How did you get started in fashion?
Fashion has always been a part of me. Even since I was a little girl, I was making my own clothes and accessories. I learnt by watching my mother, a tailor and a seamstress who had her own clothing business. I always knew I wanted my own brand, one where I could express my creativity through fashion design. I graduated in Business at Imperial College London and later went to further my fashion design skills at FIT New York. During my time in New York, I worked and interned for a few young contemporary designers before moving to Dubai. After having my daughter, I moved back to London. But it wasn’t until this point in my life that I decided it was time for me to pursue my dreams and launch my own fashion brand.
Penelope Mai takes its name from your mother and your daughter. How have these women inspired the collection?
These two women are very special to me. My mother has always inspired my creativity, particularly after watching her develop her own career as a seamstress. I hope to pass on these skills to my daughter too. My mother is a very strong woman and to me, she represents beauty and bravery. She’s been through difficult times in her life and it’s her creativity and talent that has always shone through, even during these times. I believe that it is only fair to name my brand after the woman who gave me the gift of art. Plus, I love the name ‘Penelope Mai’ as a whole, it, exudes femininity, class, and elegance with an Asian twist.
The collection’s fabrics are sourced from either the UK, France, or Italy. Was this decision made to increase the sustainability of Penelope Mai, and was this important to you from the start?
One of my top priorities is to reduce my carbon footprints whenever possible, but utilising local sources also speeds up production. This allows me to focus on the quality of the material, rather than spending time on sourcing products.
You honed your skills in New York, yet the collection is based and made in London. Do you see Penelope Mai as quintessentially British, or have you drawn inspiration from the various places you’ve travelled?
I am so proud to be a label that is ‘Made in London’. Having a British label on my design also highlights the subtle elegance embraced in my collection. With regards to my inspiration, I do believe it comes from international travel and witnessing juxtaposing styles: contemporary yet timeless; elegant yet edgy. I believe that these adjectives can also describe the modern woman: someone who is confident and isn’t afraid of anything.
The collection blends typically feminine features such as bows, ruffles, and tulle with structured silhouettes. How does this combination represent the modern woman?
I do believe it’s a combination of feminine qualities and statement designs that represent the confident, contemporary woman. I want to design couture that embrace feminine features so my dresses are often deliberately designed to be figure hugging. The outcome is sometimes quite provocative but without losing that sense of class or decorum that my brand values.
The Penelope Mai website features a quote from Coco Chanel: “I decided who I want to be and that is who I am.” How is this message important to you and is it something you reflect in your designs?
I did struggle to get to where I am today: I had doubts and what felt like immovable obstacles that prevented me from reaching my goals at the time. But I concluded that I was just making excuses, so I took action and decided not to let anything stop me from that point onwards. You and I know deep down inside, we all have potential to do something great, but sometimes we aren’t willing to try and achieve this. Perhaps we're afraid of what others might think- or we're scared to go for what we want. But, all it takes is a little courage and some risks, and a lot of believing in yourself. If you can push through these barriers you can realise your true potential be anyone you want to be.
‘Love. Femininity. Power. Strength’. In what ways do your designs embody these principles, and are they also important to you during the design and crafting process?
I think it’s a combination of those words that represents the unique identity of a modern woman. I integrate these into my designs through bold colours to signify strength and confidence. For instance, red and yellow are both colours that stand out, they’re different from the rest, so I embrace those colours in my collections. I also design dresses with high leg slits that deliberately show off a woman’s sexy feminine power. I think it highlights a woman’s confidence. My collection also has a lot of the dresses with open shoulders: strapless and very sexy to draw attention. However, I ensure that these features don’t detract from the female silhouette. I design dresses that flow fluidly with silk, tulles, bows, to provide a feminine touch and highlight a woman’s natural curves.
Do you set out to create timeless designs, or is modernity more important to you?
Timeless with an edge is important to me, it perfectly encompasses my vision for my brand.
What are your plans for the future?
I want to expand my range and produce more accessible evening party wear: beautiful dresses for every occasion, not just the red carpet. I have starting to create wedding dresses for my private clients, so perhaps that will form part of my future collections. I also hope to create accessories, a ready to wear and a kids range.