Interview: Richard Chai

Photographer Ross Mantle
February 10, 2012

Preview: This story will appear in FADER #78, on stands soon. Congratulations to Richard Chai, who's been the talk of New York Fashion Week since his show at Lincoln Center yesterday.

Richard Chai plots a new course for his spring collection.

Richard Chai is a designer known for the kind of unassuming, neutral-toned clothes that New Yorkers love for their chic simplicity, so guests at his spring show were a bit surprised by a runway parade of vibrant oranges, yellows and florals. How and why did he make the jump from black and white to color? Turns out Chai has a secret green thumb, and had had the urban rarity of lush garden space at all of his Manhattan homes until a recent move downtown left him with no outdoor area. To compensate, he hunkered down and learned the tricks of indoor gardening. From that interest he grew not just orchids and jade plants, but a collection dedicated to the bright hues of a flower garden.

Who taught you to garden? When I was growing up, my grandmother would visit us in New Jersey and even if she was staying for a short time, she’d garden. She’d pick the worst plot of land. She’d move boulders and rocks, grow enormous eggplants, tomatoes and cucumbers. She was incredible, lived to be 100 years old. My mom has a green thumb, too. It runs in the family.

Was it different gardening in New York? Actually, even though outdoor space is hard to come by in New York, my last three apartments all had amazing outdoor areas. I’d grow lilies, cosmos, morning glories, sweet peas, moonflowers, black-eyed susans. But, alas, I just moved into an apartment without outdoor space.

Is it harder gardening indoors? Yes, in a way. You fail more. Indoor plants take just the right amount of sun, the right amount of water. But I’ve been able to have a plant that got sick and then bring it back. I have a monstera plant that I’m bringing back to health right now. My mom says I overwater, yells at me to leave the plants alone. It’s trial and error. I like the challenge.

And a designer needs to challenge himself each season, too. Yes, every season you’re growing something new. Spring’s collection-—I was challenging myself and challenging my customer. The last collections were really neutral, somber, even, and everything was grey and charcoal and wintery and fuzzy. Going into spring I thought it would be really exciting to do something really explosive color-wise. We all have moments when we just let ourselves go. I didn’t have so much of that in my personal life so I did it in my work. I just needed color, something refreshing, something remixed.

How did flowers play into that? I was going to the flower district often. I knew all the people, they’d see me and be like, Hey, how ya doing? New York’s flower district has a wild selection. They’d get new flowers that are strange and that I’d never seen before. It helped. I wanted to do florals but not in the cliché spring way, so seeing all the variation made me think differently. And for the floral print you see in the spring collection, we bought some irises and drew them from scratch.

Are there ways in which gardening and designing are really similar? At Parsons one of the things we were taught is that, when making clothes, a quarter of an inch makes a difference. In reality, an eighth of an inch on a sleeve makes a difference. And that’s how gardening can be. Too much water, too little, too much sun, not enough. I’ve watched my business grow, but it’s taken tending—running a fashion business is not just creativity and pretty clothes. People see how nice everything looks and forget how much hard work it takes. Being able to care for something and watch it grow—there’s a spiritual aspect.

Interview: Richard Chai