Words by Chin Lu
Though based in beauty, the fashion industry is notorious for its exploitative practices and wastefulness. Amidst this toxic landscape, the slow fashion movement is gaining traction, nourished by small-batch designers like Joy Mao, a Brooklyn-based studio owner. Though it is almost counterintuitive to try to grow or even thrive through slow fashion, Mao places her values at the center of her business, intentionally producing very little when most brands define growth rate and scale as the only metrics of success.
Mao hails from Shanghai, the textiles manufacturing capital of China, but her first foray into fashion design was a serendipitous opportunity 7,000 miles away in Chicago: her college roommate was studying theater and needed help making the costumes. During this experience, something clicked: “The moment the actors put on those costumes, they were literally transformed—not only the way the audience would perceive them, but also the way they see themselves and how they move and behave,” she says.
But like many young people, Mao went on to pursue a stable, well-paid career path completely unrelated to her real interests upon graduation. Survival and stability came first.
A few years into working a demanding full-time marketing job that regularly extended into overtime, Mao had almost completely forgotten her passion for fashion. As if by fate, a friend of a friend was a fashion buyer, and Mao was able to design and sell a few Japanese Kendo uniform-inspired pieces to the boutique she worked for. This experience made her decide to rebel against what she was brought up to believe, and actually try to make a career out of her passion. She wasted no time in applying to renowned New York design school Parsons, and when she got in, left advertising without looking back.
Fast forward four years, and Mao is the proprietor of her own independent slow fashion namesake brand.
While Mao already had an affinity for fabrics like linen, cotton and silk for their longevity and comfort, she admits that she wasn’t aware of the necessity of slow fashion until she met others involved in the movement, and learned more about the ugly truths of an industry so associated with beauty and expression. There were moments when she was unsure how to continue her path in fashion, as she grappled with the realities of the fast fashion industry, which produces an estimated 92 million tons of textile waste per year globally, and exploits female laborers in developing countries who work long hours in unsafe conditions, while bringing home poverty wages.
Slow fashion, as the name suggests, is an antithesis to the unsustainable churn of fast fashion, focusing instead on reducing consumption and production by making higher quality and longer-lasting items. It was in this sustainable and equitable movement that Mao saw how her values of “people first, clothing second” and her creative drive can coexist.
Mao came to see the value and ethos she grew up with as a Chinese American reflected in slow fashion, and let this be the guiding star of her creations. She designed pieces that capture the aesthetics of her Chinese identity, as well as the way she was raised to waste nothing, and give odds-and-ends new life through repurposing.
Mao’s “Dumpling” tops are not just inspired by the folds of dumpling wrappers, they’re also all made from thrifted, donated, or deadstock (surplus leftover material that couldn’t be sold otherwise) fabrics. For her Chores series, she reinvigorated plain vintage coats from Japan with hand embroidery, giving each one different stitching details that are as seemingly spontaneous as its inspiration of colorful splatter on a painter’s smock.
Mao is aware that many people think fashion is frivolous, but points out the irrefutable fact that clothes are one of the most universally relatable art mediums. She has been exploring self-expression through fashion in her second year as an artist in residence at the W.O.W. Project in Manhattan Chinatown. Her first piece for the non-profit, Bai Jia Yi (百家衣), is made from fabric scraps donated by local Asian garment factory workers, with the pattern based on the street map of New York’s Chinatown, to highlight the community's labor history in the fashion industry. She is currently working on something new for W.O.W., a multi-hyphenated capsule collection inspired by everyday life in Chinatown, and putting together educational workshops and intergenerational discussion forums.
Mao laughed when I asked for clarification on this multilayered project, “It is such a unique combination of things that we're not even sure what to call it.” But this perfectly encompasses Mao's perspective on slow fashion—that it’s time to reframe our ways of thinking, work with our communities to come up with brand new solutions, and imagine a new future collaboratively—together. Catch her collection’s showcase in New York on July 16.
Published on July 8, 2022
Words by Chin Lu
Chin Lu is a social media strategist turned writer, a 1.5th generation Taiwanese American in California, and a pop culture junkie with a Media Studies degree from UC Berkeley. When she's not working, she's cooking elaborate meals or writing her romance novel and YA fiction. Find her on Twitter @ChinHuaLu for more.