Text: Alec Coiro
Images Courtesy of United Bamboo
The Storied Late-90s
“It first started out as Bernadette Corporation.” That’s according to Thuy Pham, who — along with his partner Miho Aoki — designed and owned United Bamboo. Miho is currently living in Hawaii, so I got Thuy’s version of the story one afternoon in July. Bernadette Corporation was named for Bernadette van Huy, but the board of the corporation (as it were) included Thuy and Antek Walczak, and John Kelsey. As a group, they came out of the Club USA scene, which Thuy was a party promoter for. Club USA was one of the Peter Gatien clubs in the ‘90s that also included The Limelight, the famous club inside a Chelsea church rumored to have its own underground ambulance fleet, and the Tunnel, which was was popular both with the art and fashion kids Thuy’s talking about, but also referred to obsessively by Mobb Deep. Describing the early days of Bernadette Corporation in an article in Dazed, Francesca Gavin writes that “Bernadette Corporation began as a scene.” This is the scene as Thuy remembers it, “I went to Cooper Union [for architecture]. There was this little art scene of kids who went to Cooper, Art Club 2000 people. Art Club 2000 is another example of Bernadette Corporation-style art collective, who were apparently transfixed by The GAP. This was at a time when art collectives were still a new idea, so it was a very cool, very original concept at the time. According to Thuy, in addition to his studies, “I was working as a waiter and a club promoter. During the day I was helping [Bernadette Corporation] out. I was a waiter from 4-11 and then afterward I went handing out fliers and I had a party on Saturday. It was a party at Club USA.” And thus he became involved with Bernadette Corporation, partying in the night time and making art by day.
Bernadette Corporation Ends, United Bamboo Begins
By my calculations, Thuy’s tenure with Bernadette Corporation lasted about a year or maybe two. They put on some fashion shows, but Thuy and the rest of Bernadette Corporation were clearly going in different directions, probably owing in large part to the fundamental difference in their philosophical approach. “Bernadette Corporation tried to do fashion but it was more of an art collective. We did raise some art grants to do fashion shows, which we called a performance. But I think calling it an art project was more out of necessity to get the arts grants. I’ve always just wanted to make stuff and sell it, so for me, it was more of a chance to make these clothes and sell them and have it be a business. But for it to be a business, you have to take some responsibility. But those two guys were just not having it, so we parted ways. They went it in a total art direction. They considered themselves artists.”
After Thuy parted ways with Bernadette Corporation, he was left with a live-work space on Bowery that had been outfitted for creating these art-as-fashion shows. And there was also Miho Aoki and Sidney Prawatyotin who had been working in the studio. “[Sidney] and Miho were younger than me. I didn’t pay them. I guess officially they were interns, but I don’t want to call them interns because they did a lot of stuff.” Basically, Thuy was hosting them in what today’s silicon valley parlance might be called a fashion incubator, and what was incubating was United Bamboo. “I let them use my space after Bernadette and Antek moved out. I had cutting tables and sewing machines and stuff like that, which I let them use. They created United Bamboo.”
Thuy was interested in fashion but not deconstructing fashion from an art standpoint. He found Miho and Sidney small business style much more appealing. They had a totally different approach: chip in 2,000 bucks each, buy some fabric and make something. Then turn this $4,000 into $10,000, and then reinvest that. And I thought that’s pretty genius. It used to be when more designers manufactured in New York, they would make pieces from discount fabric leftover from brand name designers. So you’d go these “converters” and they’d even tell you this is left over Calvin Klein fabric or Donna Karan fabric. It’d be a season or two old, but who cares. It’s 50% off the original price. So they’d buy some small amount of this fabric — enough to make 25-30 pieces. And they’d take it around in a suitcase and sell it to local stores: Steven Alan, TG170 [Terri Gillis’s store]. It’s not enough to make a living, but you get your stuff out there. They didn’t try to go for any kind of highfalutin intellectual concept. They made stuff they could actually make themselves by sewing it. So it was very simple things like halter tops.
To hear Thuy recollect it, I got the sense that over the course of a year or so, he went from being an older mentor to becoming more involved with the daily operations, to eventually becoming half of the label along with Miho. “At some point [Sidney] left to do his own line.”
This was right at the end of the century, and United Bamboo was growing, but Thuy felt that the label still had further echelons to explore. “Every season it would grow. When you start from nothing it’s easy to grow exponentially. It started in ‘97; by about ‘99 we were doing sales of about $100,000 year. Now I could quit my waiter job. I had just started learning how to design clothes. I wasn’t great or anything. But I understood that the further you get, the more professional you have to be.”
The Theoretical Framework.
The key to the leaping to the next level, according to Thuy, was developing the theoretical undergirding of the brand, the story.
In order to understand where brand philosophy came from, we have to revisit the Bernadette Corporation days. When not out at Club USA, the members of Bernadette Corporation were students of really radical, heady French theory like pipe puffing Jacques Derrida and bad boy Guy DeBord. Thuy remembers, “At that time everyone wanted to talk about postmodernism. It was the cool thing. At that time in Architecture, it was all about the postmodern. What are we gonna do? What comes after modernism? So they started borrowing a lot of ideas from French Postmodern theorists, especially things about media and consumer culture. All creative fields were like that. So that’s what we (Bernadette Corporation) did all the time. Talk about post-modernism.”
A decade later when Donald Rumsfeld made his statement about “Known knowns” and “known unknowns,” he had probably become the most notorious post-modern philosopher of all, consequently redefining the political ramifications of the theory. And then when internet subculture started hitting everyone over the head with pastiches and mashups, the whole postmodern philosophy thing started to seem like an exercise in pointing out the obvious. However, at the time when United Bamboo was being formed, these were cutting edge, counter-cultural notions.
Being an architecture student, Thuy was of course steeped in this postmodern discourse, but he also had more of a practical sense of things than his contemporary fashion and art students.
One of the things that postmodernists do is take something and they put it in a different context and you look at it differently. When we were doing Bernadette Corporation, we were always interested in why people were into logos. People were always into flags and symbolism, and now it’s logos. The brand and the consumer work off of each other. The brand creates the logo and uses advertising to give the logo meaning. Ralph Lauren’s was the WASPy image. And then you go to the Ghetto and there are these thug dudes wearing a Ralph Lauren and they’re not WASPy at all. Except that in their mind they’re grafting that image onto themselves, and now that logo has a different meaning than it was originally projecting and it’s been recontextualized.
Thuy’s idea was to apply this recontextualization to a more avant-garde brand like Commes des Garcon that might otherwise be out of reach for the typical consumer both in terms of price and accessibility.
I always liked Commes Des Garcon. Miho liked it, too. But I thought it’s too conceptual for me. One of the techniques that postmodernists do is they like to use something that already exists and recontextualize it. My whole thing was let’s take the Commes Des Garcon technical know-how, which is very similar to architecture — the form and shape. But let’s use the visual language of typical American style like Ralph Lauren. Let’s combine it and see how people respond to it. So that’s basically United Bamboo in a nutshell. We used all the fabric that was Ralph Lauren- looking stuff. And we were trying to make weird shapes with it.
My whole thing was let’s take the Comme des Garcons technical know-how, which is very similar to architecture -- the form and shape. But let’s use the visual language of American designers. Let’s combine it and see how people respond to it. So that’s basically United Bamboo in a nutshell.
Big in Japan
When United Bamboo really started to take off, it was largely the Japanese market that fueled their growth. According to Thuy, this was not unusual in the early 2000s. “We started going to a showroom and picking up Japanese sales. That was pretty common at the time. I think it’s not like that anymore, but at the time, the opportunity for young designers to get a business going was to sell in Japan. In America, there are just not that many shops. So the first step was selling in Japan. Then you get to a certain level in Japan and you go back to selling in America.” The French label APC got its start through a distribution deal with the same Japanese company that distributed United Bamboo. Before that deal, APC was just a petit magasin in Paris; today every schoolboy in America knows the legend of the jeans that you wash by walking into the ocean.
A young designer’s start in the Japanese market would begin at “select shops,” which Thuy described for me:
At that point in the Japanese market, consumers really loved buying foreign stuff. They don’t have department stores like Barneys or Saks. They have them, but that’s not where people want to shop. They have these things called ‘select shops.’ A select shop is basically a curated shop. It usually has some theme, which changes from season to season. The buyer is more like a curator, and it’s usually a chain of shops roughly the size of Steven Alan, but they’ll be 20-100 of them all over Japan, so they can order a pretty good quantity. They would send these buyers to New York, London, Paris. And it’s always a different trend, a different city that’s in style. It just so happened that at that time New York was the trendy city.
According to Thuy, United Bamboo was particularly well suited for the Japanese market because the editors who — along with the buyers for the select shops — were driving the trends in Japan could relate to them. “At that time Japan had a lot of magazines, and they also sent editors to New York to find out what’s new, what’s hot, what’s happening. And it just so happens that these editors were our age and Miho was Japanese. And it was much easier for them. So we started getting a lot of press in Japan about a cool Japanese-American girl doing a Commes des Garcon-Ralph Lauren mashup. It was an easy story for people to pick up.”
While the timing with the Japanese market accounts for a great deal of United Bamboo’s success in Thuy’s account, it’s also evident that a perhaps equally important factor in the brand’s growth was Thuy and Miho’s instinct to eschew the allure of fashion’s cool baubles in favor of more sound business practices. ““We never did shows. When I was doing Bernadette Corporation, we’d spend a lot of time doing shows, and nothing would happen. We avoided shows and avoided the press, and just focused on the business aspects.”
So the brand was on course for growth, and with their Japanese sales, they went from an estimated 100,000 in sales in 1999 to 1 million four years later. It was then that the investors came calling. “At that time, this guy knocked on our door and said you guys are doing pretty good. Do you want a Japanese investor? We went, ‘Yeah, of course.’ He worked for a trading company based in New York. He was kind of a scout.”
The next level that United Bamboo would arrive at was the licensing level. Selling clothing directly to the stores in Japan is not ultimately sustainable given that imported goods in Japan cost as much as 300% more than they would in the U.S. “At some point, they said we can’t afford to keep importing your stuff, so we’re going to make a licensing deal with you. It always comes in two parts: licensing and distribution. Distribution is they buy your stuff and build a store for you, and they put your stuff in the store. But that’s only 20%. Then they do a licensing deal in which they make their own United Bamboo stuff, and that’s 80%”
At this point, United Bamboo could no longer avoid fashion shows, the press and their licensing and distribution partners expected it of them. And this ratcheted up the pressure, “Once you start doing fashion shows, it’s a lot of pressure. You’re in the fashion machine now and you can’t stop. You can’t take a break for one season people will think you’re dead. And you always have to one-up yourself every season.”
Thuy continues to think they are a waste of time at any level. He points out how from a business perspective, what you see on the runway actually has very little relevance to sales, and because their cyclical nature perpetuates the fetishization of the new, pursuing a more holistic career trajectory becomes very difficult.
“If I had a choice I wouldn’t even do fashion shows. You spend so much money and you feel like you have to impress people, so you make technically impressive things even though you know it’s not going to sell. I couldn’t really thrive under that. In architecture, your life’s work is a process. You might have a vision and may never reach it but every time you make a new piece it’s part of the process to get to the next thing. I didn’t want to make something new every season. I wanted to make the same thing and see how many variations I could create and when I looked back, I could say that is the identity of my work because I tried to do the same thing. But I can’t explain that to the fashion press.”
However, these frustrations would ultimately be overshadowed.
If I had a choice I wouldn't even do fashion shows. You spend so much money and you feel like you have to impress people, so you make technically impressive things even though you know it’s not going to sell. I couldn’t really thrive under that.
On March 11, 2011, the tsunami hits Japan triggering the Fukushima nuclear meltdown, perhaps the worst natural disaster of the young 21st century. United Bamboo was in the midst of a 5 store expansion when the disaster struck, leaving them with mounds of inventory that couldn’t sell. Obviously, in fashion, a season of product doesn’t grow more venerable with age; it becomes worthless, so they ran into a huge cash flow problem. Certainly not the biggest concern for them or anyone in Japan at the time, but it would spell the ultimate unraveling of the brand. “I’d already experienced it during 9/11, at which time we were very small, and we got through it, but the tsunami was hard to come back from. The company we had the deal with wanted to contract the business, which put a lot of strain on us financially in the U.S.”
Under this new financial strain, Thuy and Miho couldn’t maintain the pace that fashion demands. “The problem is if it doesn’t look like you’re growing, people think you’re dying. At some point, we didn’t think we could keep it going. So we ended the relationship with that company.” The climate in Japan had changed since they brokered their original licensing deal, and this time the new company they talked to offered to simply buy the United Bamboo trademark in lieu of a distribution and licensing deal, which effectively removed Miho and Thuy from the design process. Removing the designers, of course, ultimately doomed the label. “When they bought our trademark, they did their own design. Before I was directing everything; even though we had a licensing deal, I directed the designer what to make, so there was consistency between the end product and the marketing story. But when they hired the designer, she was a good designer but she didn’t know what to do. They made good basics which fit well, but the people in the press weren’t interested because there was no story. They tried for two years, but it didn’t really go anywhere.”
United Bamboo has stood out in every era in which it existed. When they started, there really weren’t other Asian-American designers working in fashion. “There was an Asian group. There were like 6 Asian designers all at the same time, like Philip Lim, Alexander Wang, and Richard Chai. But we were proto. Before us, the only Asian-American designer that I can think of was kind of well known was Anna Sui.”
When United Bamboo first started, the scene in the second half of the ‘90s revolved around places like Alleged Gallery, Harmonie Korine, and the fashion for “street art,” basically the things featured in the Beautiful Losers documentary. Thuy points out that United Bamboo didn’t really register in that world. “We were on the periphery of that scene, but we were kind of nobody’s at that time.”
Their more commercial approach to fashion also kept them distinct from other designers in their peer group. “Tess Giberson, 3asFour (formerly AsFour) and Susan Cianciolo were doing collections at the same time and I consider them my generation, but Tess only had her line for a short time and Susan was more like outsider art, and Ben Cho was also more artsy. I would say we’re less artsy.”
And yet, they were not categorized as pure fashion designers either. “When we got the press we weren’t grouped in with other designers, we were grouped in with people who would do stuff that was more multidisciplinary like Surface to Air.” In terms of this larger, multi-disciplinary culture, United Bamboo was part of the intersection between art and music going on in New York in the early 2000s. “We did a lot of collaborations with young artists and musicians at the time. There were a lot of musicians who came from the art world like Gang Gang Dance, Hisham, Black Dice and all those people. People around us like Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Gang Gang Dance would create music for our shows and they were all artists, so they’d do drawings for us. We made a compilation CD that Hisham was the curator of “However”, The American press at the time focused less on this scene and more on the related New York scene characterized by people like Ryan McGinley, Paul Sevigny, and Dash Snow. What the American press didn’t realize is that over in Japan, it was United Bamboo story that was being told. Perhaps it would still be to this day. There’s definitely an alternate history where disaster is avoided, and 2017 is the year United Bamboo makes an APC-style splash in the U.S. and European market. Sadly, that’s not the way it happened in this universe, but it’s plausible enough that you can almost see it.