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Doo-Ri Chung: Even Couture is a Man’s World

The designer talks fashion, the Garment District, and what Chinese rivers have to say about next season’s runway.

Doo-Ri Chung began her ascent long before the fashion documentary Seamless. In that film, which tracks a group of young designers competing for a prestigious prize, we meet her on a reverse commute to a quintessentially immigrant dry cleaner in Saddleback, New Jersey. The unfinished basement of her parents’ shop is a nerve center—her design studio, headquarters, and manufacturing base—but it’s mostly a one-woman show.

In the nine years since the documentary was filmed, her label doo.ri has grown into a formidable presence on New York’s high-fashion scene and reached wide audiences through collaborations with the Gap and most recently Macy’s. Doo-Ri also designed the elegant, single-strap purple gown that Michelle Obama wore in October, at the state dinner with Korean President Lee Myung-bak and his wife.

I’ve long admired Doo-Ri Chung, in part because of her relatable background but more importantly because of her supremely refined yet wearable oeuvre. She’s best known for designing jersey dresses that flow and flatter, gathered and tucked at just the right places. According to fashion scholar Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu, “Chung is able to transform this body-conscious material into a fabric that envelopes rather than accentuates…. She also eliminates as many seams as possible, so that the cloth drapes and hangs rather than clings.”

Doo-Ri Chung and Prithi Gowda at the New Museum. (E. Tammy Kim)

In April, before she announced her departure from the doo.ri label, I met Doo-Ri and our mutual friend, filmmaker Prithi Gowda, over art and dim sum. At the New Museum on Bowery, we saw the last remnants of “The Ungovernables” triennial, as hairy art handlers and Polish construction guys began installing the next show. I obsessed over a collection of tiny square drawings by Rita Ponce de León, propped up diorama-style in a glass case. “Don’t those remind you of hwatu?” Doo-Ri asked, referring to the small, Japanese-style playing cards popular among Koreans.

Doo-Ri’s son Kip had just turned one, and as we walked to Vegetarian Dim Sum House on Pell Street, she told Prithi and me about her obsession with the Francophile parenting book Bringing Up Bébé (this year’s Tiger Mom). The other book on her nightstand, she said, was Mary Karr’s harrowing, alcoholic memoir Lit.

We began where the books intersect…

Doo-Ri: I don’t plan on having any more children, but if I did have a girl I think it’s much more work to be mindful of what is infiltrating her mind, whereas there’s not as much for boys.

Prithi: Do you ever feel like that in fashion—that it’s a man’s world?

Doo-Ri: It is a man’s world. You can’t change those perceptions overnight, but individually it’s very different…. I think about the longevity of my career and my ability to talk about my craft. When you’re Asian and you’re small and female, a lot of people will talk to you really slowly like you don’t know English. I get that all the time, even with New Yorkers. I think the industry still wants to have diversity, diversity meaning females.

Prithi: You bring a different perspective to fashion. Your design process comes from the experience of wearing the clothes.

Doo-Ri: I represent a very small handful of designers who’ve been trained by really good designers. It’s a rarity. There aren’t that many to go around anymore. Calvin Klein’s not there, Donna Karan’s not there anymore. They’re not really learning from the greats anymore. You have so many young designers who are starting out without having had any mentorship or training.

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Tammy: Does this parallel fine art, where there’s a move away from life drawing and traditional methods?

Doo-Ri: Yes. I respect artists who have a full understanding of history and context and how they fit into it. And when I see artists who have no idea of this, I think it’s a fluke, which is great, but in the long run, you’re not going to have longevity because you have no idea how you fit into things and why you’re important. I see that in fashion all the time.

Tammy: Where do young designers get stuff made these days? In Seamless, you were going to the Garment District to have things finished. Is that still the case?

Doo-Ri: It’s changed a lot. Right now in the garment sector there’s a lot of consolidation. The more popular factories are getting bigger because the smaller factories are going out of business. But having said that, there’s such a great movement right now to make sure your factories stay in America. It’s huge. Companies like Theory have their production here. I know the owner of Theory; he comes from a garment family, so he wants to keep business [in the United States]… not only for Helmut Lang and Theory, but also rag & bone [he owns a major stake in each label].

Tammy: Given the industry’s consolidation and outsourcing, it’s good to hear that the garment shops in New York City haven’t all closed.

Doo-Ri: Most of the smaller companies, us included, don’t have the minimums to go overseas. So their businesses will always thrive as long as there are young designers.

Tammy: Speaking of scale, how did the Macy’s collaboration go?

Doo-Ri: It went really well. I have to say, it was a great feeling being able to work with this amazingly corporate team. If I’m there and I don’t like a print, they have a CAD [computer-aided design] team that changes the print right before my eyes. You know how long it would take for us to change a print? Two days! Us, we’re mom-and-pop.

Tammy: Where do you normally get your textiles?

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Doo-Ri: Most of the jerseys we get are from Italy, but silks we’ll source [from China], and honestly I have no idea who [the Chinese distributors] use. When you work with China, they do everything, from beginning to end. They get your fabrics, they dye it for you, they get the buttons, so you have no clue [where things come from]. I went to this meeting called “Clean Design,” and they invited most of the people from the [Council of Fashion Designers of America]. One part of the process that designers don’t know about is textiles, and that’s the part that’s the most harmful to the environment—the treating of the fabrics to soften them, to dye them. They said there’s a saying in the industry: that you know what the colors next season will be by the rivers in China.

Tammy: It seems like so many developing countries deal with environmental and labor issues, and make sacrifices in the name of development.

Prithi: It’s like that in India. There are huge problems with sanitation in the cities. I recently heard about a group of anonymous, middle-class people that started cleaning up roads and planting flowers, guerilla-style, in Bangalore.

Tammy: Korea went through a really bad development phase—and it’s still going on to some extent.

Prithi (to Doo-Ri): Do you remember Korea? When did you come to the U.S.?

Doo-Ri: When I was four. Honestly, I can’t tell whether I remember it or if, because I remember the photos, I feel like I remember. When we went back to the house my mom grew up in, when my grandfather passed away, I didn’t remember it! I was like, “No way, how did we live here?” It was so startling to me… the size, the condition. It was not what I imagined at all.

Tammy: Are your parents still in New Jersey?

Doo-Ri: No, they’re in Atlanta now.

Tammy: What do they do down there?

Doo-Ri: They play golf. A lot of golf.