“The Enthusiasm & Vibrancy Of China & Asia Is…What Makes Doing Our Job Here So Exciting”
Brimming with infectious energy, Colombia-born, Hong Kong-based Paola Sinisterra has become one of the city’s designers to watch since launching womenswear and accessories label Tangram last year with her husband Ignacio. Offering fresh, vividly colored and unique designs, Tangram has quickly established itself as one of Hong Kong’s brightest new fashion brands, finding fans locally, regionally and globally.
Recently, Jing Daily linked up with Paola to discuss Tangram’s business ethos, the challenges of building a new brand in fast-paced Hong Kong, and what it’s like to create fashion that’s “proudly made in China.”
Jing Daily (JD): Can you tell us a little about yourself and Tangram?
Paola Sinisterra (PS): I started Tangram together with my husband Ignacio, who is an architect. Our interests straddle in between design, fashion, art and lifestyle.
Before starting the label, I worked for high-end fabric mills in Europe, small labels, European sourcing companies in Asia and finally as an in-house designer at Zara, the biggest fashion retail company in the world today. Ignacio has worked as an art director and graphic designer, curator and cultural entrepreneur with a number of organizations, playing a key role in developing the visual and conceptual identities of the brand. We have basically been working in the fashion industry with an emphasis in Asia for a few years and Tangram came out of the need to do something more personal, where we could work at a more detailed scale, with the best materials and enjoying the methodical process of collection development.
The tangram is an old Chinese puzzle composed of seven geometrical pieces that can be arranged in many ways to create different shapes. We chose the name because we love the apparent simplicity of its geometry, and all the possibilities it hides, but also because of the reference to Asian culture. Just like a tangram puzzle, we want to tell many stories through a set of garments and products that can be used and styled in different ways by different women.
JD: Tangram positions itself as a label “proudly made in China,” placing it among a handful of other brands who share the same ethos. How have consumers responded to this position? Has it been a selling point?
PS: We can’t really pinpoint if it has been a selling point so far but we can definitely say that it makes people curious, and surprises them that we are so adamant about producing here and working with the best suppliers.
China is going through enormous changes that we are in awe of and recognize as one of the main reasons for the success of what we are doing. We are also very proud of being part of a collective of local designers pushing this ethos, and finding very talented suppliers and makers to develop our ideas in an efficient way.
JD: Who are Tangram’s target customers? Hong Kong expats and locals, Chinese shoppers in general, or global?
PS: I wouldn’t say customers are divided like that. We have customers of very different styles, ages, sizes and nationalities. They tend to be strong women, who aren’t afraid to experiment with bright colors and prints and unconventional silhouettes and know what they want. Asian women seem particularly keen, as they love color and are quite daring when choosing shapes and mixing styles, and they are definitely a source of inspiration for us.
JD: As far as building a brand in Hong Kong and greater China, what would you say has been the most difficult aspect for Tangram?
PS: I think as with any budding business, the most difficult is having patience to endure the very long process between creation and actual sale of the product. We have had fantastic support from the media and from our repeat customers, so I think word of mouth has done a lot for us. With China [the challenge] is the fact that it is so big and varied and we haven’t been able to find too many boutiques that specialize in mid- to high-range brands like Tangram. Either there is a more budget, mass-oriented market, or very high-end luxury labels. But in general, I think the enthusiasm and vibrancy of China and Asia in general at this moment are not only the main reasons that keep us here, but also what makes doing our job here so exciting.
JD: You have put a great deal of time and effort finding the right textile suppliers and factories in China, an obstacle for many designers working in the region. What has the experience been like, and what kind of difficulties have you encountered?
PS: Sourcing is always difficult, but it’s also half of the fun, and we love the challenge of research and finding ideas in the most unexpected of places. I find a lot of color combination ideas when going through the pile of leftover fabrics on the factory floor. Or [I] will shift the core of a collection if I find an amazing print of fabric. Coming from a textile background, fabrics are always the starting point.
Without a doubt, the main difficulty is the quantities. Chinese suppliers are used to producing mammoth-sized orders for the big fashion players. But it’s also true that there are smaller suppliers that, once you build a good relationship with them, can be extremely loyal and helpful. It has been key to develop a very strong network of suppliers that we can trust and who understand the way we work as designers. We have been unbelievably lucky to find manufacturers who are great to work with, even if sometimes they make us grow grey hairs! I always say that to work in fashion you need to have nerves of steel, but I like the adrenaline.
JD: Over the past couple of years, Hong Kong has become very active, especially in the food and fashion worlds. As a figure and personality in both, as well as a foreigner, where do you see yourself in relation to the city?
PS: I simply cannot see myself living anywhere else right now. Here, with a lot of hard work we have been able to bridge the love for doing our own thing but have also managed to be involved in the vibrant local food culture. In saying this, I have to remind myself I probably should not get into food as a business — I have tremendous respect for the people in the F&B business as it is a tough field, and I already chose THE tough business I want to be in for the moment.
I love food and will keep blogging about it and organizing special events once in a while, but it’s something that I want to be able to do only for the pleasure it gives me.
JD: How has Hong Kong’s tight network of creatives, along with social media helped you, your husband, and Tangram’s success?
PS: Hong Kong is no doubt a networking city, where the most important business decisions and partnerships seem to be taken or happen over drinks or food. I love this because it makes work enjoyable, but it also requires non-stop energy and can be somewhat draining, nothing that a good hike or a snuggle with a book can’t fix so far.
We do spend a lot of time taking care of Tangram’s online presence, which we take very seriously and try to keep it personal and interesting. We always think about what might be interesting, and love to get feedback from our customers.
What I admire the most and find unique to Hong Kong is that people are generous with their contacts, relationships and knowledge; there seems to be a common complicity among creators, social media people, press and consumers that makes the atmosphere very vibrant, and is something that would be unthinkable in Europe. We all work incredibly hard and recognize in each other the perfect partners to thrive in a tough environment.
JD: Could you tell us a little bit about your new collection? What were your inspirations? Anything Hong Kong-specific?
PS: The new collection is a natural progression of the previous ones. We have actually pinpointed the silhouettes that our customers seem to gravitate toward and have either reproduced them in new color ways or tweak them to fit new needs and inspirations but always with the same strong, no-nonsense, fun-loving woman in mind.
This collection has a tinge of masculinity with a dash of sexiness. There is more of the strong color inspiration mixed in odd ways and continues the quest for comfortable, perfectly fitting pants and easy dresses that take you from day into night in a flinch.
The very essence of the collection has everything to do with Hong Kong, the way women live here; busy, multidimensional, fun-loving and hard-working are all concepts we keep in mind when we are developing the collection. I have an obsession with orange at the moment that can be attributed to the fantastic produce at the wet markets, juicy persimmons, oranges, parrot fish, goldfish, mandarins and what not!
JD: What can we expect from Tangram next?
PS: Lots of interesting collaborations with other creatives. An exciting new line of sexy underthings and the continued effort to create products that are fun, timeless and make you do a little happy dance.
Remember to look for us in your favorite social networks, follow our inspiration blog and get subscribed to Tangram’s news through the website www.tngrm.net for special events and offers!
To celebrate the release of its new collection, next month Tangram will be involved in two Hong Kong events not to miss:
The Fall/Winter edition of The Gift Shop: December 6, 2012 at The Space
A full day of shopping and mingling, with tea in the morning and drinks in the evening. Includes womenswear, menswear, childrenswear and accessories. In addition to Tangram, participating labels include Mischa, niin, Hill, La Petite Caravane, Cecilia Ma, Borne, Gemma Blest and Cochine Candles. (The Space, 210 Hollywood Road, Hong Kong)
L’Appuntamento: December 8, 2012 at Casa Capriz
Tangram teams up with the new design and vintage furniture shop Casa Capriz and the Gallery Platform China for L’Appuntamento, an afternoon of art, design, fashion and fun in Chai Wan. Expect plenty of surprises at the event, which also marks the official launch of Tangram Collection #2. Keep an eye on Tangram’s Facebook event page for more details.