A Quiet Storm of Talent, Ambition and Acumen
From anonymous art school student to rising fashion icon, Taiwanese designer Apu Jan is a calm force at the center of a colorful creative storm. Not yet 30, he works tag-team across continents to produce visually pleasing designs with an intellectual flair.
A Quiet Storm of Talent, Ambition and AcumenBy Yueh-lin Ma
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 584 )
A romantic yet sentimental term, the light year is the theme of Taiwanese fashion designer Apu Jan’s 2016 summer line—The Journey of Light Year. Though a bit long on the romance of flowing skirts, the designer’s fashion show in London on September 20 was refreshingly free of sentimentality.
“Nervous? This is it.” At 10:46 a.m., less than an hour before the 11:30 fashion show, 30 to 40 people are busily helping 13 models with hair, makeup, dressing, adjusting details, and photography. The reporter posed the question as Apu Jan went to the front of the stage to say hello to the band.
“Not so much nervous as wound up, because of all the little things that come up. And even if you are nervous, you still have to act like you’re not, or you make everyone else even more anxious!” quips the designer. Next, the show’s director approaches to tell him to bow slowly during the curtain call. He nods, and sways for a moment with the music on the set.
After graduating with a degree from the Department of Textiles and Clothing at Fu Jen Catholic University, Jan headed to England for a Master’s in women’s clothing design from the Royal College of Art. Since founding the ApuJan brand in late 2012 at the age of 25, Jan has presented new clothing collections at an uninterrupted run of six London Fashion Weeks. This June, at the grand opening of the Shin Kong Mitsukoshi department store in Suzhou, the first ApuJan brand counter debuted in the boutique section next to Shiatzy Chen.
In front of and behind the stage of a fashion show are the best places to get a feel for the designer’s brilliance and resilience in the moment. In a fleeting 15 minutes, half a year’s worth of effort is expended like fireworks. And Fashion Week’s pace is so frantic that every designer with ambitions of staking their claim is forced to grow up quickly.
Team effort spans Europe and Asia
In less than three years, Jan has gone from an easy-going art school student with no designs on establishing his own brand, to a brand owner that is constantly thinking in terms of “how to sustain the brand.”
Leading a team of four or five classmates, school alumni, textile factory bosses, pattern designers, musicians, stylists, and photographers spread over different time zones in Taiwan, China, Japan, the UK, and Sweden, Jan is busily making his way across Europe and Asia. From creative ideas to production, shows, taking orders and manufacturing to marketing, sales and distribution, like bees making a hive he has created a network made to run a designer brand.
Jan’s designs are distinguished by their foundation of needlework, garnished by woven patterns and embossed floral designs. He likes to link each season’s line to a theme from mythology, fantasy and reality, lending the brand a distinctive style with a literary flair. For each show leading up to this year he has enlisted Professor Sarah Dallas, Senior Tutor in the School of Material at the Royal College of Art, making her a distinguished guest at the latest showing after six shows as a consultant.
ApuJan’s designs, sporting romantic, magical colors, are often based on themes from literature and cinema.
Following the show, Dallas said how much she admired this season’s designs, remarking that Jan knows now not to get too caught up in technical issues and put too many things into a work, endeavoring instead to let things go. She likes the sense of balance in this season’s collection – the way the colors, materials and styles echo each other in the overlapping transitions to together comprise an important feeling of belonging to an “integrated series.”
Jan’s father was also there with his teacher showing his support. Jan is the only son of PChome Online CEO Hung-tze Jan and author Wang Hsuan-yi. While he does what is necessary to avoid being on the same stage as his son, Hung-tze Jan never misses any of his son’s shows.
“The month before a show he and his staff work day and night, messaging each other back and forth over (the popular messaging app) Line. It pains me to watch the process, but I also find it fascinating. For the new generation of Taiwanese professionals to make their mark in the world probably requires that kind effort,” observes his father. The younger generation helps one another out via networking. Scattered around the globe, first they connect over the Internet, and then get right to work in England. “It’s so fresh and new to me, and something our generation never saw,” he adds.
Unlike many of his peers, who work in isolation, Apu Jan is like a little sun, attracting people who buy into his dreams.
Fashion dreams from a tiny living room
We visited Jan’s studio the day we left London. Doubling as a residence, the studio is located in the heart of the city between the UK Home Office and Department for Transport, under 20 minutes’ walking distance to Westminster Abbey and the Parliament building. Items and gear used in the just-concluded Fashion Week are strewn about the 25-square-meter living room, and 15 sponsored HTC Re cameras used to take all sorts of video from all perspectives in front of and behind the stage are piled on a table, their memory cards containing footage awaiting editing for posting to YouTube.
Clothes racks crowd the corridor. Reportedly, in the lead-up to Fashion Week, nearly a dozen people were jammed in this space to discuss work. Now, four bleary-eyed ones remain, working on video post-production.
Pressured for speed and refined over time, pressed for time, Jan has developed a work model bridging Europe and Asia: He provides the creative input, and production relies on the resources of Taiwan’s textiles industry. The stage crew and live band for Fashion Week came from Taiwan, but European and Japanese professionals residing in London handled makeup, styling, and photography.
“Most people actually have small studios, and their staffs are fluid, like film crews. Some people are usually in places like Berlin or Milano, and only come to London for Fashion Week,” Jan says. This is part of what makes the European fashion industry interesting, causing creative sparks, and feeding it creative energy and inspiration. However, the ad hoc nature of the organization also leads naturally to more problems.
Jan does his utmost to strike a balance between the fluid and the static. Nearly his entire Taiwanese crew has worked with him since his first seasonal collection was unveiled, building their rapport. Bridging distance and time differences with on-line software, they track progress at every stage using on-line spreadsheets.
“Apu Jan cares a lot about how smoothly work goes and communication, as well as interpersonal interaction,” relates DJ Ying Chi-hsuan, who began working with Jan three years ago providing live music at Fashion Week. For this year’s show, he performed alongside a music producer, lead singer, bass player, and violinist.
“In order to communicate the main threads of the design with London, at least one member of our team is awake at any given time in some place on Earth. So many things happen so quickly, and everyone has to be ready to respond and provide feedback,” says Ying.
Pressure to ship products
Although Jan is passionate about his work, he has an easy-going personality and lots of patience. “He’s a very balanced kid, with a high EQ, which makes him very good at coordinating work with his partners,” says Hung-tze Jan, who invited Lord Dennis Stevenson, former Chancellor of University of the Arts London, to his son’s first show. Stevenson told him that a designer’s success is to one degree or another determined by fate, but that the younger Jan had the “right personality” to endure the challenges of the profession.
“I care about feedback on production techniques and retail channels, but I don’t pay much attention to criticism on the creative aspects; I just say thanks for paying attention.” Jan feels that the pressure to deliver product is greater than presenting his designs at shows. Expending 60 percent of his labor resources on production, he is cured of his onetime illusions of being able to manage a brand at his own pace, having learned the importance of balancing stability and explosiveness.
“The more you know the more frightening it is! At first I thought it was fun, being done once the show was over. Little did I expect that buyers would like the work, and I rushed to cobble together my first batch of products,” he says. Today, ApuJan ships over a thousand items per season, at an average market unit price of around NT$12,000.
Despite the fast pace, Jan’s priorities are clear; he passes up many co-branding opportunities in order to concentrate on strengthening brand positioning. “As long as the brand stands firm, no opportunity will pass,” he says.
His creations marked by the romance of magical colors, and his business operations distinguished by calm exploration, Jan has progressed from working alone to having a posse. Along the way, perhaps he has simply just wanted to know just how far talent, ambition, and hard work can take him.
Translated from the Chinese by David Toman