At my meeting with Sophie at her downtown Portland studio, I found her exuberant personality to be quite contagious. She is a petite and striking woman who wore black open-toe stilettos, ripped blue jeans and a simple T-shirt for our interview.
The windows of her studio are decorated with luscious floor-length gowns in an array of jaw dropping colors. The studio’s white walls are lined with exquisite white, ivory and pink gowns. She recently presented her Spring/Summer 2014 Collection at Portland Fashion Week and produced a number of fantastically architectural gowns. My favorite gown had an A-line capped sleeve with an ivory lace overlay, mint green under layer and a trumpet silhouette. Sophie understands how to integrate contemporary concepts into her garments, creating styles like a knee-length strapless lace dress with a detachable peplum constructed with layers of tulle.
Sophie Chang’s work has been recognized in Martha Stewart Weddings, Bridal Guide Magazine, Portland Bride and Groom, and Oregon Bride. She started her business at a time when most of us are still figuring out what to do with our lives. She grew up in an overpopulated city in China, and had an unquestionably normal and moderate upbringing. Her father was a teacher, her mother a self-taught seamstress. Perhaps this is where she developed her love for fashion, by watching her mother sew countless head-to-toe garments for her as a child. Sophie opened a high-end women’s boutique in China, featuring mostly evening-wear, and sold thirty pieces of just one style within her store’s first month. She described this as the defining moment of her fashion career. Any doubt that seemingly blurred her vision of becoming a fashion designer was extinguished. Shortly after the success of her boutique, she packed up everything, leaving her parent’s behind, and moved to Texas with her daughter. Speaking little English, the move was an uphill battle for her, describing her years in Texas as a “culture-shock.”
Even with a business degree and a successful boutique under her belt, Sophie felt compelled to learn more about the business of fashion design. She extensively researched design schools in the United States and decided on the Art Institute of Portland. In 2010 she opened her flagship store in Beaverton, before relocating to Southwest Portland. Sophie’s dresses are sold in bridal boutiques throughout the United States including: Beverly Hills, San Jose, Seattle, Waterbury, Connecticut and Lexington, Kentucky.
Sophie is a designer who opts for versatility and gives her bride-to-be the option of dressing in something other than the traditional white gown.
Although ivory is her most requested color for a gown, she has dressed brides in deep reds, blacks and royal blues. My absolute favorite gown was a pale pink Charmeuse ball gown. Its princess cut and Chantilly lace overlay was the perfect rendition of something seen in the movie, My Fair Lady. It was simplicity at its finest.
What is the niche you believe you fill as a designer?
Women come to me because they trust the work that I do. Many of my clients are referrals, and that’s the basis for any great business. Customer service comes first. My customers want to feel beautiful and special, and they want their personality to show through the dress. I deal with such a diverse scope of women, from twenty-four to forty years of age, who appreciate looking put together. Many of my clients are from all over the United States, as well as Europe and Asia. They do typically have a good income, but I don’t base my success solely on that. I appreciate women who take the time to care about themselves, externally and internally. My clients take an appreciation in one-of-a-kind garments, and that’s what I hope to give them. This is an important quality.
When I start a new collection, I will generally do some research on what trends are happening. It’s important to constantly progress forward in the industry. My next step is to sketch. Even if it’s a rough sketch, it helps me lay out my ideas more thoroughly. I normally will do very quick sketches when ideas pop into my head. They can be totally random. I don’t like to lose that idea. After sketches are confirmed, I like to think about fabric selection and the pattern making. I’ll sew up a mock to test the pattern until all the seams, lines and loose ends feel like it is just right. Then, I start on the gown.
Do you prefer working off a sketch or creating as you go?
Typically, yes. I sketch most of the time at first, but sometimes the inspiration comes at a more natural time, when the draping process begins.
Is there any garment you find the most memorable? Have you ever been dissatisfied when putting a garment out onto the market, and if so, how would you recreate it?
Yes, I do have a lot of gowns from the pre-season that I love the most such as the Sierra and Angelique. The Sierra is a strapless Charmeuse gown with silk organza pleating details. These are very memorable for me. I have wanted to recreate a gown before, but I think this happens when you put so much effort and expectation into working on a design, that when the results come, you have no choice but to be dissatisfied.
The designing process is always challenging, but that is one of the reasons why I love what I do. As a bridal designer, you can never have too much fabric, but sometimes, there are not enough people (in Portland) who are experienced enough to work on couture. I have international supply companies that offer me a variety of fabrics but sometimes when it comes to you, Portland is just not ready for it. A few months ago I was working on a specific project, which requires the perfect color and feel of fabric and having the proper trimming. I shopped all over Portland, along with all the major and smaller retail stores and couldn’t find the material in the right color or texture to finish my project. I ended up flying out to LA.
How has global architecture inspired your work as a designer?
When I lived in China, I used to travel every month, but that’s diminished a great deal since moving back to the U.S. I still put traveling to Europe on my wish list (laughs). It’s important for designers to get out there and witness different cultures. Every place is unique in itself, and those unique characters transition into fashion. They transition into clothes and tell a story. I love Portland for its richly diverse, artistic sensibilities. This is greatly represented in my gowns. When designing a dress, I take more of an architectural approach than something that’s flowy.
As a woman designer, it’s natural for outsiders to think or expect that you are designing for yourself. How much of this is true, and as someone who understands a woman’s body better than most, how do you approach each design differently?
I think part of it is having a certain level of experience, and the other is having a natural gift of being a woman. You can liken it to going back to your childhood when, as a little girl, you always showed the parts that you liked. We tend to feel more confident when we accentuate the natural curves of our bodies and female counterparts. Working as a bridal designer, it’s my job to understand women of all shapes and sizes, because the majority of the time, my bride is not a size 2 runway model. She’s your girl next door. And that girl next door can come in many varieties.
You have managed to build a successful business for yourself as a bridal designer in just a few short years. How much percentage of your time is spent on the design process versus business?
I spend a lot of time doing both. I still spend a lot of time behind my sewing machine. I hope that someday I can have somebody else sew all my garments, but I don’t see that happening. Designers are very particular in how they like things to get done, and I expect a certain level of perfection with my gowns. Therefore, I will always have a say-so in how they are constructed. I do have a team of pattern makers and interns working for me, which makes running a business a little easier. There is a lot to learn about manufacturers and how to mass-produce. I was fortunate to have the experience to work in a large manufacturing company with up to 500 people, so I understand how these things work.
How do you handle difficult customers? As a bridal designer, you are constantly dealing with that customer who wants nothing less than perfection for one day. That must put a great deal of pressure on you.
I try and put myself in their shoes. It’s expected that a bride will have high expectations for that day, so of course it will be a little bit stressful, and as the day gets closer and closer, things are bound to get even more stressful. Since I’ve had the experience of working with so many brides, I feel more comfortable in knowing how to manage the quality and time lines.
Who are some of your international supply companies?
Many of my fabric companies are USA based, but imported from Italy and France. I like to get some of my silks from Thailand and my Charmeuse from Italy. If I get desperate, I’ll stop into some fabric places here such as Mill End Store, but I’d never get my lace from there. It’s only for minor necessities like lining, needles or pin cushions or something.
Do you consider yourself at competition with other high-profile ready-to-wear designers?
For me, there is no competition, because bridal and ready-to-wear fashion is separated into two completely different categories. It’s like comparing apples to oranges. You can not compare, because you’re dealing with two different markets. Besides, there’s no time to really think about who you are competing against, because at the end of the day, it’s about pleasing my customers and providing them with the best service. My clients expect so much from me, because it’s a day they will remember forever. I deal with a very specific clientele, which sometimes can be different than ready-to-wear. So, no, I don’t put myself in that category of competitiveness. I just try and do the best I can do for my clients.
How does your signature look bring the most worth to a wedding gown?
Technique is always important, along with the fabric quality and detailing. The cut and fit of the gown is another important element, and it’s pretty high up there. I tend to stick to classic fabrics such as laces and silks. For my own personal taste, I prefer sticking to classic and clean styles, with a little detail. I like to imagine that my gowns could be worn on the Hollywood red carpet or something. Also, I like to add extra pieces such as a detachable peplum to create a two in one look gown. It mixes things up a bit.
What are some of your most requested looks?
Brides love the trumpet silhouette in blush colors or soft pinks. It’s such a classic style. Of course, they want to be feminine. I still get many requests for the traditional ball gown, but I’m seeing that fade a little more and more each season. We’re living in very modern times, and even brides want to feel more current with their wardrobe. They want to become a reflection of modern times, and we’ve already progressed into a digital age. This translates into weddings, too. I am seeing more and more women request a sleeker and contemporary style. Nevertheless, I am always recreating for every season, but there are a few classic pieces that will always remain.