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Five Questions For Richard Chai


Richard Chai has paid his dues. Prior to launching his eponymous line in 2004, the New York-based designer had worked with everyone from Geoffrey Beene (interning under Alber Elbaz) to Donna Karan (at DKNY) to Marc Jacobs (as the design director who launched the Marc by Marc Jacobs’ diffusion lines.) From the beginning, Chai put all the experience to good use, establishing a durable design signature in his very first collection. Since then, Chai has continued to find new ways to marry the cool geometry of his origami-inspired patterns to the organic and sinuous line of his trademark curving seams—all while keeping a keen focus on streetwise wearability. Last season, he debuted a likewise disciplined line of menswear, and over the summer, his successful Go! range for Target proved that the Chai style could translate to the mass market. This year, he was tapped as a finalist for the CFDA/Vogue Award. The winner of the 2008 prize will be announced November 17; in the meantime, Chai answers’s questions about life in the Top Ten.

What made you want to be a designer?

When I was 13 years old I took continuing-education night classes at Parsons [School of Design.] My mother would drive me in from Saddle River twice a week. At the time, I was enrolled in a graphic-design class. One day the class was moved and I was taking the elevator to the new location. The doors opened on the wrong floor and there was a model posing with really loud house music blasting and everyone drawing frantically. The energy in that room was intoxicating. The entire time I was sitting in my graphic design class I was wondering what I’d just witnessed. I soon found out that class was Fashion Illustration and switched into it the following week. At that moment I knew I wanted to be a fashion designer.

What was the scariest moment of the CFDA/Vogue process?

I think the scariest moment was when I first arrived backstage to prep my models before the interview, knowing that I would soon have to go into a room full of judges and talk about who I am and what my business stands for, all in 15 minutes. Fortunately, Virginia Smith, Meredith Melling Burke and Filipa Fino really put me at ease right before walking into the room to face the judges.

Was there a most rewarding moment, for you?

Honestly, this entire process from start to finish has been incredibly rewarding. From having to seriously analyze my business during the application process to meeting the judges in the interview to getting to know the fellow funders in Pebble Beach to the L’Oréal Event at Anna Wintour’s and then finally the studio visit from the judges. It’s all been a blessing. Oh, and being in Vogue, with Hugh Dancy wearing my clothes, that was a dream come true.

What’s your up-and-coming designer’s take on the current economic crisis?

In the current economic climate, it’s more important than ever to be innovative when it comes to the structure and discipline of my business model. With that in mind, I’ve been developing new classifications of products that are more competitively priced, without sacrificing any of the identity or creativity of my collection. No matter what the economy is like, people will always desire well-designed, special items.

Speaking of money, where did your first funding come from?

When I started my company it was self-financed. Soon thereafter, I was fortunate to get consulting job for Onward Kashiyama, which helped keep my company afloat in the early years.

What are you going to wear to the awards?

Richard Chai!

Photo: Andrew H. Walker / Getty Images