Peter Som's Quest: Making Clothes That 'Deliver Joy'
Over the past two decades, Peter Som has emerged as one of the United States' most successful designers of women's wear. He has collaborated with companies like Anthropologie, Bill Blass, Kohl’s, and Tommy Hilfiger and designed clothing for Scarlett Johansson, Michelle Obama, and Emma Watson. Born to Chinese immigrant parents and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, Som says that his heritage influences his design — even if only indirectly. "It isn't anything literal from any Asian culture," he says. "But my experience has formed who I am as a creative person."
Som, who will appear as an honored guest at Asia Society's upcoming Asia in America gala, spoke to Asia Blog about why he became a fashion designer, the aesthetic of his work, and how his interest in interior design and cooking relate to his career in clothing. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
How receptive is the field of fashion design to diverse voices? Did you feel welcome?
It’s definitely a field where I felt welcome. Fashion is a creative field. In terms of my Asian Americanness, I didn’t become a doctor or a chemist or engineer or anything that a lot people in my generation, and the generation above me, were encouraged to do. That in itself was kind of a big deal.
In terms of being a trailblazer, I was part of a wave of young Asian designers who all started within the same few years. And the fact that there were a number of us — from Thakoon to Jason Wu to Derek Lam to Phillip Lim — was a powerful thing. We were an example of the American dream, in that we were encouraged to be creative. It was definitely very powerful.
How did you know that fashion design was what you really wanted to do?
I was a very shy child, and I drew a lot. The first thing I ever drew in my life was a small woman — a triangle with little sticks for legs. Basically, it was my mother. I kept on drawing women and I eventually put clothes on them.
I think my “ah ha” moment came in the 5th grade when we’d just gone on a trip to France. My sisters bought Paris Vogue and L’Officiel and I remember opening the pages — this was in the early ‘80s — and entering the holy grail of fashion. There was Claude Montana and Thierry Mugler. There was that totally exaggerated, ‘80s fashion. I felt, “this is what I want to do.”
Do you have a particular aesthetic that you go for when you’re designing a collection?
I think my aesthetic has always been rooted in effortless clothes that are feminine but streamlined. I love color and print and pattern, so I always feel like those things are always important in my collection. I always strive to design clothes that bring joy.
The three fundamental needs in life are food, clothing, and shelter. So what turns clothing into fashion? It’s giving voice to a dream, a fantasy. For me, it’s about clothes that give that sense of romance, but at the same time address the practical needs of a woman’s everyday life.
They’re totally entwined and interrelated. How you live your life is reflected in many things, but it includes what you wear, what you eat, and where you live. If you look at cooking, it’s similar to designing a dress. Food has to taste and look good. A piece of clothing has to look good and fit on your body.
And again, you want both to bring you joy.