Designer Mei Liu is the director of minimalist womenswear line Priory of Ten. Along with childhood friends turned business partners David Lin and Eunice Quan, Liu launched Priory of Ten in November 2011 with the hopes of filling the industry’s void of a true creative collective. In addition to being the creative force of the line, the Parsons alum and former womenswear designer for 3.1 Phillip Lim is also an expert multitasker who serves as the head of womenswear at VPL by day.
What element of fashion design are you most passionate about?
The creation process. Exploring new ground and playing with reality and imagination and blending them harmoniously into a core design concept
Where did you develop an appreciation for luxury fabrics?
I have always been drawn to luxe fabrics. There is a craftsmanship and scientific process to weaving/knitting of fabric that I truly respect. There are so many ways in which textiles can be created, re-invented, manipulated and distorted, and I have always found this process fascinating.
I would say that working with Phillip at 3.1 Phillip Lim definitely exposed me to a full spectrum of luxurious fabrics, and trained my eye in fabric selection. Ever since I moved to New York five years ago, I would enjoy walking the floors of Barneys and touching the new Celine, Balenciaga, and Lanvin collections and scoping out what kinds of new fabric developments they were playing with.
How did outerwear become such an important category for you?
I’ve had a tomboy-flair since a young age, and I loved dressing up in little tailored suits and oversized men’s jackets. The love expanded when I began purchasing vintage men’s coats at second hand stores and borrowing boyfriends’ jackets. My current boyfriend taught me a great deal about the technical history of men’s outerwear in America from old military parkas to denim work wear from the early 1900s. Outerwear truly used to be designed with intent for function, comfort, protection and performance, and all of the technical details one can find in a great coat are truly fascinating to me – it’s almost like discovering a time capsule bundled neatly into one garment.
What inspired your varsity jacket for FW14?
Priory has become known for our take on modern sportswear, and I continue to enjoy playing with updates on classic sportswear silhouettes every season. I find it interesting how much momentum the transformation of sportswear as high-end luxury wear has gained over the last couple of years. Casual, inexpensive football jerseys and sweatshirt, once serving only the purpose of functional active-wear, have now collided with luxury elements, creating a brand new space in the design market.
With that in mind, I thought it would be fun to explore and build upon this momentum. What if we took the existing varsity jacket shapes that have been really trending in the market, and further push people’s notions of what varsity wear represents and looks like? What if we took the classic shape and fabrication and evolved it into something truly couture-esque?
I was inspired by old Dior and Balenciaga silhouettes from the 50s – feminine, romantic shapes with small cinched waists and huge kimono sleeves. I thought this would be a perfect way to juxtapose our notions of the classic varsity jacket – sporty, casual and masculine with a new softer, more elegant, silhouette.
In what way did your education at Parsons benefit you most toward launching your own collection?
Attention to detail and technical know-how! Pattern making, draping, and sewing are not tools that I consistently use as a designer, but I have come to realize how important it is for any designer to truly understand fit, construction and detailing. These have become invaluable tools for me in communicating with patternmakers and seamstresses on how to execute on a vision of design, and when you are able to differentiate a well-constructed garment from a poor one, it is much easier to guide the process to a place of higher quality.
When did you know it was the right time to do launch Priory?
I had gained a breadth of knowledge at 3.1 Phillip Lim, and felt that it had put me through a rigorous training program of learning how to manage multiple responsibilities and gain discipline as a design employee. However, I had a reached a stage where I wished to take my career a step further and begin to really explore my own creative voice, and Priory seemed to be the perfect opportunity to do that.
You’ve juggled working at VPL and designing this collection on your own. Do you work well at night? How did it all come together?
Yes – I do work well at night! In university, it was a force of procrastination, but nowadays it’s a necessity of effectively juggling a lot of responsibilities. Over the last two years, I have become highly proficient at compartmentalizing my work. This is so important. I have often found myself absolutely overwhelmed and gasping for air, totally at a loss for how to get everything done at once. You learn over time that the first step is to take a deep breath, pull out your pen and notebook and write down that massive to-do list…then, it’s a matter of prioritizing and ticking things off item by item.
I’ve learned to give myself patience and compassion, and it is equally important to request this of your employers and partnerships. Luckily, my employers and partners in business have been very supportive in collaborating with me. As such we’ve been able to establish respectful and communicative work boundaries to ensure that at any given point, everyone is on the same page, and each individuals’ expectations and needs are being contained and met.
How would you describe the girl you are designing for?
She is confident and intelligent and looking for something different – something slightly against the grain. However, she’s not interested in sticking out or being the center of attention. She is too secure for that. She just wants to wear clothes that make her feel good and make her feel like the unique individual that she is.
Who are your mentors? Or other designers you admire?
Leonardo Di Vinci has been my idol since childhood – he’s a scientist, an artist, a philosopher, an astronomer, a physicist! He explored everything and he was good at everything – a true genius – who wouldn’t want to be like that?
In the fashion world – I really admire Miuccia Prada for the empire she has built with her husband. They really have the best combination of design and business intelligence in my opinion. Designers I admire include Nicolas Ghesquiere, Olivier Theyskens, Dries Van Noten, Riccardo Tisci – they are designers who I feel have always stayed true to their groundbreaking vision, and despite their personal creative journeys, have always maintained the inspired devotion of fashion media and consumers. They are consistent in their design strength and there is a rigor to their work approach that I truly look up to and hope I can emulate.
Can you tell us about the brand name “Priory of Ten”?
Our group of friends David Lin and Eunice Quan while on travels in Bangkok conceived Priory of Ten. We were staying at a hotel called Ten Face and the idea arose to build a collective of creatives who came together to explore a new idea. Thus Ten Face became the basis to form a collective of secretive souls, driven by a strict code to design, of almost monastical volumes, or a “Priory” of Ten.