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Vivienne Tam - On Staying True To Self

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Paradigm Shifters is a series of interviews with a select group of women from eclectic walks of life. It will highlight unspoken, real life insights on how women have been able to turn weakness into strength. A naked soul point of view of how their breakdowns were really a preparation for breakthroughs. They are your quintessential Paradigm Shifters; internal shifts converted into genuine change.

Everything I have ever done has been focused on this underlying theme of shifting the paradigm because, "what we think determines what we feel and what we feel determines what we do." Hence why Seven Bar Foundation and Empowered by You takes lingerie, which has traditionally been seen merely as a tool of seduction and redirected that energy as a tool of empowerment.

I hope from these stories you will look at your own situations, struggles and accomplishments through a different lens. At the very least you will be more equipped with real-life tools to change your own paradigm. At the end of the day we are our own Alchemist turning the silver we were born with into the gold are destined to become.

Vivienne Tam

vivienne tam headshot
Vivienne Tam - Renowned Fashion Designer

Renata: How did you get your first break into the US?

Vivienne:It was the Mao collection, my first collection to receive a Women's Wear Daily cover.

I was working to cross the worlds of art and fashion. Everyone told me not to do the show because I didn't have enough money and fashion shows don't really generate business but I wanted to try it one time because you can really present whole ideas and concepts to the audience instead of just clothes. You can really express yourself.

The Mao collection caused many complications. The factories in Hong Kong refused to work with me because they felt the collection was too controversial since all of the material featured General Mao and this was found to be disrespectful. Thankfully, one of my sisters had a connection that was willing to do the collection as long as I would be responsible if anything happened, so I agreed.

But while I was producing samples, I had to wrap and hide all of my fabric with Mao's face on it because everyone was afraid of being reported.

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Did you incorporate these images in order to take a political stance with your art?

It's not about agreeing or disagreeing with politics. It's about representing the changes of China because the country is so rigid. You can't voice your opinion because you can be punished.

Using these images was really important to me because I wanted to do something that represented how China was opening up to new ideas at the time. Some people's perception of China is that it's only manufacturing cheap clothes and cheap products. But there is fashion design and concept too. When I first came over to the U.S. with no money and I was calling department stores, I told them I am a designer from Hong Kong and they said there are only manufacturers in China and asked if I was trying to sell them cheap clothes and blouses. It was very hard for me to get an appointment, but I persisted.

I wanted to do something in my collections to challenge Chinese people who are only looking to the West for fashion influence. We should look to ourselves. We have a deep culture and resources.

So you're very clear as to what your purpose is here.

My mission is to always do something really true to myself and to represent China through my work to the global audience. I want to become the bridge of my culture to the West.

Was there one moment in the US where you felt like there was a break down and you were able to change it into a break through?

I think that it was when I did my first fashion show. The show went great but managing the business behind it was very difficult. I had to do everything myself and learn to sell, manage the warehouse, and do bookkeeping on my own through experience. It was very difficult, but I know it's worth it each time I manage to do a show and am happy with the result.

What do you think is the one thing inside of you that you use to overcome difficulties?

Believing in what I'm doing and believing in myself. People continue to say that Chinese-influenced design will not be successful, but I stay true to myself even though it may not translate to sales. And then, people will recognize and come to you for your individual talents. For instance, Judith Regan from HarperCollins came to me to create my book China Chic. It wasn't my plan to become a brand or write a book, but things come to you when you're passionate about what you're doing.

You have been a trendsetter using technology with fashion ever since the release of your HP digital clutch in 2008 with Hewlett Packard. Recently, you used the app WeChat as a part of your 2014 NYC Fashion Week presentation. How has crossing the worlds of fashion and technology benefitted you and how has it affected your audience?

WeChat allows me to share my ideas and reach out to the audience. I think that fashion is about connection. It's about how we live just as mush as is it about style.

In the past the audience could only see the collection, but now they can see the concepts behind my ideas. They can see pictures from before and after the show. It gives them more insight into how I developed my collections. It is a more intimate experience. I even leave voice messages for my followers.

Philanthropy is in the DNA of your brand. What are the ways in which you incorporate charity into your design work?

With each collection I try to do one conference somewhere around the world to help charity. This year I am going to the city of Dunhuang in Northwest China to work to preserve the caves there. They are filled with murals from thousands of years ago. I was there awhile back and it always stuck in my mind.

We will visit the site and raise money for cave preservation. The proceeds will go to the Dunhuang Academy. It will open at the end of this year. I want to showcase the beauty of Dunhuang to the world and translate the essence of the beauty through my collection Fall Winter 2014 collection.

I have also been helping women's groups near Burma since last April. 30,000 kids have AIDS in this region because the women's husbands contract the virus from drug use and it is then spread to their wives, and when women get pregnant their babies have AIDS too. There are many orphans because children's parents die of AIDS. I am planning another trip next winter.

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Is this a new initiative for you?

Yes. I want to do each of my collections in a different place where I can help women. For example, in this area they are now building a center so women can gather and do beautiful embroidery. I intend to go here and have the women work on items in my collection. Even if they cannot make the whole piece, they can work on little parts and I can assemble them. I have seen their work and their embroidery is so amazing.

I want to help them survive independently by having their own commerce, instead of drugs. They already have a team that teaches women embroidery and things like that, but they're still using very traditional way of doing it. I would like to teach them new types of embroidery with different materials and techniques. It's a way of employing them.

In a way you will be creating designers. What are other ways in which you have worked with emerging fashion designers?

I have a space in Hong Kong called PMQ, Police Married Quarters. Last semester, graduate students who want to get into the fashion business came with me to Dunhuang to visit and do research. We then came back to PMQ and developed the whole collection together. I continue to work on each collection with them as their curator. We adopt styles from each territory we visit and showcase all of the pieces we make at PMQ. We even have a group working with all of our upcoming designers in our store in Hong Kong.

I don't want to be just a fashion designer. I want to work with design, graphics and technology students as well as students with different backgrounds and disciplines.

Why do you incorporate the work of young designer's into your collection?

I want to promote these minority cultures and their craftwork through the local designers. We're doing all that in one concept.

For me, sharing ideas is the most beautiful thing people can do because it leads to inspiration for something new. There are endless ideas, and you can make the impossible become possible. I want that to be my legacy, trying to make the impossible possible.

If you were going to give your younger self some advice, what would it be?

Be yourself and stay true to who you are. A lot of people ask me if I think Chinese designers have to do something Chinese in order to be international. I say, "No, you have to be who you are and do what you love to do."

I think that's most important.

Vivienne is the quintessential symbol of what it takes to honor the purpose you have been chosen for. No matter the cost. She shifts can not's into can do's, the impossible to possible and dreams into reality. She is a true legend.