Judy Gao is both a self taught seamstress and business woman, quickly becoming noticed in New Zealand and abroad for her exquisite and unique gown designs. An eye for detail and a strong sense of the trends, Judy is turning heads with her label and creations which she also models herself. With three collections behind her, and the launch of her recent bridal wear range I chat with Judy about how she started, and made her dreams a reality.
Last week I wore the Alina Ball Gown in deep purple, and you can view that article here, photographed at the amazing Hamilton Gardens. Order your own Alina Ball Gown here.
20 Questions with Judy Gao from Judy Gao Couture
How did you create Judy Gao Couture and when did it start?
The label began after finishing my degree when I was not feeling excited about any career prospects the degree could bring. I had a part time job in retail while working on my designs. After 6 months, I felt constricted and I didn’t want to work for anyone anymore. I took the plunge, quit my job, and started my own business full time. It was a risk since I didn’t have many customers lined up, but with ball season approaching, I had the confidence that I will be fine, and it worked out well in the end.
So I read that you said you wanted to become a designer since you were 13. So you had an interest in fashion design for a long time. What was your story between 13 and 2016?
Ever since I made my dreams clear to my parents, they were against it. They wanted another route which was: study accounting, graduate, get a stable job, work for 10 years, save up, then start a business. I’ve also had so many adults tell me that a career in fashion is hard and many people don’t succeed after fashion school. I felt a lot of pressure to go to uni and study to have a “proper career”. So that’s what I did. I picked some random majors at uni (I did Statistics, Psychology, and Information Systems) and spent 5 years on a conjoint degree that I was not passionate about. Nearing the end of study, I was mentally prepared that I was going to find a graduate role and work a 9-5 like my parents wanted. But I was very lucky that I got some business through Facebook which gave me the confidence to pursue fashion as a viable career option.
How did that first dress come about?
I usually can’t resist a good deal, so I saw this really interesting fabric on sale for $10 at Centrepoint fabrics and I had to buy it. It was a black, rosette texture on mesh so I thought it’ll make a unique gown. The silhouette was inspired by the Givenchy Couture collection from 2010, which is so 8 years ago, but still one of my favourites to this day. After making the first gown, I still had some rosette fabric left so I used that as the top of my next dress. That’s how this collection came about. I really loved the floral element combined with the more edgy black colour and silhouettes.
How would you describe your designs, what inspires them?
I would describe it as a mixture of sophisticated, elegant, and edgy. I design for the modern woman who likes to look classy but a bit risque at the same time. My aesthetics are inspired by couture gowns and red carpet looks. I love to learn how established designers use detail and lines to enhance the gowns and to enhance the female form. I have two collections at the moment - couture and classic. Although they look very different from each other, I’d like to think the same woman would want to wear both for different occasions. A lot of pieces in the couture collection will have transparent elements, textured fabric, and form fitting silhouettes. Every single piece will have a defined waistline. Despite its name, the classic collection is the younger, trendier sister. This is mainly targeted towards school balls and it’s about seeing what styles are popular. So right now, I’m using a lot of satin in very simple wrap dress styles.
Tell me about your process of designing your gowns. When you come up with a dress concept how does it go start to finish?
It all starts with fabric. I make a trip to the fabric store and see if anything catches my attention. If I can visualise it in a gown I’d wear, I would buy it. When I get home, I stand in front of a mirror and play with the fabric, draping it on myself and seeing if any concrete ideas pop up. If I like it, I will go with it. It’s then trial and error sewing the piece together into a wearable garment. If I am making more samples of that design, I will improve on the process each time so that it’s better quality and more efficient to produce. Sometimes I have a creative block, or don’t get around to it, so I have a pile of fabric sitting in the closet.
You're a self-taught designer, how did that influence your work?
As someone who is self taught, to me it means I can come up with unconventional methods of creating similar silhouettes to what I see other designers doing. Or to my luck, end up with a unique look. something that you won’t find in a store. Being self taught means envisioning what I want then figuring out how to make it. Sometimes it’s fun like a puzzle, other times, it’s really frustrating. You can also see my progression of skill in my pieces. As I learn or perfect a new skill, I tend to use it more and more. That’s why a lot of my gowns have a V shape neckline because that’s what I’m best at. Right now, I’m working on bustier style tops so I can incorporate more of those into my designs.
What challenges do you encounter?
The biggest challenge would be making custom dresses for clients because it needs to fit their unique body shape. Usually when I make designs I have to try it on the mannequin and try it on myself multiple times as I go. If they’re not there physically, it can be difficult. Sometimes I have to guess, and then get them to come in for a fitting.
What gown design have been most enjoying creating and why?
I enjoyed making “Blossom” the most because creating the flowers is quite therapeutic. It was also fun playing around with the placement of the flowers to create a look I was happy with. I would love to make this gown again in different colours and as a bridal gown as well.
You started out 13 years old. How did you motivate yourself to continue with no formal training?
I am a very competitive person so that’s what drives me the most. When I was younger, if I saw a fashion competition, I would enter it. Of course at that time, all the entrants were in high school so we were all at the same level. Also, just having the confidence in myself and seeing what I have been able to create in the past. I was lucky that my sewing teachers in high school were very helpful and supportive, I learnt all the basic skills I needed. I didn’t have to start from scratch.
I notice that you've won a few awards. There's about three or four competitions you've entered that you've won awards at. And that was a pretty good feeling?
Yes, I love winning. I’m super competitive so that’s definitely a good feeling. It’s also the validation that I gained that gave me the confidence to this day. It’s one thing for your friends and family to compliment your work, but it’s another when judges from the industry does. You really shouldn’t have to seek validation from others to be confident, but I was young at the time and didn’t have much else to go by.
How does competitiveness influence what you do in your business. Do you think it's a good thing that it motivates you to do better?
It’s a blessing and a curse. Being competitive pushes me because I know I can do better than some already established brands and better than my past self. It also hinders my progress because I see others as competition rather than colleagues. I’m less willing to connect with them and reach out for help if I think way. I really need to let that go and just be friendly, supportive, and join the community.
I can really relate to that. When you put your heart and soul into something it’s just so hard to step back from it. What would you done differently in your journey if you knew then what you knew now? Would that just be putting yourself out there, why?
Just really letting go of perfectionism and what others might think of me. I’m very bad a posting on social media because the photos need to look perfect, the captions need to be right, and my feed needs to look put together. I also don’t want to annoy my friends/followers by posting too often. But, I realised that other people don’t care about these things nearly as much as I do and it’s my own standards letting me down. If I went back in time to start again, I would really put myself out there and post frequently and consistently to build my brand.
What’s the hardest thing about being a designer in New Zealand?
The hardest for me is that New Zealand is a really small market and may be too small for my niche. Also paired with the fact that the fashion trends here are more relaxed. Usually girls would wear simple and more casual dresses for events and formals. So as a couture evening wear brand, there is not a lot of demand for what I create. That is why I created my Classic collection to cater to the New Zealand market.
Who are your favourite designers and how do they inspire your work?
Some of my favourites are: Berta Bridal, Michael Costello, Elie Saab, Zuhair Murad, and pretty much most of the Middle Eastern designers. I’m actually really particular when it comes to evening gowns. I love so many designers, but would only like certain silhouettes, fabrics, and colours they use. I’ll draw inspiration from how they use details to enhance the dress.
What was your greatest success?
This is really cheesy, but back in highschool, I was shy, but as soon as I put on a dress and walked the runway, I felt like my true self came out. Passing on this confidence is my biggest success and is a huge part of what my brand is about. Everyone deserves to feel super glam, amazing, and like a celebrity for one night. Every time a girl comes in to try on a dress, and I see the smile on their face as they’re twirling in front of the mirror, I have accomplished my job and to me that is success.
What was your biggest failure, and what did you learn from it?
I don’t have a single moment of failure, but overall it would be inaction. There were so many times when I thought about an idea or drafted up a social media post or email and didn’t go through with it. Mainly due to procrastination and fear of people saying no. If I had been fearless and went through with everything I needed to do, I would’ve gone twice as far as I am now.
What have you found to be the best method to help you reach your goals?
Now that I do this full time, I have zero excuse not to reach my goals. I break it down into little steps and just do it. I often feel discouraged that my growth is not as quick as I would like. I have to remind myself that my journey is a marathon and I’m in it for the long haul. Although the little steps feel tedious and slow, they are all pointing towards my end goals.
Have you experienced much criticism, and how did you handle that? Does it change the way you work, and have you adapted to that in any way?
I’ve been very lucky that everyone around me has been super supportive. Even my parents have turned around when I proved to them that I can be financially independent. The toughest criticism would have to be from myself. There are days when I feel like I can’t do anything - I can’t sew, I’m not a good salesperson, I don’t understand business, I’m not productive with my time, the list goes on. I haven’t found a way to handle those days, but it makes me realise I’ve got so much to learn, and I’m really excited to improve on those skills. It also motivates me to work hard and get to the point when I can outsource the things I’m really useless at.
What advice would you give to young designers following in your footsteps?
If you want to start your own fashion label, my advice would be the importance of understanding your market. Design what you love, but also balance that with what people would wear and what would sell. It should be a harmonious blend between creative and commercial. I see some really amazing and out-there designs, but if it’s not practical to wear, people won’t buy it and the business won’t be sustainable. That is why I had started my Classic collection of more simple and practical designs that anyone can wear, otherwise I won’t be getting many sales, especially not in New Zealand.
That’s what I love about your designs, they’re so classic that anyone would look beautiful in one of your pieces, and you have a great selection with your Couture range, plus your wrap dresses and then ball gowns. Your work is unique but you’ve got that commercial appeal.
What is your biggest strength and weakness?
I’d say, my strength is having a critical eye for design. I’m actually not the most creative and original designer, but I am good at combining flattering, timeless designs and adapting that to current trends. I try to understand my client and what they would like.
My biggest weakness is my introversion. I prefer to be locked up in my room and play with my sewing machine. But as a business person, I have missed many opportunities because of this. Sometimes, it’s really hard to put myself out there because I fear what people will think. What if my Facebook friends get annoyed with me spamming their newsfeed with my self promo? Networking is also something I dread - talking to new people drains so much energy. Also, I don’t like reaching out for help because I don’t want to bother anyone. This year, I just need to suck it up and get over these fears.
And what's next for Judy Gao Couture?
2018 is the year I put in 110% on my brand. I would love to be a part of NZ Fashion Week and Project Runway. These would be really awesome opportunities for brand exposure and for me to connect with people in the fashion world. Since I don’t have any experience or network in the industry, I think it’s so important to start building them ASAP, so I’ll be putting myself out there as much as an introvert can handle!
How do you want to be remembered?
I’d want to be remembered as someone who really loved fashion, and despite the odds, just followed their dream no matter what anyone said. Even though I’m not great at sewing or business, I make an effort to learn and to trust my creations. I really hope that inspires other young people to follow their passion and to know they’re not restricted to what their family or society deems as a “respectable” career.
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