For a self-professed nerd, Steven Tai isn’t exactly garden variety. In fact, he’s just deplaned to his adopted city of London, England, from the French Riviera, where he was cavorting with willowy super-models and the fashion jet set at the swish Festival International de Mode et de Photographie d’Hyères. “It was a bit surreal,” says Macau-born, Vancouver-raised Tai. He first attended last year, when he presented his debut spring/summer 2013 womenswear collection and scooped up the inaugural Chloé award, 15,000 euros and Yohji Yamamoto’s official nod of approval. Oh, and Holt Renfrew just picked him up for fall.
You can’t help but think that in the cutthroat fashion ring this kind of exuberant, instant success is only a luck-charged lightning bolt. But that wouldn’t be fair. Tai did, after all, complete a degree at the illustrious Central Saint Martins and intern with Bless, Viktor & Rolf and Stella McCartney. Unlike most of his classmates, Tai had already earned a degree in commerce. He says his mother, a garment manufacturer who helps with his production in Macau, and father (“traditional Asian parents”) dictated: “Get your plan B first; then you can do whatever you want.”
Tai works out of a 350-square-foot studio with floor-to-ceiling windows in London’s Finsbury Park. The space doubles as his flat, which is handy considering the hours he keeps: waking up to interns at 10 a.m. and then working straight until 4 or 6—a.m.
When pressed about his dizzying schedule, Tai admits to being a “slight workaholic.” His vices are charmingly sweet: novelty-size bottles of Coke and a steady stream of music—he’ll often play a song over and over, such as “Goodbye Night” by Toronto’s Bishop Morocco. “It drives everybody nuts!”
In the footsteps of Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, Tai subscribes to systems for being. Creativity mode is, by day, “running and collecting,” and by night, “experimenting.” Production is “in-studio,” slouched at his cutting table or Mac, obsessing over patterns and fabrics.
Tai nurtured his current vampire hours from a young age, staying up playing video games and reading. He credits the frumpy, sporty, polar-fleece homogeny of his “true hometown,” Vancouver, for fuelling his desire for the other. He confesses that he got through his commerce degree with little displays of creative expression, such as inventing weird marketing projects and sporting a mohawk. (If you see a running theme emerging, Tai himself is the first to point it out: “I’m a Gemini! This duality: It’s who I am.”)
His first collection of exaggerated shapes in greys and macaron-o-vision pastels employed dense textures and layered fabrics that mimic the exoskeletons of books (his main inspiration was bookbinding). A slouchy blonde who wears glasses and has a full mouth of braces models. “The nerdy girl,” Tai calls her. “A bit awkward and shy but still humorous. Fashion tends to be obvious. Our girl is more complex. She grew up witty, sensitive, yet a bit of a tomboy. Like everything I am.”
Tai looked to science fiction (more books!) for his second collection, which pairs primary-coloured ski-wear elements with Tai’s DIY silicone fabric, including sweatshirts printed with landscape scenes by Italian artist
Franco Brambilla. (“I love collaborations. We have all the tools to communicate now, yet we are somehow really disconnected.”) The dream-like pastoral imagery reveals, upon close inspection, looming alien spaceships. Tai has also developed a bag collaboration with Lily Kamper and Louise van Hauen, formerly of Louis Vuitton, along with nonstop siliconing and shooting a video campaign for the pre-order-based fashion community Wowcracy, which caught the attention of Italian Vogue. He laments that there’s been zero time for his next collection’s mood board. “I was just at the museum for inspiration,” he says, running and collecting. No, not the Tate, but “a fringe gallery” with medical things like spiked chairs and outsider art from Japan.
Ever resisting slick, objectifying fashion, Tai’s clothes are meant to “fulfill your own identity.” He loves (and is) the self-confident nerd. “All the girls I meet and am friends with are strong career women, and they don’t dress for anybody but themselves.” He pauses. “I think it’s really about satisfying yourself.” He’s on to something. As Tai ignites our heretofore unrecognized longing for rubberized quilting, we suspect he might be reading us like a book.