Nana: Fashion has infinite possibilities, and new power is born from it. As a carrier of culture and times, fashion encompasses everything. From trendy to traditional culture, from celebrities, idols to everyone’s daily life, and from West to East, it is our discourse, our power, our time. Through Asian Voice, we hope to spread the local Asian fashion culture to the world by moving cross languages and borders.In this issue, we welcome Steven Oo, the founder, and designer of the Knitwear brand OSMOS. He was born in Myanmar and is now based in Shanghai. Knitwear is a dynamic and fascinating field that ignites his passion. He launched his brand, OSMOS, two years ago and has released three seasons. His continuous inspirations have given life to the brand’s story, which is an extension of himself. His personal experiences and passions are integrated into the expression of the clothes. The brand draws inspiration from a range of themes and messages, from scuba diving to art exhibitions and films. Steven Oo is more than just a designer. He is also teaching in a collage, attending variety shows, and continuously refining his business acumen. Multitasking is his talent. Learning new things from different industries and areas is a way of life for him. In this interview, Steven shares his views on the fashion industry, the appeal of knitwear, culture shock, and more. We can capture Steven Oo’s life aesthetic through his humorous tone.
Steven Oo is a Chinese American fashion designer who was born in Myanmar and immigrated to the United States in 1999. After he completed his bachelor’s degree in University of California, Berkeley in International Business, he went on to receiving his Master’s in Fashion Knitwear Design at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco.
In 2014, Oo has set up a company that offers design/development/manufacturing services to international brands such as Coach, UNIQLO, Oscar de la Renta, 3.1 Phillip Lim, etc. In 2020, Oo participated in the creation of the knitting brand Nume and served as the creative director, and in 2022, he founded the knitting brand OSMOS. The renowned fashion critic Suzy Menkes praised Steven Oo as “a fashion star whose work is as beautiful as sculpture”.
Nana: Could you share us about why you started your own knitwear brand OSMOS and what it means to you?Steven Oo: OSMOS – The name came about as I was searching for a brand that everyone could wear without having to worry about looking too feminine or masculine. Sweaters, as a stretchy material, have the ability to fit almost anyone, as even a small sweater can stretch to accommodate a larger body. The name OSMOS is a short version of osmosis, a term I learned about in my biology studies, which refers to the diffusion of molecules from one side to the other until they are evenly blended. Additionally, the name OSMOS includes my initials; S and O. I liked the connotations of the name because sweaters have a soft and round feel, without any sharp edges, and I thought this would be a good fit for the brand. I wanted to create OSMOS as I have two established and stable brands in the US, but they did not fulfill my creative desires. American brands often have simple designs and materials, but I wanted to be able to share my vision of what could be achieved in knitwear as a researcher and developer. I have a passion for putting things on people’s bodies and I believe that sweaters have the added benefit of making people feel good about themselves. They are soft and cozy, which adds to their appeal. Starting OSMOS was not about making money, as my other businesses were already established and could provide for my income. Instead, this is a passion project for me, something that I truly love and that I am proud to present to the world.
Nana: Amazing, I really like your way of representing fashion. Instead of following trends, there’s real passion inside.Steven Oo: More and more brands are about the messaging and the packaging, rather than the technique. But that’s what really excites me. And I feel like the world is becoming very shallow and I want to be creating pieces that you could actually learn from rather than just following the trend.
Nana: What attracted you go from studying in business to knitwear design at the very beginning?
Steven Oo: Actually, my family is quite traditional. Both of my parents were born in Myanmar and fashion is not a big deal there. So, my father was not very supportive of my desire to start a fashion business. In fact, he was very much against it at first. During my final year of college, a group of my friends were interested in starting a clothing line. They asked me to be their financial advisor, but I had no experience in the fashion industry. They suggested I take some classes, so I enrolled in a community college while also finishing my degree at UC Berkeley. This was my first time learning about fashion and I picked it up quickly.After I graduated, my friends and instructors encouraged me to pursue a Master’s degree in fashion. I enrolled in the fashion program at the Academy of Art University and that’s where I discovered my passion for knitwear.
At the Academy, I studied a variety of fashion topics, including menswear and knitwear, trying to absorb as much as I could. For my final presentation, I wanted to focus on menswear, but my director suggested that my knitwear was stronger and that I should concentrate on it. Ever since that suggestion, I’ve focused solely on knitwear. After graduation, I worked in Los Angeles for a year, then in Philadelphia for two and a half years, before finally moving to China.
Nana: You are able to juggle multiple tasks or projects at once. It seems like you have the strong time-management skills. How do you manage everything at the same time?Steven Oo: I don’t like having free time as I consider it to be a waste of life. However, I feel fortunate as I can do what I like. Money has never been my primary drive, as the fashion industry can often result in low income for many individuals. Nevertheless, I had the benefit of studying business and having the ability to manage a company, which makes a significant impact. Sadly, many people in the fashion industry lack such skills.
Nana: I think the lack of business experience is normal in fashion industry, in Japan as well.Steven Oo: Sometimes true artists, they don’t want to look at money. They don’t want to look at numbers. But it’s a business.
Nana: You have previously been involved in the creation of a knitwear brand and now you have established your own brand. What makes you persist in knitwear design?Steven Oo: I enjoy learning new things and find repetitive tasks boring. In the world of knitwear, there is something new to learn every day. For instance, using different yarns produces unique results, and even a slight color variation can create a different appearance. Knitwear offers more possibilities than wovens because you are creating the fabric itself. This is exciting as you are not only designing clothing but the fabric too. Each day feels like Christmas as you discover new things. In addition to designing, I also like to knit and program the machines. To excel as a sweater designer, you need to have a good understanding of technical aspects, not just fashion.
Nana: How do you come up and decide on the themes for new collections?
Steven Oo: I believe my work is a reflection of myself. It comes from the diverse experiences I’ve had. For instance, the first collection was inspired by my passion for scuba diving. I was fascinated by the underwater world and wanted to showcase it through my designs. The patterns and colors were inspired by the corals and fish. Being underwater is like being on an alien planet, it’s quiet and calming, and makes you re-evaluate what’s important in life.
The second collection was influenced by an exhibition I visited and my personal experience with a bad breakup. It explored the tensions between the softness and hardness of light and dark emotions. The theme of the collection was “loving yourself,” which I believe is the most important thing in the world. To take care of yourself, understand your needs, and be self-sufficient. The texture of the garments was soft and there were heart-shaped elements throughout the collection. People always ask me how do you stay so young, and I just say, I don’t worry about other people I worry about myself.
I can give a brief insight into the next collection, but won’t reveal too much. It’s still a work in progress. The third collection draws inspiration from a recent movie that discusses God. It focuses on the idea of a woman in a soft position of power, taking over from a male deity who enjoyed watching people suffer. The collection explores the concept of soft power and the beauty that comes with it.
Nana: Some brands will continue to do the similar theme, but OSMOS seems to have a lot of new inspiration every season.
Steven Oo: I think it’s because, as I mentioned, I love different things. But, that’s also something I’m trying to control. Every season, I come up with new ideas, but building a brand requires some continuity. So, we’re using yarns that we truly believe in, in terms of their stitches instead of their stories. The stories are very diverse.
Nana: You have worked and lived in many different countries around the world. Why did you decide base in Shanghai right now? What’s the future plan?Steven Oo: I’m turning 39 in November, and I’ve been in China for exactly 10 years. In 2012, my first step here was in Guang Zhou, where there are a lot of new factories and one of my supply chain partners was located. So I decided to base myself there. But the weather is not good in the summer for a knitwear designer. It’s hot, which I can handle because I’m originally from Myanmar, but it’s also humid, which makes it difficult to design for the fall/winter seasons. The reason I fell in love with Shanghai, which offers a perfect blend of the old and the new. It’s a very cosmopolitan city with many foreigners, so I don’t feel too far away from home when I’m here. My future plan is to establish my company, and eventually, I’d like to live and travel in different places while coming back to Shanghai twice a year, as I now have a reliable team in place. That’s my dream.
Nana: Is it possible for you to share us some challenges that you’ve had when working in the fashion industry?Steven Oo: I think the main challenge I faced when I first arrived was the cultural difference. I was born in Myanmar and moved to the US when I was 15, essentially growing up there and adopting the American direct style of communication. However, here I was often told that I was too direct and had to adjust my approach. It’s like playing chess, and I’m not very skilled at it, so I surrounded myself with people who can, such as my middle managers. Now, I don’t interact directly with the factory bosses. When there is a serious situation, I step in and problem solve but for the most part, I rely on my team for the day to day work dealings. Because I know if I come out for every little thing, I’m going to end up destroying relationships. This is what I learned over the years. Our business actually improved during the COVID-19 pandemic, as people preferred comfortable clothing to wear at home. Our American branch experienced significant growth, and we focused on producing sets that could be worn all day. The regulations put in place in China during the pandemic were challenging, as the rest of the world moved on, but China remained stringent for two years. I was confined to my apartment for six weeks, and this was especially difficult as I was starting OSMOS at the same time. However, I believe that the hardest part is behind us, and I’m eagerly looking forward to the future this year.
Nana: Do you have any advice for our readers who are seeking to find a way to build a brand or start their business in the fashion industry just like youSteven Oo: You need two things. Firstly, you need to be passionate about the design aspect, specifically for me it’s knitwear, and be willing to invest your time and money into it. Secondly, you need to possess business acumen. You cannot solely be an artist, you need to have a sense of the market and know how to appeal to the right audience. It’s crucial to be mindful of your designs and understand the target audience rather than just creating what you want, unless you have a substantial amount of money. In short, to succeed in fashion, you need either passion and business savvy or passion and a lot of financial resources.
Nana: There are two choices!Steven Oo: But you cannot have just one or the other. You got to have both. If you only have a focus on the business aspect without passion for design, you will simply be selling clothing as a commodity. It won’t be an enjoyable experience and you’ll become too focused on the financial aspect, losing sight of the design. Having design involved in the building of a brand is very important. Much higher level of doing business than just doing business. Simply selling clothes is not a sustainable business, as fashion trends change rapidly. If you lack business acumen, it’s important to find someone who possesses it. But do not get a partner who is also romantically involved with you! The minute you get home, you’re still talking and fighting about work. It’s already hard to be in a relationship and not fight about normal things. So it’s better to keep the business stuff separated.
To succeed in fashion, you need either passion and business savvy or passion and a lot of financial resources.