A Conversation with Amie Mai

Interview by Leah Jing McIntosh.

Amie Mai is a maker, designer and sometimes shopgirl from Melbourne. She is currently working as an assistant designer for Melbourne womenswear label RYDER.

We talked to Amie about creative process, the impact of a garment, and ethical clothing production.

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What first sparked your interest in fashion? How have you made it to this point?

I have always enjoyed making things with my hands. I’d watch my mum and grandma sewing a dress, knitting slippers or mending my brothers’ clothes when I was younger and learnt from them. The DIY aspect really appealed to me. After school I chose a Media and Communications degree because I also liked writing and was a little too scared of applying for a fashion degree. My parents were never like, 'you have to be a doctor/lawyer' or 'you can’t study fashion,' but they were anxious about my creative pursuits because they didn’t know how to help me get there and were worried I wasn’t going to be able to make money.

Even when I wasn’t studying fashion I still kept sewing things for myself and for friends and occasionally sold my garments in markets or online. Around this time I started interning for different designers. Just because I wanted to be around the action and watch other people in their process.  Several odd jobs and a quarter-life crisis later, I decided I owed it to myself to give fashion a red-hot go and enrolled in a diploma in design. It felt like I was finally doing something I was good at, and I was so much happier. 

What have been some of your biggest challenges along the way? 

Getting my head around just letting myself try something with the possibility of not being good at it was a real obstacle. It’s a real ‘Asian’ mentality I guess: anything you do, you can’t fail, and you have to be the best at it. For a long time I rejected the idea of being a designer because family and family friends thought if I was going to be in fashion I had to be really high profile. Their only benchmarks of success for an Asian person in the fashion industry were Alexander Wang or Lisa Ho.

Through studying and interning that I realized I could earn a decent living in the industry in a low profile way and make good work quietly. There are so many possible paths and roles within fashion and being a fashion designer isn’t even the most exciting or interesting one!

Navigating my way around internships and learning when to say no was also difficult. I think internships can be a valuable experience and whether good or bad I have learnt from every one of mine. There were times though where I knew if I had less of a backbone or were a little more naïve I could have really been exploited. It's so frustrating when people dress up unpaid work as an amazing opportunity and act like you should be truly grateful for working for free. It sounds silly to say it because it seems so obvious, but if you’re doing a job that someone else would be paid for you should be paid for it, especially if money is being made off of your work. I’m privileged to have been able to support myself financially throughout my internships—it’s not a viable option for everyone and I wish it weren’t such a barrier for entry into the industry. 

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Fashion is often unfairly dismissed as ‘superficial’. Why is design important to you? 

There are many aspects to the fashion industry that make it appear very frivolous and superficial, but behind all that there are a lot of very skilled, very dedicated people putting hard work into the clothes you wear everyday. The speed at which you can buy clothes online now and have it appear in your mailbox three hours later, the instantaneity of it, has taken the design and production process completely out of sight and out of the customer’s mind. You don’t have the chance to or even have a reason to grow attached to something, because you don’t see the human touch.

Design aims to take ordinary, everyday products like clothes and gives them that human touch and something to connect with. A beautiful and well-designed pair of shoes or dress makes you want to re-wear it and treasure it, that’s where the connection happens.I also love this quote from Diana Vreeland, 'You can see the approaching revolution in clothes. You can see and feel everything in clothes.'

I think people can often overlook how much fashion has to tell us about people, culture, history and tradition. There are so many rich stories that are interwoven in the way clothes look, how they are made, who they are made by, what they are made of and why. The design of a dress can tell you about what the world was like at the time it was made and how the person who wore it experienced that world. I think that is pretty powerful to think about clothes as a cultural act every time you get dressed!

Working in retail and helping people get dressed, I can see how much the right garment can really change a person’s self-perception. Not in a way that’s like they were a lesser person before they put on this shirt, but that they feel more like themselves and confident because it fits well and is comfortable. How cool is that? We’re constantly being bombarded with messages and images that gear us into thinking we’re lacking. I’d like to think a good design could help you feel like you’re enough.

Can you take me through the process of designing a piece—what does your creative process entail?

I’ll get drawn to a certain fabric by its texture or colour and then I like to think of interesting or unconventional ways to use it. The design of something usually opens itself up to me when I start cutting the fabric and playing around with it.When I’m designing at work the creative process has more constraints, which I actually quite like, because it makes it more challenging! It’s like being back in school and designing things to brief.

To design a dress, we have to forecast trends and what other designers in our category are doing. We have to consider the season and what customers gravitate towards at that time of year. We need to analyse styles that have performed well in the past, and their price points and how we can update them in new fabrics or prints. A detail or a style might need to be scrapped because it’s just not right for our customer or not what our buyers are looking for. It can be brutal, when a design you love and have spent a few months on gets cut. As Heidi Klum says, ‘One day you’re in, and the next day you’re out! 

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The issue of cultural appropriation if often bound up in clothing, which as a physical object can be such a tangible carrier of culture. How can we appreciate without appropriating?

I think what it comes down to is respect. If you are considering wearing another culture’s traditional clothing, you really need to ask yourself some key questions first: Am I reducing this to just a fashion statement or sexy prop? Is this the right environment to be wearing this in? Have I been invited to participate? Are the people of this culture profiting from it? If the answer is no, then it’s not a celebration of another person’s culture. It’s basically taking something that has specificity and cultural significance and saying I don’t care what this means to you.

Do a quick Google if you’re not sure. It doesn’t take a lot of effort to learn about the history of a garment and what it symbolises, and the context in which it is usually worn ie. if it's reserved for particular ceremonies or for everyday attire. You can’t get away with saying 'Oh well I didn’t know!' anymore. After doing that much and you’re still not sure, resist the urge to put your hair in cornrows/get a henna tattoo/put down the kimono/cheongsam and pick a different outfit.

You've recently been in China for work—

I was lucky enough to go to on a trip to China to handover some styles to our manufacturers for summer production and do some design development work there. It was an amazing experience to be so close to the production process. Finally meeting all the lovely people in our team, who I’ve been in conversation with over email almost every day for the past year and putting faces to names was also so wonderful! Getting to know them and chat about things other than work really made my trip.

One of the most fascinating parts was visiting the clothing markets around the area near the factories. There are department store buildings, each floor busting with closet sized rooms filled to the ceiling with 'knock-offs' of current season Gucci, Miu Miu and Jacquemus. Most of the stuff is spilling out of giant garbage bags. And they’re made so well you can’t tell they’re fake.

In many cases, what’s happened is the actual factory making the designer clothing has over-produced, sold the excess to surrounding local shops in order to reduce the loss of manufacturing costs and not told anyone. Looking at clothing this way, is the only thing really differentiating a designer item to a supposed 'knock-off' context? It really chucked a spanner in the works for me. On the one hand I want to support these little businesses that are just trying to get by. And on the other hand the creatives who’ve designed this piece also deserve their due. There is something off-balance in our value systems. 

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We live in an era of fast fashion. How can we become more ethical, environmentally conscious consumers?

I struggle with this one myself. I have a recurring nightmare that in the future humanity as a whole has created so much waste we shoot it off into space and it all collides together to become a trash planet. The trash planet gives life to trash aliens and they try to figure out where they came from. It’s got a really sad ending.

I don’t know if it's possible to be 100% ethical and environmentally friendly when it comes to fashion consumption. In any case, it won’t happen overnight, and it's okay to start out small. It's about asking questions we’re uncomfortable with and being really honest to ourselves with the answers.

A huge shift needs to happen with our attitudes towards not only clothes but nearly all products from short term to long term. Less as throw-away items, and more like machinery that needs occasional repair and maintenance. When something breaks, to not see it as a fault but that it's natural, taking it to get fixed and re-using until it absolutely fall to pieces. At the same time, thinking of clothing less in terms of seasons or occasions and more as everyday forever items.

There’s this Japanese textile tradition called boro and it involves mending and sewing pieces of fabric on top of the wear and tear of a garment for the full lifespan of the owner or even longer. It ends up becoming this incredible patchwork alive with histories.  

Ethical consumption is harder because so few companies are totally transparent with their processes. There are so many places along the manufacturing chain where a person can be exploited (more often than not, these people are POC). Even brands that advertise as locally made could be potentially underpaying their garment workers. Ask questions of the designers you buy from and try to avoid those that can’t or won’t answer. If you’re scared to ask, there’s your answer. At the end of the day we can all be more mindful and more conscious in our choices and resist another impulse purchase.

Can you speak to your experience as a WOC in the Australian fashion industry?  

In the day to day, I don’t feel like I get treated differently because of my race. However being the only Asian in the room has almost become a default in my working life and that’s been the case for most studios I’ve worked in. I do think that speaks to my privilege and my role in this industry is as a designer and not say a garment worker. There is some discomfort in being a young Vietnamese-Australian woman and participating in an industry that has historically exploited migrant women who work as seamstresses and still continues to do so.

The lack of representation in Australian fashion also really grinds me! A lot of traditional media is still so invested in this antiquated idea of a ‘classic Australian beauty’ that’s a blonde, white, beachy, country, sporty gal and it's so irrelevant today. But there are a lot of cool independent online fashion publications cropping up though that are showcasing really exciting, diverse faces and talents. It’ll just take some time before this starts filtering up and we see a true representation of Australia. 

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Do you have any side projects?  

I’m currently working on a side-gig with my friend Mike, called COMMON Goods. We’re taking disposed rice bags and recycling them into tote bags, backpacks, hats and other fun things!

It’s a really fun project because I absolutely hate the idea of any and all waste. We’re giving new life to something that was going to the trash and making it into something cute and fun and reusable. I also love the concept of taking an ordinary, everyday item and elevating it into something more interesting that gets you to look at it in a different light. 

What is your dream project?

Creating a line from 100% recycled garments that also educates on the life cycle of clothes from creation to disposal. I would love to create something that makes people rethink their relationship to clothes and the environment. 

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Who are your favourite WOC designers?

Sandy Liang is one of my new faves, I love her mix of Margot Tenenbaum and Chinatown grandma style. Camille Rushanaedy, who used to blog under ChildhoodFlames, recently started a small line called elsewhereelsewhere. It’s all-handmade by her and has this minimal and mysterious vibe to it. And I recently was alerted to Nguyen Cong Tri, a young Vietnamese designer, on Rihanna’s instagram! His designs are really dramatic and uses luxurious and heavily embellished fabrics, a lot of which are made using traditional techniques by Vietnamese artisans.

Do you have any advice for emerging designers?

Diversify your skill set, being able to put on many hats is super valuable and can lead to roles or positions that you might not have considered. Be vocal about what you can do and what you’re good at from the get go, oftentimes people are either too busy or too lazy to ask so you can easily get stuck in something you’re not into. Know what you’re worth and don’t be afraid to turn things down

Who inspires you?

My pals! I’m so inspired by my friends who are running or just about to start their own small businesses! Charlie is a textile artist under Campbell Charlotte, Viv is makes objects at Content Aware, Jayden is a patisserie chef under Baker Chew, Iris is making jewellery under LYIS, Bec creates paper goods for language lovers at Irregular Endings, Amy Lawrance is a brilliant designer and artist, just to name a few! 

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What are you currently listening to?

I can’t stop listening to SZA's Ctrl and Lorde’s Melodrama. I’m also obsessed with this podcast, Misandry with Marcia & Rae. I listen to it every morning on the train to work. 

What are you currently reading?

Too Much and Not the Mood by Durga Chew-Bose, All about Love: New Visions by bell hooks and Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang. 

How do you practice self-care? 

My self care is often having a day off to just go about my day, getting to tick things off lists, uninterrupted. Like walking to the market early in the morning to buy groceries and then getting a fresh banh mi on the way home, doing my laundry, watering my plants, tidying my room, calling my Mum. 

What does being Asian-Australian mean to you? 

It means feeling lucky to be able to draw strength from and be inspired by a diverse, hardworking community.

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InterviewLeah McIntosh