Designers
Check it here Sumie Tachibana Youtube
And finally a little close up of Tachibana Accessories
If you’re interested in purchasing fabrics selected by Sumie, you can find many fabrics, fasteners, applique and more on her etsy site : felinusfabrics