The Designer Series: Suk Chai (Intro)
Suk Chai is the Founder and Creative Director of S C H A I, a womenswear label built upon a philosophy of ungendering and reinventing women’s apparel and accessories. Featuring rich and often unfinished textiles sourced from Italy and constructed in New York, her timeless and architectural silhouettes are rigid yet flexible, fluidly juxtaposing themes of strength and approachability in ways that are immediately striking, exceptionally elegant, often utilitarian, always respectful, and incredibly comfortable.
BORN : SOUTH KOREA
RAISED : SEOUL
EDUCATION : FASHION INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY
EXPERIENCE : SENIOR DESIGN DIRECTOR, NORDSTROM PRODUCT GROUP
LABELS : 1
COMPANIES : 2
FOCUS : PRÊT-À-PORTER | CONSULTING
STUDIO : YES
LOCATION : BELLEVUE, WASHINGTON
A gifted artist, and coming from a family with artistic inclinations, it became clear at an early age that fashion was a natural extension of her creativity and explorations into gender non-conformity.
“I always loved wearing pants over dresses or skirts,” Suk admits with a kind of gleeful nostalgia. “I always played like a boy. I love androgynous things. I love textiles and things, but a little more masculine, maybe, that didn’t have a particular girliness behind it.”
Suk has two older brothers and an older sister, making her the last in a six year line of hand-me-downs. While she still played with paper dolls, as was common in South Korea in the 1970s, she lived perhaps the exact opposite of a Barbie-doll life. She recalls chasing and being chased by her older brothers whom passed along not only their older, ill-fitting garments, but valuable life lessons, like how to break a wooden plank Taekwondo-style. And she vividly recalls the one garment she impatiently waited six long years to possess.
“There’s this tweed coat that my big brother wore when he was seven or ten. And he had a red beret, and it was a black-and-white, salt-and-pepper coat. And he has a picture of it.” Suk recalls the agonizing wait as the garment passed from brother to brother to sister.
“I wanted that outfit so bad! But I had to wait six years until my body was big enough to fit into it,” she exclaims, noting the timelessness of the coat and how it impacted her later progressions into fashion. “I don’t think my brothers and sister understand how iconic a moment that was for me for fashion. I wanted that coat so bad. The coat is timeless. It’s androgynous. And that’s still me. And I never understood that until I started building my own brand and my own collection.”
These and many more formative experiences ring true throughout all of her collections, each of which have a story inspired by her life and worldview written by Seattle Met’s former Style Editor—and current independent writer, storyteller and social architect—Laura Cassidy.
And perhaps best of all — pockets. Each collection features gloriously useful pockets.
Suk was trained at the illustrious and storied Fashion Institute of Technology, home to such sartorial alumni as Naomi Sims, Nina Garcia, Norma Kamali, Michael Kors, Calvin Klein, Fransisco Costa, John Varvatos, Tarun Tahiliani—it’s a very long and distinguished list. And from there, Suk made her way back to Seattle, growing into a position at Nordstrom as Senior Design Director of their then fledgeling design studio Nordstrom Product Group, and growing the Nordstrom brand itself along with her fellow fashion argonauts into the international powerhouse it is today.
And if it sounds like Suk’s a genius, it’s because she is. Though she’d never admit it. But like all genius, there’s a catch.
In the back of her mind, the realities of the clear and present dangers that the fashion industrial supply chain presented to the world’s health and safety became a weight she could no longer carry. Faced with a decision to keep up with the Jonses, or to pursue a new and path toward sustainability, she finally decided to leave her position at Nordstrom where she had been for 14 years to embark on a new and uncertain journey.
Enter S C H A I. Formed by the first initial of her first name paired with the entirety of her last name, S C H A I (pronounced “shay” and making her IG handle “schaibyschai” all the more endearing) represented a clean slate upon which to build a brand, and indeed, a reputation, and perhaps to even make a positive change. But after six collections worth of designing, draping, tailoring, consulting, marketing, photography, colors, fabrics, factories, runways, models, hair, makeup—another long list—something had to give.
S C H A I - SS17 COLLECTION IMAGES © SIMON ARMSTRONG COURTESY BRITISH VOGUE.
“You have no idea how many designers or design houses make everyday seem like you’re having surgery. And it’s life or death. This industry is one of the most stressful industries you can think of and it comes with such a price in so many different ways.”
Suk’s disdain towards the apparent deafness the fashion industry engendered was on the rise, and the dissonance only grew in intensity. “Most of the time, people are just chasing after a trend, something they saw, including myself.” Seeing fashion as a lesser pursuit when compared to other literally life-saving activities, she no longer referred to herself as a fashion designer. If anything, she was an artist and arising iconoclast whose sense of identity was no longer tied to the tools of her trade.
“So many things happen in this industry and the only thing people talk about is the Instagramer, or what some celebrity’s wearing, or some runway. I feel so jaded. Yeah, it’s another day that they’re wearing another brand. You know, like, And? So for me, it’s really having those epiphanies in life and actually learning from them and becoming wiser and more grateful and more giving, more open. That’s really life.”
In late 2017, and in response to a personal tragedy which came at an already tumultuous time, Suk stopped filling reorders and walked away from the sketching table. Her world as she knew it had ended and there was no going back.