What’s Your Signature?
I remember completing my Bachelors of Arts (fashion) in 2005 and was walking around our final year exhibition in Prahran (which then seemed so far away) and my lecturer, the awesome Glen Rollason said to me, “You’ve got to find your signature, what makes Karen Luu stand out from the rest, how people will identify that this is a Karen Luu piece”.
I remember walking thinking, I have no idea who Karen Luu is – What makes Karen Luu, Karen Luu and what is my signature? I mean, what is signature? I asked what it meant but I still didn’t get it. To make things worse, my boyfriend then dumped me because he didn’t like Karen Luu. I remember specifically he wrote and said that he enjoyed having a girlfriend but he didn’t like being with Karen Luu.
And that started my journey to understanding who I was.
My honours year was different to the other years. It was one where I struggled to keep up. The first semester was truly difficult – I was lost, direction-less and had to come up with a design idea that was presented to a board. I was really into sudoku then and I came across a line of digits that for some reason was harmonious. That was what I loved about doing fashion at RMIT. You can have the most strangest thoughts and ideas, yet some one will buy it! I remember I researched the cartesian plane then and tried to use math in fashion – mapping out cartesian points on fabric (like X and Y axis and lots of points in between), joining the dots and cutting it out and seeing what it will look like. My lecturer then, Denise Sprynski (Yes of S!X, how lucky are we to have such an awesome mentor) said that it has been done before and to step up a notch. Basically, I was just lost. I managed to come up with some cool stuff using my photoshop skills and eye for patterns and got through the first semester.
Even though I finished the year well – I lost my style. I adopted a style, that really, I felt like it was a copy of someone else’s. I was asked to come back the following year to present my project to everyone. Even though Peter Boyd (also of S!X) said that the designs were simple, there was amazing complexity in the pattern design – I still didn’t feel like it was an entire reflection of Karen Luu and what Karen Luu had to offer. The difference between my design style in 1st year, 2nd year, 3rd year and 4th year was all different. In 2nd year I was compared to Commes Des Garcon and Viktor and Rolf for my crazy mind of using tailoring in a very daring way. In 3rd year I designed a very smart collection for F-Line, Feathers and was commended for my technical skills and perfection in tailoring (yes, I loved tailoring and it was Peter Boyd of S!X who taught me that everything had to be perfect or the jacket will not hold up). I still remember my final collection of 3rd year, some girls said that “I would totally love to wear that to the clubs” and the photographer who took photos of our stuff for the magazine said, “I’ve seen a lot of people’s work and yours is really outstanding”. I felt great then and was ready to pump it up for 4th year and design a winning collection to be like John Galliano who sold his 4th year graduate collection. I was even told that I would win “Designer of the year”.
But it didn’t happen. I didn’t know who I was and the entire year I worked really hard on my design and collection, but the one thing I didn’t work on was myself. In forth year my best friends and I found out that some people we knew in high school thought we were like the “Mean Girls”. After being told that my ex didn’t want to be with me because of the Karen Luu that I was – I really started to hate Karen Luu. More than I ever did. My parents didn’t show up to my graduate show, which made me hate what I was doing even more. I wanted to start my own business and do my own thing – but I didn’t know how. One thing lead to another and I was in a world where I hated Karen Luu, I hated fashion and I couldn’t design.
No matter how many times I got my book out – the drawings were always the same. And it’s been 6 – 7 years since. During that time I didn’t small projects with some friends and made a few dresses, did two exhibitions and played mainly on the stand. I just didn’t design any more in the sense of coming up with a concept, gathering research and play with ideas and then come up with a collection.
I faded away and became a counsellor – mainly to save myself, work on myself. I thought I lost the passion for fashion and to be honest now, it never died. It’s still here. The journey now is to use what I have learned along the way and do something with it. My counselling journey helped me to develop my interpersonal skills (that I had none of in the past) and it also lead me to learn more about NLP. My 3rd year research project was on Consumerism… which, as some of you will know, will lead to the paradox, Anti-Consumerism. It lead me to understand that consumerism is all manipulation of using psychology (not just NLP) to manipulate the buying power of consumers to their products. I still remember researching Apple then and talking about the Ipod Mini when it first came out in 2005. The advertisement was simply a hand holding the IPod Mini and the apple logo and that was it. How incredibly smart – that one picture said more than words. I also discussed the campaign, the white earphones. From then on, I never purchased Apple products. Still haven’t! Even though the world was lining up to wait for the new products however similar they were to the predecessor.
I lived in a world where I thought to myself – well what the hell am I doing fashion for? I don’t want to pollute the world with more shit, I don’t want to manipulate people to buy my stuff for a lifestyle they could have. What is a Want and what is a Need? Do you need to have clothes, or do you want to have clothes?
You go shopping because you NEED to buy clothes or you WANT to buy clothes? Where do I fit in all of this?
I’m a designer, I NEED to design clothes that people WANT to buy so that I can make a living. Right?
Then I read an article about my hero, Yohji Yamamoto and his plight to change the way people think about fashion. I was actually really surprised that I felt the same way. That fashion should be about celebrating a piece of art – wearable art that has a function of keeping us warm, but also enhance the way we look and feel. That the piece is made to last and to be enjoyed.
I went to America and seen all the clothing stores out there. Marshalls, Ross, Outlets … clothes, clothes, clothes everywhere. On a functional level, yeah, it’s good to buy cheaper clothes. On a fashion level – WTF?
Went to the outlets – I bought a few polos from Ralph Lauren, I succumbed to the power of branding. Why is one polo shirt $69.95 and yet people will pay for it. I saw it for $13.00, I had to buy it too because it’s the power of branding. Branding is the signature of the company. When I wear that polo and people see the man on the horse, they know who I bought this from. They start to gather their ideas of who I am as a person, what I stand for and what kind of lifestyle I live.
So with all of this, I really didn’t know what Karen Luu’s signature was supposed to be. I was under the impression for so many years that signature or brand is just the logo. The stitching. The tag. The style.
And it was only two weeks ago, 7 years nearly 8 years since being asked, “What’s Your Signature”, that I finally understood what it meant. “What’s your signature” is really a fashion industry way of saying, “Who are you?”
For so long I played it safe, dumbed down my thoughts, held back my creative side and was ordinary. Plain Jane. Too afraid to allow Karen to come out. Karen who dressed differently. Karen who wanted different things. Karen who wanted to do what an Asian girl is not supposed to do and thought about just being what my parents wanted me to be or what society thinks I should be, or what the people I meet each day think of me as.
I am grateful for taking the last few years to do a course that allowed me to meet people who could see that passion, who could see beyond that mask I’ve been wearing for so many years.
Now that I left everything I know in Melbourne, and relocated to Canada for the next few months, it’s time for me to take Karen Luu out each day and share our thoughts.
Cos being true to me is the only way that Karen Luu and Karen Luu’s signature is ever going to be present and real.