Designers creating one-of-a-kind handmade products
Knitwear design seams to be on a growth path ever since chunky grandma knits started to appear on ready-to-wear runways in new and unexpected ways. They are a classic brought to modernity, but I would dare say they visit the avant-garde neighborhood from a while now. As I started my journalism studies at Academy of Art University, I had the inspiring experience of seeing many knitwear collections that were brought to the New York Fashion Week runways every season. Yet, only some stuck in my mind. Steven Oo, a Myanmar-born designer, who loves a white button down shirt on him, but also goes through phases like the “ugly sweater phase” “punk rock phase,” as he describes it, expanded the possibilities of knitwear as far as America is concerned.
With a background in business and economics, Oo presented a collection back in 2010 with mind-blowing knitwear pieces. They were the result of hundreds of hours in the knitwear lab, experimenting with yarns, textures, and shapes. Almost three years later, Oo is moving back to Asia to open his own knitwear factory where he will be able to supply his designs to boutiques all over the world.
Right after graduating from AAU, and having his clothes shot in many fashion editorials for up-and-coming magazines like Dimension Mag, Oo had a legit portfolio and an archive of knit ruffled-boleros, crochet spikes in the form of scarves, and all kind of deconstructed oversized sweaters, to be paired with classic button-down white shirts and black slim legs. “The show in New York was very helpful, because it gave me a lot of press coverage. And it automatically makes you feel legitimate in the employers’ eyes,” said the designer during a phone interview.
He went on to working for the BCBG MAX AZRIA Group. While the DNA of BCBG’s knitwear is far from similar to Steven Oo’s high-end design identity, the fact that this was such a big company with a very broad range of products might have revived his own business savvy spirit. “It was great because I had never interned before, and I got lucky… It was my first job out of school, and there was a lot of learning to do. Within three months I got a promotion,” said Oo.
Oo’s high-end pieces are soft and light of weight, but heavy with textures from the uncommon stitches he creates. You will find a range of skeleton-esque tunics, dresses with cut-outs, thin stripes, fringes, and impossible patterns, because the composition of weights and textures, as well as the game of densities and yarns in one only look take his designs to the level of an art-piece. In fact, Steven doesn’t sell any of his high-end pieces. “I just like to make these pieces to come up with new stitches, and also give them to magazine editorials, just to get my name out there,” said Oo. Another unique quality of his designs is their somehow androgynous aesthetic – excluding maybe the dresses – which make them interesting for male and female fashion editorials, and thus enable a broader range of clients. The samurai-like models seam quite postmodern, at the same time that Oo’s clothes enhance the fragility of the female model, and the romanticism of an outdoors shoot.
I had an urge to ask him how he comes up with his unique designs. “Sometimes I don’t even sketch. I will buy the yarns that I like and I put together the yarns that I think will look cohesive together. Once I have the yarns I will start thinking of the stitches I wanna use, and I start making pieces with my hands, and then I put the pieces on the dress form, and that’s how my garments come about,” tells Oo. Quite the organic and freely process that might occur as an escape from the corporate world he manages on a day-to-day basis.
After a year at BCBG, Oo got an offer from Urban Outfitters’ grown up company Anthropologie, which is famous for its crafty and romantic aesthetic. The new job gave him the freedom to be more creative, but as he touched on the subject he reinforced that “you can just determine how successful a designer working for a company is, by how well he or she can understand the customer of such company. I definitely don’t’ apply my personal taste to the companies that I work for.” Mostly a monochromatic designer, a fan of black, white and ivory, Steven Oo’s knitwear is so complex that the lack of color balances the pieces, and makes them easy to layer. “In order to differentiate yourself as a high-end sweaterer, you have to come up stitches that are so cool and different that not many companies can copy them,” Oo said. He certainly knows how to edit himself for the massive production at Anthropologie.
Parallel to working at UO, collaborating with photographers and models for editorial shoots, and proving the knitwear for runway shows such as Louis Verdad’s collection, Oo started his own contemporary line, One Grey Day, in partnership with a friend based in LA. The celebrity-driven line, with its cool California girl on the beach identity, sells at several small boutiques across the country with the likes of SF-based Azalea, Blush in New York, and international retailers in Canada and Japan. One Grey Day manufactures in China. “I do everything from sourcing, design, tags, to production, and managing the entire calendar,” said the designer. “Doing this was like a test run for me, to do it on my own.”
He obviously knows how to juggle between contemporary, corporate and high end, which is precisely what he will do in Asia, once he opens up a factory, and establishes his eponymous brand parallel to that. “That’s what I wanna do. But I’m also realistic, and know that doing that will not give you a good amount of money. It gives you the satisfaction of creating something beautiful,” Oo recalled.
Architecture, deconstruction, volume, texture, and craft describe Steven Oo’s work. But having a long-term vision of his career is what it’s all about.
Images courtesy of Steven Oo.