Artist turned designer, Richard Tsao, has been attracting attention with his hand crafted Thai silk collection which debuted at AsiaStore in 2001. Tsao's versatile cocoon fashions can now be spotted everywhere, from the streets of Manhattan to VIP galas. Dividing his time between New York and his native Bangkok, Tsao produces two collections a year, introducing new custom colors seasonally.
You are classically trained as an abstract painter. How did you end up designing clothing in addition to your artwork?
SIX YEARS AGO ON A TRIP HOME TO VISIT MY MOTHER AND SIBLINGS, I WENT TO MY TAILOR WITH THIS IDEA THAT I WANTED TO HAVE HIM SEW ELASTIC ONTO THIS BEAUTIFUL THAI SILK THAT I HAD, AND CREATE A COCOON LIKE JACKET. I LIKED THE IDEA THAT THE ELASTIC ALLOWED FOR A PIECE OF GARMENT (SUCH AS MY NIECE'S BATHING SUITS) TO BE "ONE SIZE FITS MANY." AT FIRST HE RESISTED DOING IT AND SAID IT WASN'T POSSIBLE, BUT AFTER 5 WEEKS OF LOTS AND LOTS OF TRIAL AND ERROR AND TWEAKING, WE FINALLY SUCCEEDED WITH A FEW PROTOTYPES THAT I BROUGHT BACK TO NYC. I REALLY DIDN'T KNOW WHAT I WAS GOING TO DO WITH THEM ONCE I WAS BACK IN NYC SINCE I WAS RELUCTANT TO HAVE AN THING TO DO WITH THE RETAIL WORLD. PRIOR TO ASIASTORE I WOULD JUST SELL FOR FUN TO FRIENDS OUT OF MY APT.
Is there any correlation between your paintings and your clothing designs?
PEOPLE WHO KNOW BOTH MY CLOTHING AND MY ART WORK SAY THAT THE EXUBERANT SENSE OF COLOR AND THE TEXTURES ARE VERY MUCH LIKE MY PAINTINGS. ALSO THE ELEMENT OF TIME. MY PAINTINGS TAKE ABOUT TWO ARE MORE YEARS TO COMPLETE EACH ONE.
Our buyer, Anne Godshall loves to tell the story of how you came to sell your designs at AsiaStore. Can you tell us the story in your own words?
I CAME BACK TO NEW YORK CITY FROM THAILAND A WEEK BEFORE THE 9/11 TRAGEDY. WHEN 9/11 HAPPENED, SINCE I HAD BEEN FREELANCING, ALL OF MY PROJECTS - MY ONLY SOURCE OF INCOME FELL APART. AND I HAD SPENT ALL MY MONEY WHILE TRAVELLING IN THAILAND AND I THINK BURMA AT THAT TIME. I WAS A MEMBER OF THE ASIA SOCIETY, AND FRIEND ENCOURAGED ME TO BRING SOME DESIGNS TO SHOW TO ASIASTORE. I RESISTED FOR AWHILE, BUT THEN THOUGHT WHY NOT GIVE IT A TRY? I SHOWED UP WITH A BIG GARBAGE BAG OF THE COCOONS, WITH VERY FEW EXPECTATIONS AND ANNE OFFERED TO DISPLAY THEM ON THE PRESENT WALL (I BELIEVE ORIGINALLY THAT WALL WAS MEANT FOR ANTIQUES.) WELL, THE COCOONS FOUND AN AUDIENCE RIGHT AWAY IT SEEMS AND 6 YEARS LATER, SALES STILL SEEM TO BE GOING STRONG!
You have an interesting way of taking old world production techniques and design and using it in a very contemporary way. How has your Asian background influenced your designs?
I LIKE THE SIMPLICITY OF ASIAN GARMENTS. THE WRAP OR THE SIMPLE LINES, PARTICULARLY WHEN THEY ARE LAID OUT FLAT ON THE TABLE. THERE IS SOMETHING VERY BEAUTIFUL AND SERENE ABOUT THEM WHEN THEY ARE LAID OUT FLAT ALMOST LIKE FLOOR PLANS. I GREW UP AROUND THAI SILK SINCE MY MOTHER ALWAYS HAD BEAUTIFUL THAI SILK DRESSES MADE. I ALSO USE TO LOVE TO GO TO SILK STORES WITH HER. THE INDIAN MARKET IN BANGKOK WHERE THEY SELL FABRICS IS SUCH A FUN PLACE TO VISIT. WATCHING THE WEAVERS IN NORTHERN THAILAND WEAVE THE SILK THREAD BY THREAD ALWAYS FASCINATED ME! AND TO THINK THAT THIS BEAUTIFUL PRODUCT COMES FROM A RATHER UNATTRACTIVE CREATURE LIKE THE SILK WORM.
Your Mandarin Cocoon jackets are incredible. One size really does fit all and the colors are spectacular. Rumor has it that it takes one week to produce the 50 yards of silk for each jacket. Is this true? Can you tell us more about the production process that goes into your designs?
IT TAKES ONE WEEK TO WEAVE 50 YARDS OF SILK SINCE IT IS STILL WOVEN ON THE OLD FASHION HAND LOOM. HENCE THE LITTLE KNOTS FROM TIME TO TIME. IT TAKES ABOUT ONE WHOLE DAY TO CONSTRUCT ONE COCOON JACKET. THE ELASTIC IS ACTUALLY SEWN ONTO THE SILK AFTER IT IS WOVEN. IF THIS WAS HIGH TECH WEAVING THEN I GUESS IT WOULD BE A MUCH SIMPLER PROCESS, BUT I DO LIKE THE HANDS OWN AND VERY HANDMADE ASPECT OF THE COCOONS. PRODUCTION IS KEPT SMALL. LUCKILY SO FAR I HAVE A "RECOGNIZABLE PRODUCT THAT SELLS ITSELF"--AND I HOPE THEY CONTINUE TO SELL SINCE THE INCOME HAS BEEN MOST HELPFUL FOR ME AS AN ARTIST.
What does it mean to you to have your designs sold at AsiaStore at the Asia Society and Museum?
I AM VERY FLATTERED AND VERY HAPPY TO HAVE MY DESIGNS AT THE BEAUTIFUL AND UNIQUE ASIASTORE. (THANKS TO ANNE!) AND TO THINK THAT THIS IS YEAR NUMBER SIX MAKES IT ALL THE MORE UNREAL. I DID NOT THINK THAT THE COCOONS WOULD LAST THIS LONG BUT IT SEEMS LIKE THE INTEREST JUST CONTINUES TO GROW.
Be sure to visit AsiaStore at Asia Society and Museum to view and purchase Richard Tsao's designs. Check back at the AsiaStore Blog where we will be posting interviews with our Asian American Designers throughout the month of May.