Doo-ri Chung Talks Macy's, Draping Forever, and Why She Won't Tweet

Doo-ri Chung
Photo courtesy of Doo.Ri
Doo-ri Chung.

In an industry where success seems more and more closely tied with celebrity, Doo-ri Chung, designer of the line Doo.Ri, is a refreshingly down-to-earth example of a fashion designer—plain and simple. You won’t find her on a reality show, she’s not a fixture on the New York social scene, she doesn’t even tweet (gasp!). Luckily, Chung’s got the chops (and isn’t that what’s important, anyway?). She won both the CFDA’s Swarovski Award for Womenswear and the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund Award in 2006, she recently collaborated with Macy’s on a collection, and—in what’s become something of a barometer for American design talent—she’s dressed Michelle Obama.

FashionEtc talked to the Geoffrey Beene-trained draping master about sticking to what works, growing her brand organically, and protecting the integrity of her industry.

You’ve had a busy year already, between showing your Fall collection and working on the Macy’s collaboration. How did you unwind after all that?

I went on vacation! I went to the Bahamas. We spent about a week there, then had a staycation at home. I have a small child, a boy [named] Kip—with the shows it’s so hard to spend time with him, so it was nice to unwind.

Are you back to the grind now? How’s resort going so far?

We’re starting with spring, actually, and then work backward to resort. Resort is an extension of what we do for spring, so it’s easier to go back. They sit together on sales floors anyway, so we develop the spring collection and then weed out what goes for resort. I’m looking at fabrics now, going to a lot of fabric mills. I love this time. The ideas flow really organically, we’re pulling images, and doing R and D.

How did the Macy’s collaboration go for you?

I had such a great time working with them—they’re so professional. We’re a small crew, so to work with such a big company is great—their fabric library is intense! It was a great learning experience.

Was the design process much harder for you than normal?

The process was so different. I usually start with fabrics, but this time it was different—we designed the collection, then matched it to the fabrics. They wanted me to really stay true to who I am as far as design, and the way they change the price point is in the manufacturing and the fabrics’ price points. When I do my own collection, I’m inspired by the actual fabrics.

Stefano Pilati just said that trying to design without knowing about fabrics is like trying to cook pasta without the water.

[Laughs] Every fabric has its own properties. I have a very intimate relationship with jersey—I know what it likes to do. But everything has boundaries, and stuff that you can’t do with it. Every fabrication has that story. I love that.

Anything you won’t work with?

There was a fabric I found once—it was so beautiful, with strips of cording stitched to a base. On a roll, it’s so gorgeous, but when you cut it, everything starts to unravel!

Do you feel like the Macy’s collection has changed your profile at all?

Definitely. The fact that it can reach a broader audience is so great. My husband has family in Michigan and Indiana—my clothes aren’t really accessible to them there, but the reach with Macy’s was great. I have so many friends that were so excited about it.

These collaborations are always wildly successful in stores, but do you think it will have any effect on your business as a whole?

I hope so. I hope it translates to that.

Would you ever do it again?

Not any time soon. It takes a lot out of you! But I want to use what I’ve learned from that and apply it to my own collection.

Your line has been around for 10 years now. How has it changed in that time?

Almost! I think it’s 9 years, actually. When I first started, I was such a novice. All I knew was design, in the purest form. I worked for Geoffrey Beene—one of the greatest American designers, I think. It was such a privilege. My training was that of a couture designer—draping and sketching. It was a very utopian way of working. Now, I have to be so well versed in manufacturing, sales—every aspect of design. It’s an amazing ride that I’ve been on; you realize how big the industry is. It’s not limited to creating one sample.

Would you still say draping is your signature?

I had great training. When you have a strong foundation, you don’t veer far from that. I think it’s a lost art. It’s a dying art, so I want it to remain relevant.

How did dressing Michelle Obama affect your business?

It’s been so amazing. I had no idea that amount of coverage it would get. It’s startling! It really shows the importance of the First Lady, and it’s so amazing of her to choose young designers. I think it’s extraordinary. People that I know that know nothing about fashion know what she’s wearing!

Did you see a bump in sales after that?

Not so much, because it was an evening gown—I don’t do a lot of evening. A lot of people requested special orders, but I don’t really have the capacity for that. But I wanted the dress to be exclusive to her.

Figures like Michelle Obama and things like social media and live-streaming have made the industry accessible to a whole new group of people. Do you think that’s a good thing?

I think it’s good if that brings a poignant understanding of fashion industry. It’s bad when it becomes a caricature—that undermines the beauty of the industry and the craft. When you see something poignant, it’s good. When you see it in this cartoonish way, I don’t think it’s great for the industry.

As fashion becomes more and more mainstream, designers are becoming celebrities in a way. It doesn’t really sound like you want that for yourself.

I’m probably the worst celebrity that there is! I’m an advocate of the industry because I believe in it and the creative force. If I can create celebrity around those notions, I’m all for it. If I have to become a performing monkey, no.

Doo-ri Fall 2012

Photos: Imaxtree

Doo.Ri, Fall 2012.

Do you tweet?

I started it, and now it’s just one more thing I have to do. It has to be ingrained in your schedule. I’m a new mom, and I have so very little time for a lot of things. Also, my natural instinct is to inspire. That’s my inclination. If I Facebook, I have to do it in an inspiring way. I found tweeting [involved] way too much pressure to tweet about mundanities. I want it to inspire!

You recently decided to fold your bridge line, under.ligne, into your main line. Why?

We found that we were competing against each other. They were both catering to same woman, the same customer. Plus, we had great entry price points in the main line, and great aspirational pieces in under.ligne. It just made sense to marry the two together and focus on the main line. We have quite a range—anywhere from a $295 shirt to a $1500 dress. There’s a $3000 coat, and we have a $495 dress. This is the direction that design is going to. You’re paying for what you get.

Do you have any other plans to expand your company?

I would love that. Right now, I’m focusing on clothing and we’ll take it from there. I still have a lot to do! We want to make sure to have the price points down, the manufacturing down. We have a very small staff and we’ve accomplished a lot because we’re organized, but I just want to put out a great product. If I can keep doing that, and eventually it becomes a lifestyle brad, great, but every category has to be great.

Who inspires you in the industry?

I’ve always been a fan of [Ann] Demeulemeester. You know what you’re getting with her, and I love that. It’s so important to stay true to yourself. I’ve been though a lot of ups and downs in that. When I veer from jersey, it feels like I’m not being true to the customer. You have to provide your customers with what they want. When they want a jersey dress, I want to be the first person that pops into their head.

Do you ever feel like that limits you?

No. It’s hard, but you can lose yourself, being immersed in this industry all the time and looking for something to challenge you. But really, it’s your job to give a woman what she wants.