By Hannah Yakobi
Photography by Kareen Mallon
Sunny Fong makes clothing that most Canadian women dream about. Since winning Project Runway Canada, which he called his “second chance” at restarting a fashion career, Fong has created his own brand – VAWK – which has become one of the most established fashion names in the industry.
Today, Fong and his team are getting ready for the Toronto Fashion Week. FAJO Magazine catches up with the designer on a Friday evening, as he wraps up another long day of work.
HANNAH YAKOBI: Looks like you are having a busy day, especially since you are preparing your next collection for the World MasterCard Fashion Week in Toronto. It is all, certainly, a big secret right now. But can you tell us anything, even in very oblique terms, about your upcoming collection?
SUNNY FONG: Last year, we did a huge collection and when I look back at it – I love it. But I also thought it was a little bit diluted, and I want to go back and make sure every piece that we do is super special. So I thought – why don’t we just do a really great capsule collection? A full one, you know: coats, one special fur number, a lot of dresses and then, probably, a few ready-to-wear pieces.
How long does it normally take you to produce everything?
Usually the deadline will tell me! [laughs] We are giving ourselves probably three weeks to finish everything. The whole collection.
Just designing or producing?
Yes! [laughs] Before we’ve always done it up until fashion week, and I think we’ve missed some markets that way, so this time we want to be a little bit more ahead. Last fashion week we did about 30 looks, so that’s more than 30 pieces. For this season, we want to sort of keep it down to maybe 10 or 12 solid looks.
Do you have any plans to show at other fashion weeks in the coming year?
Yes, it just really comes down to money, and I think we need to sort of sell in those other markets first, before we show or tap in somewhere else. It’s baby steps right now, so we’ll see what happens.
I was interviewing Elaine Lui from Lainey Gossip recently and she said that she loves your work. Do you dress any other celebrities?
We’ve dressed Elisha Cuthbert recently for the People’s Choice Awards. The dress she was wearing is from our resort collection. I sent her a little book, and she said, ‘I like this dress!’ So I said: ‘Okay, come on over!’ We did the fitting over the holidays in December.
We’ve also dressed Chantal Kreviazuk for the day she performed for the Queen a few years ago.
When you say ‘we’, I assume you are referring to VAWK’s team. Can you tell us more about it?
I’ve always said ‘we’ for VAWK because I don’t think it’s just me who does all the work. I’m the owner and the designer, but I think, in the end, it’s a team effort for us. Tammy and Eric are part of the team – one of them sews and the other drafts. They just graduated from Ryerson and they also interned for me last year. They’ve learned to sort of do things the ‘VAWK way’. They were so meticulous on achieving what I want to achieve, so I hired them right out of school.
And then, of course, I have a few friends, who help me with business advice and with PR. I think we need to get ourselves out there more this year, so this is a ‘make-it or break-it’ year for us, and we want to make sure we ‘make it’.
Without my team, I couldn’t have achieve what I achieved!
I guess one question that the readers are always curious about is what is the full story behind the name of your brand?
It’s really simple: when I came up with my line, I didn’t want to use my own name. There were also all these different Sunnies and I didn’t want to get lost in the world of other Sunnies. I wanted the name to sort of identify the brand on its own. I wanted something that was more memorable than Sunny Fong.
So I picked that name out of a book: I just sort of opened a book and went through all the pages. I picked it because it sounded cool. It was spelled VACH and I didn’t know what it meant. But then I made it look more phonetic and spelled it V-A-W-K. Visually, it appealed more to me. I wanted the name to sort of represent the clothing as opposed to what I am all about. And then the more I thought about, the more I thought in terms of future development and categories. Like VAWK Home, VAWK Women or VAWK men; it just rolls off the tongue.
Apparently, in the Sanskrit world, it means ‘divine creative activity’. Which is like: OK, it’s meant to be! [laughs]
What is your typical day like? Because you have your studio as part of your apartment – is your work a big part of your life?
I usually wake up at 9, and then I am up till probably 2 or 3 in the morning, so yeah, I’m working all the time. I do web design as well. I am busy, trying to make a living or trying to make this really work, because it is my second chance, so I just want to make sure that I don’t lose it.
How do you feel your work has evolved?
I think I definitely keep wearability in mind. When I started, I was young and thought: ‘I’m a designer, I want to be like McQueen and I want to be like Galliano, and just do clothes for the show.’ And I expected that a real consumer is going to want to buy it. But, you know, we are in Canada: it’s a different marketing strategy. So I’ve learned over the years that yes, there is a customer, and I have to make clothes for that customer. And then keeping that in mind, I make sure that every runway look is street-ready, where I don’t dilute it for retail. I want to make sure that everything we show on the runway is actually a piece that you can buy.
How would you describe your vision for the line? For the company?
I definitely picked the toughest thing, which is to be in the luxury market. Which is sort of beyond just designer, you know what I mean? We are competing against businesses that have huge marketing budgets. Yeah, I want to hang next to Alexander McQueen and Stella McCartney.
That was sort of the strategy, and then now that we are in The Room [at The Bay], we are hanging next to Balmain and Christopher Kane, which are international brands, and the fact that we hang next to them means that we have to bring our product to be just as strong as theirs.
What is your favourite part of fashion design?
I think my favourite part is actually seeing somebody in the garments, because usually in my head I can picture it on somebody, but I don’t really see the face, I don’t see how it’s put together. It’s one thing to visualize it on a body, but to actually see it on a body – that’s really magical to me.
What have been your biggest successes to date? And how do you measure your success?
I think success is when you make the sale. In the end, I view fashion as a business. When I am still getting bought every season, or when I see the clothes disappear off the rack.
I think that is sort of my measure: if no one is buying, then I am not producing something that people want. I mean any celebrity can wear your stuff, but not everyone pays for it. Right? [laughs] So when an actual consumer purchases your product, it means somebody you haven’t talked to actually appreciates your work.
What’s the best compliment you ever received?
The response that I love getting is: ‘Oh, I didn’t think this would look good on me’ and I say: ‘Okay, just try it on.’ For example, I used a really great nude for one season, and it had a slight pink undertone. And then everyone was like: ‘Oh, I can’t wear this; I’m too light or I’m too dark.’ And I would say: ‘Just put it on, and you’ll see what I mean.’ And then they’d put it on, and it would work. It’s sort of the best compliment and that makes me happy.
That’s amazing. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I don’t know. You can ask me anything!
I guess one last thing I’m really curious to know is: do any of your female friends ever want your pieces?
Oh yes, they do. I also always have them come over and ask for their opinion. Because they are more practical than I am, and then they are all in different fields of work and they all like different things. They would tell me what they didn’t like, and that would sort of be ‘edited out’. So I trust my gut and I trust theirs!