It’s amazing how far Joe Chia has travelled as a designer fresh out of Raffles Design Institute just a few years ago. Nowadays, he’s hardly seen without his real-life partner, Melissa Deng, also the co-founder and operations director of the Joe Chia label, at his side whether at runway shows or tradeshows and fashion showrooms around the globe in Milan, Paris or Ho Chi Minh.
Being able to develop a definitive style aesthetic is perhaps Joe Chia’s biggest strength as a fashion practitioner. Chia has a great eye for his kind of fashion, described on his website, joechia.com, as “embodying classic, timeless and experimental pieces to be worn for years and having a distinctive attention for details and functional qualities, whilst maintaining a strong connection to urban roots”. With multiple awards like Asia’s Most Influential Designer during the Malaysia Fashion Week 2014 and collaborations with world-class brands like Chivas, Honda, Sony, L’Oreal and Shu Uemura, UT Japan (UNIQLO), G-shock, Reebok and Schwarzkopf, we have no doubts that the sky’s the limit for Joe Chia.
The designer shares with us his captivating journey.
How is your fashion business doing?
We started almost four years ago during late 2012 very humbly. I had a rack at Victor Goh’s Telawi boutique selling the outfits I had drafted, cut and sewn by myself. Then I saved some money and got a little studio-cum-workshop in Pudu. I’ve since moved next door with two floors and bigger working space. It’s still a long journey for me and I can only say that we have had a very blessed beginning. Also, social media has helped people understand more about what the Joe Chia label is about. We have a very small team of eight people including myself. When we tell our overseas contacts how ‘big’ the team is, they always ask if I were serious.
What is your vision for the Joe Chia label?
From the beginning, I have wanted to build timeless yet very experimental pieces that people can wear again and again, versatile pieces that can be mixed and matched with anything, and also to stay away from fashion trends. I also call it wearable avant-garde or wearable art. Fashion is really about expressing yourself in terms of your work and creation, and speaking in your own language.
Has the brand changed or evolved over the years?
We do two collections a year, and the six months in between are busy times, with each day passing so fast. The collection keeps on evolving or improving season after season. We call it ‘chapter’ to introduce the fact that it’s inspired by different stories, language or voice that we really want to talk about. This has been our DNA since starting four years ago with Chapter 1, 2…and now, we’re at Chapter 9. Our pieces are still very unisex and androgynous but we have enhanced a bit more on the womenswear this time. We go to Paris twice a year to launch our Spring/Summer and Fall/Winter collections.
What are the elements that define a Joe Chia piece?
For Joe Chia, we always have hints of colours, but not shocking or vibrant colours. We always use natural or subtle colours like greys and different browns. We also work on cutting and construction, and fabrication. What I always look for as a creator/designer is what is Joe Chia now. It is very challenging but that’s how you go from Chapter 1 to Chapter 9, and evolve and improve on the mistake that people don’t see but you know is there.
Where is the Joe Chia label stocked at now?
In our two years or four seasons overseas (as I only started attending international tradeshows in 2014 during our third year), we are now stocked in ten different countries, mostly in Europe like Spain, Germany, Italy, Greece and Egypt.
How natural was it to take on the business side of the label?
We come from very design-based background with no business investors, but we get advice from Khoon Hooi. He’s not afraid to share when it comes to the business. But still I think you have to be really hardworking and figure out a lot of things on your own as well and cannot depend on people too much. We have no business backup and at the moment, we’re just using our tiny savings. Coming from akampong in Kelantan, we have managed to build everything by ourselves, little by little. I’m grateful that the countless hours and effort we have put in day and night, and spent sleeping in the workshop overnight are paying off.
Do you thrive on challenges?
I really like challenges. I will think if some people are able to make it, I can also make it. I am one person who really loves to explore and I love challenges so it was the right choice for me to start my own business.
How is it like to work with your partner in real life and work?
It is a plus point for me to have Melissa onboard and believe in the brand, the business and my vision as well. She joined us six months after I started my label. She puts in 100% or rather 200% into the business. She’s a great partner to learn from and work together with. Most of the time we spend together is in the workshop and we just work and work and work.
What’s in the future for you and your label?
Right now, it is to challenge ourselves. I live to create clothes and I like clothes so much but I don’t want to do something just for the sake of money. I like to be able to sit down and think of the construction and do the draft and cut the fabric myself. Right now, I am still very passionate about it so currently, of course, we try to balance all that with customers’ views especially with overseas stockists who are very experienced at buying big brands or different designers in Europe. We always listen to our customers and take their advice very seriously and in a way, we strike a good balance between creativity and commerciality.