Seattleite Spotlight: Knitwear Innovator Paychi Karen Guh

Comfortable, cashmere women’s wear from one of the year’s most exciting designers.

Paychi Karen Guh knows quite a lot about fashion design. Born in Taiwan, she earned a master’s degree in textile design from the Philadelphia College of Textiles and Science (now Philadelphia University), worked at Nordstrom for 15 years in various roles including textile designer and design director, and recently attended a two-week course in London and Milan put on by the prestigious Central Saint Martins College of Arts and Design.

Photo by Seattleite Photographer Brandy Yowell

Karen left Nordstrom last year to pursue a full-time career as an independent designer, and it hasn’t taken long for her to make her mark on the Seattle scene. Her first ladies’ knitwear collection (aptly titled Paychi Guh) is set to debut next month, and she’ll also be appearing in the Independent Designer Runway Show on Wednesday, Sept. 25, as part of Fashion Week at the Bellevue Collection.

When did you first realize you had a passion for clothing design?

Since high school, I have always loved shopping for clothes and picking outfits for my friends, so for a period I thought about becoming a buyer for fashion boutiques. It was during my textile design graduate program in Philadelphia that I found myself falling in love with selecting yarns, operating knitting machines, and designing textiles and knitwear. As I spent days and nights in the studio experimenting and creating, I realized my passion and knew that I wanted to become a knitwear designer.

As someone who was born and raised in Taipei, how would you characterize the Taiwanese fashions you were exposed to during your childhood?

The major influences for Taiwanese fashion came from the United States and Japan when I was young.  For example, in a picture taken in the 70’s, I was wearing bell-bottom pants with platform Mary Janes and a cape.  I also remember that my older sister was all about Flashdance during her high school period.  She always wore big T-shirts with cropped leggings.

During my high school years in Taipei, I especially loved digging through little boutiques filled with clothing and accessories imported from Japan. There would be hundreds of those tiny boutiques occupying several floors in one building. I would spend hours combing through them one by one to see all the exciting new imports hand-picked by their fashion-forward owners from Japan. To me, those items were so different and desirable because they were really one-of-a-kind. I loved those great designs that you rarely saw in the regular fashion stores.

In 1997, you moved to Seattle and began what would be a 15-year stint at Nordstrom. What did you learn about fashion and personal style during your time with this retail juggernaut?

I learned a lot about designing fashion for mass market. If you think about it, Nordstrom wasn’t as hip and happening of a shopping destination 15 years ago.  The company’s target customer was very conservative and career-driven. But recently, the company has transformed itself to become fashion leader offering exciting mixes of merchandise addressing the customer’s casual to career needs.  As a designer and design director over the years for women’s ready-to-wear, I learned to be super sensitive about picking the right fashion colors and trends for the targeted customers I was designing for. I learned to offer a balanced collection which included tried-and-true essentials, seasonal updates, and risky fashion items.  I learned about designing with target cost in mind to bring profit to business.

In 2004, I became the design director for fashion accessories at Nordstrom, and that experience opened up a whole new world for me because in the fashion accessories world, everything moves faster. Even customers who dress more conservatively would try new bags and new colors in scarves.  The leaders in fashion accessories team were true fashion visionaries who were willing to take risks to introduce high fashion to customers. That’s when I got to design funkier stuff with more European influence for Nordstrom, and I loved it.

Your position at Nordstrom required you to source design materials throughout Europe and Asia. What are some of the most memorable experiences you’ve had while traveling internationally?

My favorite place to go for business is Florence, Italy. I used to attend the Pitti Filati yarn show twice a year in Florence. People from around the world go there to select yarns and gain inspiration for their next collection. The fantasy-like exhibition was always filled with incredibly inspirational knitwear designs, smartly dressed Italian men in fitted suits, gorgeous Italian women in drapy linens, and delicious cheese and wine. The best part would be an outdoor dinner party in private villa overseeing the city hosted by one of the prestige yarn mills.

I also loved visiting Hong Kong. We worked closely with the factories there, and I enjoyed the opportunity to work face-to-face with people I could otherwise only communicate by email every day. In the beginning, I was shocked by having 10 people in a room all taking notes on what I had to say about a style. In Chinese culture, we as the customers would be treated by agents and factory contacts like royalty. It was much different from the American and European cultures and quite an interesting experience. The best part of being in Hong Kong was that you can shop until you drop. I loved shopping until midnight in some tucked away markets, finding cool and unique local designs.

In 2012, you left Nordstrom to pursue a solo design career. How did you make the transition from corporate player to entrepreneur?

I took a three-month break to just enjoy my surroundings and my free time since I never had any break longer than two weeks in the past 15 years. During that time I enjoyed gardening, exercising, cooking, and spending quality time with my family. I took that opportunity to really reflect on myself and think about what I wanted to pursue next in my career.

Then in July, I spent two and half weeks in London and Milan for an advanced fashion design short-course offered by Central Saint Martins. It was during that time that I had a deeper understanding on how to generate original ideas and why I love doing it. After the course, my husband joined me for a 10-day trip in Italy. I really loved the freedom of being able to travel to different places when I want to, to enjoy life as much as I can. That is also another reason why I set my goal to be my own boss and to start my own business.

I started doing a lot of research and attending seminars to learn more about successfully running my own business. I talked to a lot of other small business owners, including my husband, and really benefited greatly from learning about their experiences and insights. By the end of September 2012, I knew exactly what I wanted to do for my business. I landed on the brand name, the type of materials I wanted to use, and the design direction I wanted to go. There are many challenges about being an entrepreneur, but I’m enjoying every minute of it.

Every item in your inaugural collection is rendered from Mongolian cashmere. When did you begin working with this distinct material, and why have you chosen to exclusively work with it?

I started working with cashmere in 1998. At the time, Nordstrom Classiques Entier Brand had a cashmere sweater program that I was lucky to be assigned to. Once I got to work with cashmere, I didn’t want to work with anything else. The fiber is so soft and luxurious; your design can only turn out to be more beautiful in real life than as a sketch.  Designers often joke that it’s hard to make cashmere ugly because once you feel it, that’s it! I realized then that my dream was to only wear cashmere in the future.

When I joined fashion accessories team in 2004, I had a huge cashmere program to design, including woven scarves and wraps, as well as knitted gloves, hats, and scarves. Three years in a row, I had the opportunities to visit the factory in Erdos City, Inner Mongolia, to finalize the entire cold weather program. The extreme weather of Inner Mongolia allows cashmere goats to develop the longest and softest hair, which is brushed off in April. I was impressed by how huge the factory area was; people there basically built a city around it. The showroom was incredibly big, filled with most current products from blankets, jackets, to sweaters, all made in luxurious cashmere. The archive room was so big with more beautiful cashmere throws, scarves, and wraps.

The more I worked with cashmere, the more I fell I love with this material. Cashmere fiber can be designed into an endless number of product ideas, and they are just so incredibly luxurious and comfortable. That is why I chose to work exclusively with this material in my collection.

Contrast scarf: black/ivory vs. orange/grey

Tell us about the 10 pieces in your Fall/Winter 2013 Collection.

The idea behind the collection is to provide a variety of cashmere pieces for women that can be worn every day. There are a few accessory pieces to keep you warm and add color. Some more essential pieces you’ll just want to throw on as you’re leaving the house. And then there are a few novelty pieces with special shapes, for those customers who love something a little more unexpected.

When I think about clothes in my own closet, I lov­e certain pieces I’ve bought, and in the morning, I always want to grab those ones and put them on.  I love those pieces because I love the way they make me feel when I wear them – both stylish and comfortable.  I want my collection to be like that for women out there. These are luxury pieces, but an everyday type of luxury. You can get a lot of wear out of them and feel great. And you can wear them year-round and for many seasons to come.

For my collection, I chose cashmere with a finer yarn-count which is a higher-end raw material and also much rarer in the market. The end product is much more lightweight and breathable. A lot of clothing buyers have to hit a certain price-point with their cashmere items, so most consumers are more familiar with cashmere sweaters made with a thicker yarn. That’s why a lot of people only think about wearing cashmere during the fall and winter. I really want to introduce this more refined quality to customers because I believe people can really enjoy lightweight cashmere any time of the year.

Most of your sweaters and scarves can be worn in more than one way. In your opinion, why is versatility important when it comes to clothing?

There’s a personal reason: I don’t own a lot of clothes and I am very selective about the clothes that I buy. To me, I’d much rather spend more on a piece that I absolutely love and can last a long time, as opposed to purchasing less expensive pieces that won’t last as long in terms of quality and style. I love pieces that I can wear multiple ways and for many seasons to come. All of the above became my design philosophy.

I learned in London that there’s no limit as to what a garment can do. It’s so much fun to put something on and have it go with different pieces in your closet. Nowadays, economy is an issue. Customers shop smart.  They want to spend money to bring the most value to their closet. I want to offer women garments they can enjoy wearing and create unique and versatile looks with what they already own.

Also, I think about how each person wears a garment is a way to express one’s own style and personality. I love that my customer can experiment with how my designs will look on them and create their own unique style in the process.

So far, all of your garments have been designed exclusively for women. Any plans to design sweaters or scarves for the fellas?

I’ve thought about that, and my husband has been asking me about it! So far, I haven’t had much experience with men’s clothing, so I will need to do a lot more research; I don’t want to underestimate the complexities about men’s clothing needs. To me, there are at least two types of male customers; one that wants casual clothing with easy fit, and the other that wants dressier form-fitting garments with special design details. Some want funkier clothing, while others want everyday basic pieces. I feel that there is so much more I need to learn about designing for men, but the idea is definitely in the back of my mind.

If you ever need someone to try out one of your men’s cashmere sweaters, please let me know.

You can be my first volunteer!

Next month, you’ll take part in the Independent Designer Runway Show for Fashion Week at the Bellevue Collection. What will this event entail, and how are you preparing for it?

The IDRS show is combination of a competition and a mentoring opportunity, featuring a small group of selected Seattle-area designers. Last year, I went to the IDRS show and was really impressed with the production and talent of the event. I made a wish then to present my pieces at the show the following  year. I am now really happy and proud to say that I was selected as one of the 11 designers to participate in the show this year.

But you know, I don’t treat this as a competition. I see it as an opportunity to share my vision with a large audience, and an amazing opportunity to learn. The judging panel consists of experts in the fashion industry and they have already given me so much valuable insight about all aspects of being an independent designer.

We just had a concept meeting in June to discuss our vision for the runway scene and hair and makeup. What I envision is a very sophisticated, modern background and clean natural looking makeup. It’s all about the comfort and the cashmere. I will be working very closely with the show production team to ensure that my vision is translated on stage to the audience. I am so looking forward to this great opportunity to debut my collection!

A percentage of each sale you make is donated toward the United Way’s Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness in King County. Why did you choose to become involved with this particular organization?

United Way is a responsible organization and this is a great cause. Nordstrom is a big supporter of the United Way, and has a program in place where employees can deduct from their paycheck to support the charity. This is something I always participated in while I worked at Nordstrom. Although I don’t have a regular paycheck now, continuing my support is important to me. I’m wearing cashmere and there are people out there who are homeless, so I want to help them get back on track in some form. I want to do what I can to give back to this community.

What advice do you have for aspiring designers who are looking to build their portfolio?

The best advice is: don’t stop learning. When people think they know it all, that’s probably when they won’t do well. Also, I think everyone was a better designer before the Internet came. Today designers can spend most of their time searching online for what the most popular item is, instead of creating new designs in their sketchbooks. When I was in London, the tutor refused to look at anything on a computer; we had to go back to square one and really create something original and raw.

If it’s your job to follow the general selling trends and produce mass market clothes for the targeted customers, you should do what’s required of you by shopping around and seeing what’s out there. But if you want to really create original designs and enjoy the creative process, then stay away from the Internet!

A few tickets to the Independent Designer Runway Show are still available. General admission is $50, while VIP front-row seating is $75; a “shopping reception” will be held at Trillium Custom Tailoring & Design following the runway show from 8 to 10 p.m. Throughout the remainder of Fashion Week at the Bellevue Collection (Thursday, Sept. 26, to Sunday, Sept. 29), Paychi Guh will also be popping up at Trillium from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

To see the entire Fall/Winter 2013 collection, please visit the official Paychi Guh website. Individual pieces can be purchased online; they are also in stock at three Seattle locations: Clementine in West Seattle, Juniper in Madrona, and MoMo in the International District. Karen also says she has also finished sketching out the Spring 2014 collection, which is “graphic and lightweight with interesting textures”; for the availability of pieces in this collection, please check Karen’s official website or follow her on Twitter @PaychiGuh.