Fashion & Beauty Lifestyle

Jill Lao: Creating Fashion for Pioneer Women

It’s a scene straight out of a 2000s chick flick: After earning a degree in business, Jill Lao packed her bags, got on a plane, and went to New York to enroll at Parsons. 

There, she learned the ropes of fashion and trained under esteemed fashion experts, two factors which helped her blossom into one of the most promising local designers of today. 

Fashion designer Jill Lao

However, unlike your run-of-the-mill chick flick, Jill’s journey wasn’t borne of meet-cutes or riddled with tired tropes. It’s founded on hard work and an understanding of fashion that goes beyond the consumable.

Today, Jill’s line of well-tailored, functional, and oh-so-stylish creations are among the most sought-after in the market — and the good thing is, she’s just getting started.

GIST talked to Jill Lao who will be holding a much-anticipated pop-up at the Power Plant Mall in Makati. Here is the conversation:

GIST: You were one of the eight brands chosen for #PHxTokyo, CITEM’s showroom incubation program that aimed to launch homegrown labels in the Japanese market back in 2021. What was the experience like?

Jill Lao: It was humbling to be chosen alongside talented, capable designers who have such strong creative visions. We were mentored by H3O Fashion Bureau’s Jason Lee Coates and Hirohito Suzuki, along with Ms. Tetta Ortiz Matera. They were enlightening compasses who helped us navigate the Japan fashion industry. 

#PHxTokyo was an enriching experience that pushed me out of my comfort zone. Sourcing of materials and production had to be sorted out with consideration for major restrictions. If anything, it stretched my resourcefulness, perseverance, and creativity. And because of that, I am eternally grateful for the opportunity and experience. 

Your latest collection, AMELIA by JILL LAO, featured clothes that married function and fashion. What were your inspirations for that collection?

This season, I was inspired by real life muse Amelia Earhart and fictional heroine Enola Holmes, who both displayed incredible courage, grit, and strength. These modern day heroines gave me hope at a time when the rest of the world plodded through the restrictions and emotional rollercoaster of a pandemic. 

As with past collections, I also kept going back to my customers who during this time have gotten pregnant, given birth, were caring for families, working full-time jobs, and managing households. These were muses of not just the collection but of the Jill Lao brand, in search of wardrobe heroes that are comfortable, flexible, and well-made.

During the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, you became part of the Fashion For Frontliners initiative. What was that experience like?

With the lockdown in effect on March 15, 2020, the whole Metro Manila population couldn’t go out. All the borders were closed, and raw materials were suddenly difficult or impossible to source. Almost right away, a group of fashion designers and I banded together to form Fashion for Frontliners. The main idea was to meet the desperate demand for PPEs by medical frontliners. At that time, China and the rest of the world were still reeling from Covid so medical supplies were scarce.

It was really inspiring because most of us had never met each other, and yet we worked hand-in-hand for a common cause. While our individual businesses remained closed, we each took up various roles from sourcing to production, finance, distribution, and hospital partnerships, while socially distanced and never meeting in person. As a collective, we raised over P4.5M in private donations to produce PPEs and organize distribution to hospitals nationwide.  It was very thrilling and fulfilling.

Jill, many people still have this idea that fashion is something that’s very superficial and unnecessary. What can you say that would challenge that?

During the years that I sought out my purpose and calling, I wrestled internally with the thought that fashion is frivolous. I kept looking for something that would be regarded as “noble” or more serious. Throughout my career, however, God kept leading me to fashion despite my hesitations and fears. A friend also made a good point in saying that God Himself was the first and greatest fashion designer. In the Creation Story, He covered Adam and Eve with garments of skin after the Fall.

The more I practiced fashion design and received feedback from wearers of my clothing, the more I understood that fashion is necessary. This is not just for functional reasons; evidently, we all need clothing. 

Fashion also serves its purpose in our emotional and spiritual lives. It has the ability and power to convey identity and confer dignity. The simple act of getting dressed instantly uplifts emotional wellbeing. It empowers and enables freedom. So to that end, fashion design is a necessity. 

How are your designs connected to your Chinese heritage?

My strict Chinese upbringing formed a desire for excellence. As a fashion designer leading a team, I aim to cultivate a culture within the atelier where uncompromising quality and keen attention to detail were tenets of a job well done. This would later translate into the pieces we create. Each garment, a product of a no-shortcuts mindset. 

Family has also been key in instilling values of discipline, hard work, frugality, humility, and the importance of integrity. These are the very same attributes that we apply in our designs, processes, projects, and various undertakings. To do all things, even the small ones, with great love is our guiding mantra no matter the season. 

I understand that you have a background in Business Management. When was the point that you realized fashion could be your career?

Throughout my career, it was really in my nature to analyze and create cost-benefit scenarios, and I could not justify a fashion career through numbers. It was a trial-and-error method of going through fashion merchandising, fashion styling, and ultimately, practicing what I’ve learned thus far – the culmination of my fashion and non-fashion experiences – that I slowly accept that fashion is where I can thrive and make an impact.

You interned for several major designers — Marissa Webb, Naeem Khan, and Oscar Dela Renta — what can you say about each of them? And how did working with them affect you?

As a contemporary womenswear designer, Marissa Webb has a strong understanding of merchandising and great styling skills from her long career at J. Crew. She brought this to her own label, which lent relevance as well as excitement through her designs that can be styled and worn in infinite ways by the modern woman. This impressed upon me the importance of both wearability and appeal to our clients, because they’re always looking for good wardrobe investments.

At Naeem Khan, I learned the power of embellishment to transform and differentiate the same dress or silhouette.

At Oscar de la Renta, I learned the importance of thorough research and experimentation, which takes time. It’s the antithesis of fast fashion which demands to churn out goods in order to be consumed. I also saw firsthand the creative discipline of the brand – how a team of designers working on multiple product lines can remain true to the house codes while creating something new, fresh, and exciting each season.

Jill, Behind the Seams

What is your design process like? Can you walk GIST through it?

I always start with a feeling or muse and let the fabrics guide me. For this collection, I chose fabrics that were lightweight, breathable, had translucent qualities to communicate hope and lend comfort. I made prototypes of details I wanted to incorporate — adjustable straps, drawstrings, gathers — before making a full garment sample, revising via sketching or editing on the piece itself. Sample fittings are crucial before finalizing the garment.

How do you stay creative?

By taking a break! It doesn’t have to mean traveling, although a vacation is a great way to reset. When I’m feeling stuck, the foundational basics work – stepping outside, getting fresh air, walking around anywhere really, taking a shower, catching up with a like-minded friend, or having a good meal.

What do you think sets you apart from your contemporaries in the local fashion scene?

Everyone is distinct from one another and presents his/her creations through his/her own understanding of design. My background in fashion styling and business accompany every step of my design process. 

This would explain why design aesthetic echoes a relaxed refinement, an elegant ease. It is a reflection of my personal experience as a woman who has had to wear several hats and juggle a multitude of roles. 

What do you think makes a design good? What do you think makes a designer good?

For me, good design is authentic, aesthetic, innovative, useful, and attentive to the last detail. Beyond simply creating what one wants, a good designer aims first and foremost to serve a higher purpose or create a solution to a problem.

How does one find his or her personal style?

Through experimentation and taking risks, one finds his or her own personal style by seeing that which resonates with his or her lifestyle, aesthetic, and season in life.

Jill Lao will have a pop-up featuring clothes from the AMELIA Collection at the second level of Power Plant Mall, beside Aranaz. The pop-up will run from March 4 to the end of April 2022. Pieces from Jill Lao’s AMELIA collection are also available to shop on www.jilllao.com.

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