It’s a gray and cloudy afternoon in Paris. The rain has been coming and going all day, but right now it’s shooting bullets. I finally make it inside the contemporary exhibition space, Palais de Tokyo, to dry off. I patiently wait for Sarah Cho, but am suddenly surprised by the Asian designer’s hair, which has been colored from its crisp black to a burning red-orange. A perfect match to her current jewelry collection.
A personal friend, Sarah Cho is very much an eager designer wanting to learn and grow and make sure her collections are reflective of her unique taste. Sarah started her brand SCHO (a combination of her name Sarah + Cho) a couple of years ago with the launch of her first commercial collection, Neo Play Autumn/Winter 2012. Even the journey to this first collection is one that seemed almost accidental.
BRINGING UP THE PAST
Originally from South Korea, Sarah was raised in Africa and completed secondary studies in the United States. She met her first crossroads when she was accepted to Northwestern University to complete a medical degree. Sadly a family tragedy put some perspective to her life. As her mother was heading off to Paris for a small vacation, she encouraged Sarah to join her because of the passion she saw her daughter have for the arts. Sarah’s mother gave her an unexpected choice to choose art or medicine because, “Once you start, there is no turning back.” Those wise words gave Sarah the courage to make the life-changing decision. With her mother’s encouragement and support, a 19 year old Sarah Cho, jet-setted to Paris and has never looked back.
After turning down a career in medicine (a decision she never regrets) she immersed herself into art. One of her professors noticed Sarah’s talent for working with and combining colors and textures. He sent a recommendation and helped Sarah get into fashion and study at the Ecole de la Chambre Syndical de la Couture Parisienne. She originally studied pret-a-porter femme and interned with Manish Arora and Balenciaga. It wasn’t until she got the opportunity to intern with Lanvin in their women’s accessories department that she found her passion for making jewelry.
Lanvin was going through an era of chunky jewelry and chains from Italy, which was intriguing to the eager student. Only working in the famed luxury house for three months, she quickly became mesmerized with the process. As she started making jewelry at home, materials were sourced from unconventional places like warehouses, wood from beaches, and just about anything primitive.
“It was a really, weird phase that I was drawn to something so much that I couldn’t control it. Any extra monies I got, I would pour into materials.”
Her creations were consistent and had a certain concept about them.
Unfortunately, Sarah was working blindly without a mentor to really guide her or let her know if her work was even remotely good enough. It wasn’t until she entered a competition in Italy that she finally got the feedback she was searching for. Also being new to the jewelry world, Sarah had not really established herself professionally. She had no website, business cards, or social media networks set in place.
Swarovski was one of the sponsors from the competition. They were the first to approach Sarah and complement her artistic illustrations, but also natural abilities. Even though she didn’t win the competition, Swarovski still gave Sarah 4,000 crystals in any shape, color, and size of her choosing. Some of the crystals weren’t even in the market yet and Sarah said she was “like a child on Christmas day” every time she received a package.
She refers to herself as being naïve about business strategies. When she had some pieces in place, she set about walking into different stores in New York and Paris to sell her collection. This walk-in approach got her collection into two stores in Manhattan. In Paris, she found one old vintage store that was interested. The owner indulged Sarah’s youthful eagerness and took a look. She was deeply impressed that she closed the store to focus on the collection.
“She was really shocked by how she couldn’t describe it. She had been handling jewelry for so long that she had never seen anything like it before.”
Sarah describes her style as a combination of her African roots, Parisian art culture, and American influence, which ends up being something futuristic and architectural with an ethnic twist. “Design and art is in relation to space. Fashion is about space around the human body.” She approaches jewelry in her own way and works to create a harmony of jewelry being a part of you.
As much as she loves her Asian roots, she considers Asian fashion to be too trendy. “They produce collections within one sort of cloud and move on to the next trend; whereas in France, everyone is trying to be unique.”
“I love and admire French fashion houses because they are so completely different from each other.”
She refers back to her early days vintage shopping where she would often find embroidered shirts, sweaters and dresses. She would buy so many because of their super cheap price that they eventually filled her room. “I’m so impressed by all the work and detail that went into them.” She goes on to relate that with vintage clothes, the work is so particular and easy to find in Paris, but hard to find elsewhere. She wants to keep that level of detail in her collections. “When I work on my prototypes, it’s always going to be in Paris. It’s the only city, I feel, that gives me no doubt.”
Even with her varied background and diverse ethnic roots, she manages to hone it all in and create collections that tell a story. To describe her 2013 Autumn/Winter collection, Night Story, Sarah takes you through a journey. She plants the setting in a desert. A silent, cold and shimmery, desert where moonlight reflects the sand. A festive African Queen, who brings color and life into the desert, then disrupts the calm and empty land. This crazy contrast describes the mix of materials and colors for the collection.
“I am very loyal to the colors that I use. If I get stuck with a color, I know that I want to make it work and push my designs to make that one color work.”
All of her designs are dependent on the materials she has on hand. She sources her materials from India, China, and wherever she may travel. She begins the process by laying them out on my table and imagining how they come together, like putting together a puzzle. Her main driving factor is establishing a story that combines drawing inspiration from her many root connections in Africa and Asia, and her love for Italian Gothic Renaissance where everything was gold. “I try to make one story by mixing them together.”
Her current collection, Virtuous Toy, is built around the idea of nostalgia from childhood toys. Before even getting to work on it, she had a little bit of struggle. “I had a crazy, nervous kind of period before starting the collection because everyone loved Dream Holly and I felt a pressure that I wanted to impress everybody.” Trying to create something tailored to her clients, she found herself stuck in a phase where nothing was advancing and nothing was being productive. “So I told myself like forget it, just imagine you are not going to sell this collection and keep it for yourself.” Once she changed her mindset, the collection seemed to flow out of her.
The whole collection is considered to be a toy chest of fun. Sarah says that thinking of her collection this way gave her self-assurance that she wasn’t really working, but rather playing with toys. Women have their toys, and Sarah wants to add her touch with toys wrapped around a woman’s neck or dangling from her ears. She even added some Latin references with the RIO family. Combining Argentinian colors and Chinese details, she took elements of what the country was known for, but used them in a different way.
One of the jewelry families, Grace, has a much simpler feel than what Sarah has become known for. Adapting her style to match that of her clients, she was able to produce elegant chain necklaces and bracelets, but still managed to add her signature look with a crystal strategically attached to the clasps. Trying to not look like another cheap chain distributor, Sarah really differentiated herself by putting time and effort into the finish and color of the final product. “I’m really happy with the coating and finishing. It complements the collection and doesn’t look out of place.”
Although Virtuous Toy is not yet in stores, that doesn’t stop Sarah from thinking about the next collection.
“Even though I am 100% focused on this current collection, I am still thinking about the next one. I love indulging into a collection and I feel like 6 months is not enough.”
She never likes to talk about the new collection, but says that when it’s time you will see. Thankfully she indulged minor details, “The new collection will be about pureness, not like a light pure angel, but a heavy white since it will be a summer collection.” With a promise of authority and luxury, but mum on details about colors and shapes, I am already intrigued.
“I’m used to talking to myself and discussing it in my head, that I feel if I tell someone, I am cheating on myself.”
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
So what plans does Sarah have for her brand? “I’m taking the business very slow. I still like that fact that my business is underground.” She spends very little time and energy into advertising her brand on social media and doesn’t like name-dropping herself into conversations. “I feel that when people find it [SCHO] naturally on their own, they are more loyal than like if you feed it in their ear.” She adores these loyalist customers; always loyal, happy, ready and excited for the next collection.
One of her recent out-of-a-dream moments came this past season when her collection debuted in Le Bon Marche. “I feel like I was very lucky and the timing was perfect. The jewelry world was in need of a fresh brand.” She hopes to continue this partnership with a collaborative collection for next summer or an exclusive Christmas collection. Even from the beginning, Sarah had prestigious stores that loved the brand and have come back every year. These buyers keep coming back every season, but she feels like its time to do more.
Flying to Korea this month, she will be collaborating with a small gallery that is very much authentic and unique. The curator approached her and asked to show her collection to his clients. This will be the first time all of the SCHO collections will be in Korea. She hopes the gallery showing goes well enough to find an interested buyer since she is currently not stocked in Korea.
She would very much like to do some sort of collaboration with a magazine. “I’m going to reach out to some magazines so that we can maybe build a story within their magazine.” But if she could really pick her next project, she would love to do a collaboration with Columbian designer, Dries van Noten. They relate on several levels including their uses of color and how they have built their brands on the similar concept of “sticking close to who you are.”
Apart from branching out creatively, she is looking to expand her sales and move into London, specifically Dover Street or Liberty. “I think maybe one day, we will see. Right now, they are just dream stores.”
So what advice does this budding jewelry designer give to fashion hopefuls who want to start their own line? “It’s important that you are in your own zone and focused on who you are so that you have a clear vision of what your brand is going to be. And once that’s placed, it’ll be easy.”
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Enjoy this post and previous ones during the summer as I will be taking a much needed vacation! Check back in September when I will be up and blogging once again 😉