Meet the Designer Behind Deveaux's Debut Womenswear Collection
Today, Deveaux New York—a previously menswear-specific brand—will share its debut womenswear collection in a presentation at New York Fashion Week. Much like Phoebe Philo's Celine, a brand made for women yet coveted by all, Deveaux's ungendered mindset has made it popular among men and women alike. This universal appeal is something of a dream for any clothing brand, but with it comes obvious limitations: sizing, fit, and silhouette. Andrea Tsao, Deveaux's head designer, took this unique opportunity to lead Deveaux into the world of womenswear.
In anticipation of the brand's womenswear launch, we stopped by the Deveaux studio to chat with Andrea and preview the collection.
For those unfamiliar, give us some context on how you got to where you are today—where you grew up, where you studied, and how you ultimately ended up designing for Deveaux.
I grew up in the Silicon Valley before it earned its current reputation. I attended a public high school in Cupertino called Monta Vista before moving to New York in 2008 to get my BFA in Fashion Design at Parsons. After graduation, I did a brief stint in mass market before getting a job as Assistant Designer to Michael Bastian. In 2016, I joined the founding team of Deveaux as Head Designer.
How were you first introduced to design?
My parents put me in an afterschool art class as a kid. It’s hard to pinpoint when it went from something I did casually to something I got serious about. I was never that good of an artist, but I really enjoyed the way it made me feel. I had an incredible teacher who explained to me that I could try and apply to art school and turn this hobby into a career.
Unfortunately, Cupertino felt like a place with a very narrow idea of achievement and success. Even as early as middle school, you were labeled as a high-achiever or a slacker. It wasn’t just how good you were at academics but specifically math and science. We learned very little about civic engagement or current events. Even if you were an A- or B+ student, or someone who chose to take art or drama or woodshop, you felt like a slacker because hundreds of kids had 4.0 GPAs and were taking college courses at 15. Ranked the 18th best public high school in the US, Monta Vista was not exactly an easy place to tell people you were running off to finish your oil painting after school. So I basically just didn’t tell anyone.
At the end of the year when a map came out in the school paper showing where kids were going to college, even my closest friends were surprised at my choice. I was ashamed to tell people I had gotten into my first choice. I think I wanted to continue the façade of being this great student until the minute I could just totally disappear. I was worried people thought I had chosen an “alternative” career because I wasn’t smart enough to do anything else, which admittedly I still feel around people from home.
Your parents immigrated from Taiwan before you were born. How has your experience as a first generation American influenced your perspective? Does it have any influence on your work?
I have been given opportunity and was born into privilege because of the actions of my parents and grandparents. Both my maternal and paternal grandfathers were in the Chinese military when the Communists took over. They fled to Taiwan with Chiang-Kai-Shek, where they flew spy planes, taught military strategy, and started a new country. One even spent some time in a military prison (although we are still unclear on the exact details). In 1987, my parents came to the United States with very little money to pursue higher education. They left their families and friends behind to move to a country they had never been to. I grew up learning life lessons through the examples they set and not through verbal lessons. It wasn’t until my adult years—during the hardships of design school, living in New York, and working long hours—that I came to realize the impact their example had on me. I learned that to get anything I want, I have to earn it, not deserve it.
Even our brand name comes from an immigrant story. Our business owner Matt’s great-grandfather came here from Ireland and worked as a driver for the Deveaux family. He worked hard and they showed him great generosity and kindness. On our full-time team, as well as our freelance creative team for today’s women’s presentation, we have first generation Americans/Canadians from Vietnam, Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines, and India—all going against a certain expectation set for them by their own cultures as well as the Western assumption of what type of work they should be in.
There’s a significant lack of women in powerful positions in fashion—especially in menswear—yet here you are: a woman leading design for a (previously) menswear-only label. Tell us about your experience as a woman in a predominantly male-dominated space and designing for a male customer.
There is a certain brotherhood in the New York men’s scene. For the most part, I think it is a good thing. It’s a community of guys who have lived through multiple waves of menswear—prep, sartorial, streetwear, and every combination in between. These guys love clothes and share it with each other at a pace I can’t keep up with. For better or worse, it has contributed to the success and downfall of so many new upstart brands. Deveaux is no exception—we certainly have roots in this boy’s club, which is a perception I wouldn’t mind shaking.
This sounds like a bitter gripe (I swear it’s not), but I’m just not a part of that boy’s club and don’t care to be. I know what I care about. That we are designing clothes and making the product look good. That our company grows and maintains its integrity and that my team and our vendors get paid on time. That our stores get the product and support they deserve. When I am working to develop four collections a year, sell the collection at market, launch production, ship stores, take care of accounting and invoices, maintain the web store, fulfill press requests, and somehow still try not to forget to vacuum and buy hand soap for the office, the last thing I want to do pretend to have an opinion about a new sneaker or who won some football game. And maybe because I am an outsider to this boy’s club, I am able to insulate myself (just a little) from the expectations the men in the industry might have for a woman that’s sitting at the table. It’s hard to look pretty when your job is as hectic and involved as mine is. I have learned that as a woman in this menswear club, you just let your work speak louder than anything else. And if your personal brand isn’t all well-curated sick fits but videos of you and your friends housing food, that’s fine too.
Your background and the majority of experience is in menswear design. Has expanding into womenswear been particularly challenging, or has it been liberating? Are there any specific challenges you’ve been faced with in womenswear design that are otherwise irrelevant in menswear design?
I don’t really think about the male perspective all that much when designing. I also don’t try to put myself in a man’s shoes. I personally care about function, quality, durability, and expression, and those aren’t exactly gendered concepts. To me, it’s “this jacket needs pockets” not “men need pockets.” Well-designed pieces make the wearer feel a certain way, they know once it’s on. This doesn’t have much to do with gender, in my opinion.
There are a lot of women’s brands where the inspiration and the collection come from what the designer herself would wear—where the final edit for the collection comes down to her personal taste. I am a little envious of women with that ability, but as you can see, I am a pretty simple dresser. My Artistic Director Tommy and I try almost everything on, but I always prefer to see it on someone else. With women’s, it can’t be about me personally and how I would wear it myself. The two of us work well together in the sense that we can bring multiple perspectives with that respect.
Deveaux was created to fill a gap in menswear, offering men classic styles in modern fabrics and silhouettes. What gap do you hope to fill with Deveaux womenswear?
I don’t actually think there is a whole lot of gaps in the womenswear market, but I can speak to what we are trying to achieve: Our goal is to create a distinctly American luxury uniform, wholly designed and made in the United States, not trendy but still modern and relevant, neither streetwear nor heritage, but refined, nostalgic, and unique. Every Deveaux piece should be perfect but not precious; something you can wear often, but not be sick of in ten, or twenty years. Too much of the clothing we own is disposable or of one particular moment, and while I do consider trendy fashion to be necessary and an absolute cash cow, it’s just not what we do. And I hope we can tap into providing those other pieces people want.
How do you see the two Deveaux counterparts interacting?
We realized that our brand philosophy is not gendered. Women were buying the men’s clothes for men in their lives and then contacting us for women’s versions of certain men’s pieces. When we launched, it wasn’t that we thought this idea of an American uniform was just for men, but that we lacked the experience and the readiness to do a women’s collection. I always feared we didn’t have enough of a point of view. It’s a fear I still have a lot. But when we added Tommy to the team to shape our vision, we felt confident enough to launch womenswear.
Spring ’19 is our first stand-alone women’s collection. As I am writing this, it’s 3 AM before the show. It’s really nerve-wracking to try and predict its reception. My hope is that if we are lucky enough to keep moving forward with both collections (at a startup, every season is a blessing I do not take for granted), that the two will start to interact with each other creatively. If we design and develop the collections in conjunction with each other, we can start to utilize women’s fabrics for men, or men’s silhouettes for women. Sometimes the men’s versions of something has a better shape than the women’s, and then we will revisit the style or change it altogether. Our hope is that the reverse will happen too—that men will want to pick up women’s pieces. That’s something Phoebe Philo did so well. She could make a man want to purchase a woman’s garment—she could make a man jealous of a woman’s position—using clothes!