Culturally Blended by Design – Our Q&A with Yvonne Chu
A friend of mine recently posted a picture of herself online, a lovely shot from her wedding day. She was wearing a gorgeous silk dress in a sweet shade of blue. I had a wedding to attend coming up (disclosure: I have a large family…there is always a wedding coming up) so I asked her where she’d bought it, and she introduced me to Kimera, owned by Yvonne Chu.
I took a trip to Brooklyn to check out the shop this summer, and the boutique was just about as lovely as the wedding photo, full of silk dresses in vibrant colors and happy customers. I did find a dress for the upcoming wedding, as well as another dress on the sales rack, which just needed the straps shortened a bit, and a scarf to match. And a few weeks later, I received a package in the mail, which was a joy and a delight to open. For the service and the quality, the price was absolutely phenomenal. (Okay, I haven’t worn that second dress yet, but I’m sure the right occasion will come along. Give it time!)
I asked Yvonne if she’d mind telling our readers a little bit about her dresses and her shop, and she kindly agreed, so we made a telephone appointment to discuss. Here’s what she had to say:
Name: Yvonne Chu (pictured above)
Date: October 4, 2016
Occupation: Owner, Kimera Design
Hometown: I was born in Columbus, Ohio, but I have no memory of that. We moved to Queens for about five years (Kew Gardens), but I grew up in Houston, Texas from ages seven through when I was in high school.
Current town: I’ve been in Brooklyn for almost 30 years. I consider myself a Brooklynite.
First of all, thank you for taking the time to speak with me today. I thought your shop and your dresses were absolutely beautiful, so I’m excited to learn more about how you work (and I think our readers will like this story, too). I saw on your website that you studied architecture before you went on to fashion design. What prompted that change in focus?
Well, I actually already knew I wanted to go into fashion design at that point. I was at Princeton, and they didn’t have a fashion design major. I originally was going to major in economics and then go to business or law school, but I soon realized that wasn’t where my passion was. After my freshman year, I explored other options. I was recruited to do an on campus fashion show, and got involved. I realized I loved it, and found out I was good at it, but I had to finish school and pick a major! Architecture was something creative and both of my parents are architects, so it was interesting as a major.
When I was in college, architecture was considered a really hard major! The architect students were always at the library. This isn’t something people would do if they had no intention of working in architecture!
It was intense, but I enjoyed it.
I have a friend who insists that design is design. If you can design jewelry, you can design shoes. If you can design interiors, you can design clothes, and so on.
I think that’s right. Fashion designers often do have backgrounds in architecture. I’m not so usual.
Your store is a very welcoming and colorful place; are you still using that architecture background in staging your shop?
Somewhat, I think. My interest lay more in interior design than in architecture itself. I love color and texture. It is also partly a rebellion from my parents being minimalist architects! We weren’t allowed to have anything other than white walls, everything very simple. I went to the other extreme.
Ruth and Bennu for Urban Geisha for Kimera Designs, Photo by Kristen Walther
A Kimera (also spelled Chimera) is a mythical beast. Why did you choose that name for your designs?
The general meaning is that it’s a combination of different elements. My concept is to combine different cultures. “Culturally blended by design” is our byline.
I appreciate the vibrant colors of your dresses and the texture of the raw silk; there’s a bit of a contrast in your designs, I think, between the very lush fabrics and the simplicity of the styles. It’s a combination that seems to work well, though. Does that seem like a fair description to you?
Exactly, it does; I like to keep the styling very minimalist and classic–that’s the architecture side of me.
What is your design process like? Where do you find inspiration? What are your influences?
The fabric is often the starting point. I work with the shantung every season, but I also work with seasonal fabrics. Right now I’m playing with African fabrics and prints. In fall, brocades for my coats. A little bit with what is going on in the runways, but also vintage-inspired. I’m inspired by Jackie O, Audrey Hepburn, the diversity of New York, and Brooklyn in general. Seeing Dance Africa at BAM a couple of years ago inspired me to start working on African prints.
I also get inspired by my clients. I work with diverse clients, and they will sometimes bring me fabrics. Indian brides bring me sari fabrics, to create dresses. And I love that.
Your dresses seem that they would work for a variety of ages and figures. It reminds me a bit of the elegant lines of Eileen Fisher (but no muted earth tones for you)! Can you usually find something that will flatter your costumers? Is it a challenge to find something that many bridesmaids of various shapes and sizes and skin tones can wear?
We definitely have something for everyone. Because we custom make, we can adapt our standard styles to any figure type. And then it’s all custom fit. My customers get pretty spoiled.
I also really appreciate your flexibility; you can take one of your standard designs and change the color, change the neckline, add a detail, etc., to really customize your dresses quite a bit. I guess that is one of the nice things about a small boutique, the ability to provide that level of service. Do you have plans to expand your business…what do you see down the line?
Yes, we do a lot of custom work. We can even make subtle changes, like narrowing a skirt, adding a sleeve.
I would like to grow my business but not to expand to the point where I couldn’t offer that level of service. I don’t want to be the next Calvin Klein, but I would definitely like to expand a bit. I’m doing more with online sales and Etsy for clients that can’t come to the store. Or people find me on Etsy and then come in for an appointment. I’d like to eventually expand to the overseas market. I do ship overseas sometimes. I’ve sent dresses to Australia and to Europe occasionally, but haven’t really pursued that market yet.
For the customers who can’t come to your store personally, if they send you measurements, are they then generally satisfied with the results?
Yes, they are satisfied. I walk them through the process, with detailed instructions, making sure they have a tailor on their end, and realistic expectations. Based on that, my out-of-town clients have been extremely pleased and pleasantly surprised.
It’s fun to get dresses in the mail!
Often they receive them, and have barely any alterations.
I always like to ask; what book should everyone read? (About design or not!)
I did recently read Born to Run by Christopher McDougall, which was very inspirational and helped reignite my love for running after getting a bit burned out. It’s about running, but also about life.
Do you have a favorite movie?
Going back aways, I have always loved Top Gun. (I am giving away my age!)
Who are your favorite fashion designers?
For current designers, I would say I like what Stella McCartney is doing now, modern with a bit of an edge to it. But my real love is for vintage design. Old Dior. Balenciaga. That era.
What’s your favorite fashion decade?
The 1950s into the early 60s.
What is the best and the worst thing about working in Brooklyn?
The best is the diversity and the energy, and the fact that there’s not too much of a commute for me. I don’t know if there is a down side, to be honest. There might not be a worst.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
From a business standpoint, just to be true to my own vision and not to stray from it. To be honest.
Good advice if it is serving you well so far…
Not getting caught up in the hype, and making money, instead focusing more about what I enjoy doing. It’s very personal to me.
What is your strangest phobia or superstition?
I don’t know if it is strange, but because I grew up in Texas, I have a phobia of flying cockroaches.
I don’t think I’d call that a phobia! That’s common sense! What’s something most people don’t know about you?
I think a lot of my clients don’t know how much of an avid runner and triathlete I am. That’s my other passion! I got into it relatively late in life, but it’s something I really enjoy doing, kind of pushing my limits.
If you could go back in time and do one thing over, what would you do?
That’s a tough question, I don’t know if there’s that much I would change.
Well, that’s a very good thing.
There have been some little glitches along the way, but they kept me on the path I was meant to go on. No regrets.
Last, but not least, is there anything you’d like to pitch, promote, or discuss?
Yes! I actually have a big event planned for the holidays, something new that I’m trying. The Big Girls’ Wish List, a holiday registry. It’s like a bridal registry, but it’s for the holidays. I’m inviting my clients to come in and bring their girlfriends and sisters, and register for gifts so no one has to second-guess what they want. They can just get their favorite items as gifts. One weekend date and one weeknight date, and inviting our best local clients and having a night of wine and cheese and shopping!
How can you lose? Wine and cheese and beautiful dresses!
And if you can’t make it locally, here’s my website: http://www.kimeradesign.com
Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a not quite 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.
Laura can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
All images courtesy of Kimera
Other Q&As by Laura LaVelle
* Alexi Auld, author
* Simeon Bankoff, Executive Director, Historic Districts Council
* Eric Bennett, author
* Alexander Campos, Executive Director, Center for Book Arts
* Mark Cheever, Friends of Hudson River Park
*Sarah Cox, Write A House
* Betsy Crapps, founder of Mom Prom
* Margaret Dorsey, anthropologist
* Mamady Doumbouya, Jonathan Halloran, & Robert Hornsby, founders of American Homebuilders of West Africa
* Kinsey Dyckman, Board Member, Dyckman Farmhouse Museum
* Rhonda Eleish & Edie van Breems, interior designers
* Alex Gruhin, co-founder of Nightcap Riot
* Leslie Green Guilbault, artist, potter
* Garnet Heraman, brand strategist for Karina Dresses, serial entrepreneur
* Meredith Sorin Horsford, Executive Director, Dyckman Farmhouse Museum
* Margaret Pritchard Houston, author and youth worker
* Camilla Huey, artist, designer
*Dr. Brett Jarrell & Dr. Walter Neto, founders of Biovita
* Beth Johnson, Townsend Press editor
* Mahanth Joishy, founder of United States – India Monitor
* Alexandra Kennedy, Executive Director, Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art
* Jim Knable, playwright and musician
* Jonathan Kuhn, Director of Art & Antiquities for NYC Parks Department
* Elizabeth Larison, Director of Programs for apexart
* Ann Lawrence, Co-Founder of Pink51
* Jessica Lee, dancer, Sable Project Administrator
* Najaam Lee, artist and sickle cell advocate
*Anthony Monaghan, documentary filmmaker
*Ellie Montazeri, Tunisian towel manufacturer
* Heather-Marie Montilla, Executive Director, Pequot Library
* Yurika Nakazono, rainwear designer, Terra New York
* Jibrail Nor, drummer
* Alice Quinn, Executive Director, Poetry Society of America
* Ryan Ringholz, children’s shoe designer, Plae Shoes
* Alanna Rutherford, Board Member, Andrew Glover Youth Program
* Deborah Ryan & Frank Vagnone, Historic House Anarchists
* Lawrence Schwartzwald, photographer
* Peter Sís, writer and illustrator
* Patrick Smith, author and pilot
* Juliet Sorensen, law professor
* Jeffrey Sumber, psychotherapist and author
* Rich Tafel, life coach and Swedenborgian minister
*Jonathan Todres, law professor
* Andra Tomsa, creator of SPARE app
* Maggie Topkis, mystery fiction publisher
* Carol Ward, Executive Director, Morris-Jumel Mansion
* Adamu Waziri, creator of children’s television program Bino and Fino
* Ekow Yankah, law professor