Eugene Lin: A Model Fashion Designer
Eugene Lin is a young designer new to the London fashion scene with barely three collections to his name - he's finishing spring 2011 for London Fashion Week this Friday as I write - yet the refinement and elegance of his finely crafted coats and dresses suggest the work of a well-versed design veteran. That's not to say the 28-year-old former soldier from Singapore doesn't know exactly what he's doing. In fact, Mr. Lin built his business and manages every aspect personally, having himself to thank for the growing interest and excitement for his eponymous womenswear label. His cohesive approach to business is reflected in his tight, well-edited collections and vice-versa, an extraordinary quality that rarely exists in talented creatives.
I first met Eugene Lin at London Fashion Week last Febuary and immediately fell in love with his Gordian Knot AW 2010 collection. These are clothes you feel compelled to touch, of soft, fine cashmere and merino and silky draping, in designs that are at once sophisticated and youthful, original and very wearable. Modern, with a bit of edge. You imagine yourself wearing them and how good they would feel.
I had the pleasure of a conversation with Mr. Lin to explore how he came to achieve what he has so early in his career. Serious aspiring designers, take note!
s: You've now released your second collection, The Gordian Knot, and rather than looking like the follow-up to a debut it appears to be the work of a seasoned designer. And the same could be said for your debut collection as well! Your clothes are refined, elegant and original, which suggests you found your focus very early on. Did you come into Central Saint Martins with this vision of womenswear in mind?
EL: I went to CSM armed with nothing but determination and really raw talent. Having spent the previous two and a half years in the Republic of Singapore army, you could say it was quite a change and I found myself so out of my depth that I did not even know what a 'swatch of fabric' was on the assignment sheet. I honestly thought they were asking for watches! My work then was very, very raw and typical of a lot of student work and collections you see coming out of London. CSM is widely known for its thearatrics, and I thought that going there would shape my work that way. I collaborated with other students to do theatrical pieces but the more I did it, the more I realised that while I was capable of executing it, it was not the type of womenswear I wanted to do.
I cut my teeth with long hours doing internships while in college and working upon graduation for other designers, because I knew that experience makes all the difference in the industry. Fashion does not care how you get there, all it demands is you produce the refined goods worthy of being international status; it cares not for the 'oh-I-just-graduated-and-need-time-to-get-there' excuse. It simply moves on to the next person who can deliver. I have had the experience of working with some of the best and some of the least talented designers in the industry, so I knew exactly what I wanted and absolutely forbid. I am still learning as a new designer, but I am very happy that my sharp learning curve only shows when customers discover I have only been running my label for over a year.
s: Those are motivational words and a good reality check for students who have misperceptions of what it's like to design in the real world. From the army to CSM! Which was tougher? And how did you feel wearing army fatigues every day? Do you think that shaped your ideals of 'civilian' clothes in any way?
EL: They were both tough in different ways, and as tough as the army was, the discipline really got me through CSM and life after. There are only two ways to leave the army: either you finish your time there, or you die (in training or otherwise). There is no absconding, or deserting, or being AWOL (absent without official leave). And it was a constant political power struggle. It's similar to the fashion world: if something needs to be done, it needs to be done and there is no absconding. And do we know about politics in fashion.
As for the army-issue uniform it was incredibly sterile and boring, but it built discipline. The civilian clothes that most of us wore out of camp when we were allowed to leave weren't anything special either - with menswear it's almost always function over fashion. I don't think it shaped my aesthetic in any way, other than making me want to escape from that world into the world of fashion.
EL: I worked as a pattern cutter for other designers before I launched my own label. As similar as they might seem, the feel of the two roles was different. As a cutter, I was interpreting a sketch, or a drape of another designer and where the creativity is strictly limited to a purely technical process. It was constantly checking with the designer(s) about how they felt with proportions, measurements and lines in order to achieve the best interpretation of what they envisioned. The designers usually pre-decided the fabrics, trims and sometimes the finishings, and I did not have to care about the whole business side of selling the garment. At the end of the day I could just switch my mind off after each garment was done.
However, with my own collections, its a full-on 24 hour engagement. I have to design, create, craft each piece, and balance them against each other so that they work together as a whole collection. Then there's production and sales to look after as well. On the plus side, I no longer have to go back and forth to a third person to check proportions and if they are happy, because it's my label and my vision, and that whole process is internalised when I have my fitting sessions. The creative scope extends beyond the technical into sales and marketing with look books and online promotion, so it is very different indeed.
s: Your holistic approach to your business speaks to a commitment to personal vision and quality that we really don't see much of these days. Do you see yourself conducting business as a one-man operation long-term?
EL: As a start-up, one really has to be able to handle all aspects of the business at least to a satisfactory level. So many creatives cannot balance or even begin to grasp the business acumen that is critical for the industry, because they live in the fantasy bit of fashion. Fantasy is very important as well, but if you cannot balance your books, your dreams are going to end up just that: fantasy. Unless one strikes gold dust and finds some kind of private backer with deep pockets and who wants little or nothing in return, one has to go it alone. Having done this for two, going on to my third season now, I can safely say that on the best day, creativity is only 25% of the whole equation. If you cannot handle the 75% (accounting, pricing, marketing, sourcing etc), you're better off working for someone else than starting your own label.
I do not want to be a OMO (one man operation) long-term. Sure, being small allows me to micro manage and have an incredible control. But as with business in any industry, if it does not grow, it is only going to grow out-dated and irrelevant. I would like to be able to afford some staff too that would take off the intense pressure off my shoulders, but for now that is not a financial possibility.
S: It must be your expertise in pattern cutting that makes the difference in the refinement of your clothes. How do you maintain that couture quality when the manufacturing is out of your hands?
The factories I use are very specialised - not the high-street type of conveyor belt production. When I worked as a cutter, I was constantly aware that after the patterns were done, they would leave my hands and so the more information was on the patterns and spec sheets there was to guide the machinists, the better. I always give them a toile which either I or my assistants have sewn and explain things in great detail in writing, as well as checking back from time to time when questions arise during sampling and production. It takes a while to have a working relationship with any factory, but after a season or two, if they click with you, it should be a long term thing. To date I have had no major problems with my production unit, but I am still learning along the way and constantly pushing my technical and creative boundaries.
EL: My SS11 collection is called 'The Vanishing Twin', which is the layman's term for Fetus in Fetu (FIF), a rare medical condition where one fetus develops inside another. I was inspired by Stephen King's use of it in his novel 'The Dark Half', and read up further on it. The result is shocking - what doctors thought was a brain tumor turned out to be a foot growing in a boy's brain in Canada, a Bangladeshi man had fully formed limbs and hair and teeth in his gut for 36 years.
This has been translated into the clothing: tailored and draped pieces resemble muscle and tissue, with extra 'bits' growing out of certain pieces. Trousers have in-grown double waistbands, tops have extra straps that grow from unexpected places. But at the end of the day even without knowledge of the concept, the collection really stands by itself with my signature intelligent cutting techniques which I have furthered again this season.
Wow! That's a truly original concept. I'm even more intrigued and excited to see Eugene Lin's spring 2011 collection at London Fashion Week this weekend. Watch for a review of what is sure to be another exquisite collection from this talented and fascinating designer.
To view Eugene Lin's complete collections visit his website at www.eugene-lin.com
All images of the Gordian Knot AW 2010 collection, courtesy of Eugene Lin