Design talks: Avec new york
by Seiyeon Park '21
When it comes to jewelry, it can be easy to fall into the trap of the common trends. Go onto Instagram and search #armcandy or #jewelryoftheday, and you’ll find a slew of perfect stacks of Cartier bracelets coordinated with a watch of the same hue, or Pandora charms strung on silver chains. However, twin sisters Chloe and Kate Lee, founders of the jewelry brand Avec New York, take their clean and modern style beyond the standard look. On Easter Sunday, I had the opportunity to visit the Avec New York showroom in SoHo. The showroom itself was an embodiment of Avec New York’s signature style. With its white walls. minimal furniture, and feminine touches, the vintage inspired showroom is a delicate blend between classic and modern, feminine and chic.
Raised in Seoul, South Korea, Chloe and Kate came to New York to study fashion design at the Parsons School of Design. However, their interest in fashion began at a young age.
“We naturally got interested in fashion when we were very young. As children we made little clothes for dolls and always tried to be fashionable. Our dad really liked fashion too, even though he doesn’t work in the fashion field. We went out shopping with him, tried beautiful things together, and shared ideas. We went to art school and studied fine arts in both middle and high school in Korea. When we did fashion design in college, we started drawing clothes and jewelry.”
Contrary to the stereotype of Asian families, Kate and Chloe’s parents were supportive of the twins’ artistic pursuits:
“Because our father loves fashion but has his own business, nothing related to fashion or art, he always dreamed of helping a fashion designer himself. So, when we started drawing and painting ourselves, he always enjoyed watching us draw. Our mom is also very supportive- maybe because we are the only ones in our family doing fashion. While there’s the preconception that Asian mom and dads expect their children to become doctors or lawyers, our parents were really supportive.”
Avec New York’s showroom was filled not only with their collections, but also with several vintage trinkets that stood amongst the beautiful jewelry- a passion which blossomed during their time at Parsons, “When we were in school, we always tried to go to the vintage market every weekend, as well as a vintage fair in Pennsylvania. There’d be hundreds of vintage vendors selling weird, unique, and precious things. We just would just walk around for the entire day. We bought a lot of things too- some of which we have in our showroom today, like the lights and the cases on some of the displays. We really liked collecting vintage jewelry from the 1900s to the 1980s and had so much stuff to play with. So, one day we at together and started making jewelry and just created unique, one-of-a-kind things.”
These one of a kind pieces- that became Chloe and Kate’s first collection known as History- ended up catching the eye of the creative director of Ralph Lauren, when a close friend who worked at the company wore one of their handmade bracelets to work. The creative director then reached out to the sisters and bought a couple of their pieces. When she wore the pieces to a meeting with the buyers of Rugby by Ralph Lauren- a now-closed branch of the brand Polo Ralph Lauren- they loved Chloe and Kate’s designs and asked the director who created them. The two sisters ended up meeting with the buyers who offered to purchase all of their goods and introduce them to the Ralph Lauren label. Chloe and Kate were ecstatic:
“We told them, ‘Of course! We would love to!’ It was like a dream come true. And afterwards, we both worked as freelance designers/contributors for Ralph Lauren for four seasons while attending college.”
After graduating from Parsons, both Kate and Chloe went on to work at esteemed apparel brands; Chloe as a designer, fashion illustrator, and jewelry designer at Calvin Klein, Rugby by Ralph Lauren, and American Eagle, and Kate as a concept designer at Ralph Lauren womenswear. After five years of working at their respective companies, Chloe and Kate decided to pursue their own creative project, “We really wanted to do our own thing. We started coming up with different ideas- apparel, jewelry, bags, the works. But we decided to go back to the beginning. We started with jewelry first, and it was something that we truly loved. We believe that jewelry has the power to take an outfit to a whole different level, thus we decided to start something that we really loved.”
While working as a duo can be a challenge, Kate and Chloe’s bond has proven to be a major strength for their brand:
“There are definitely a lot of positives in working together. Because we are twins, there’s that undeniable ‘twins’ power’ between us. It can be very hard for two people to work together- especially in design, because it’s about taste and preference. You can have your own ideas while I have my own, and we have to reconcile two different points of view. There’s no right or wrong, it’s about your own artistic preference. But for us twins, even though I (Kate) like something modern and chic, something more masculine, while Chloe likes more feminine styles, we don’t need to explain anything. We just know it naturally because we were born together and grew up together.”
And indeed, one can see the tie between the two sisters’ styles, visible even in their manner of dress with Kate dressed in sleek trousers and a blue blouse and Chloe wearing a dress with lace details, in their jewelry design. Similarly, in Avec’s “Nova” collection, there are pieces that are more minimal and structural in form, as well as pieces that incorporate more fluid silhouettes as well as pops of color. But more common are pieces that combine these two aesthetics into one.
The sisters’ close bond explains the meaning behind the name of their label, Avec New York,
“When we were coming up with the name, we came upon the word ‘avec’, which means ‘with’ in French. We thought it was the perfect word for us because we’re twins. We liked the way the word sounded, elegant and simple, and we felt that it just best represented us. Since we both started our fashion careers in New York, we decided to add it to our label. Thus, came the name- Avec New York.”
However, launching one’s own brand from scratch is no easy task. Even with previous experience in the fashion industry, Chloe and Kate were unsure of how to get their brand out in the field.
“There was no one who could help us develop our brand- it was just the two of us. In companies, there are a lot of people doing specific things, like marketing people and merchandising people- all in one company. But in Avec there was just the two of us, doing everything from A to Z. In the beginning, we didn’t really know how to start.”
It then so happened that they came across an event hosted by the department store Henri Bendel, where buyers would pick out brands to sell at the store. Competition was fierce- Kate noted how there were hundreds of brands presenting their merchandise in front of the buyers who would pick and choose, like an audition. If one was fortunate enough, the buyers would let the designers have trunk shows at the Henri Bendel store:
"It was a great opportunity for young designers because it's free rent, and the store has a great location on Fifth Avenue with a reputation for beautiful accessories. We found the event through the internet and just thought, ‘Let’s do it!’, since we didn’t really know how else to get started. We didn’t prepare much the night before, just made some samples of our History collection and brought it to the event. It took two seconds for the buyer look at our goods and say, ‘I love that!’. We were so amazed. We hadn’t expected anything since it was our first time. We mostly just wanted to see how everything worked and get some ideas. But we went and they picked our brand! We ended up holding four trunk shows there and got to meet amazing people.”
While it seemed as if Chloe and Kate had landed upon a golden opportunity, their beginning was nonetheless challenging:
“It was hard because our price point isn’t exactly affordable, since everything was one of a kind- not something you could see in the showroom today. The first day was a nightmare because we were just new designers- we didn’t know how to sell. We were very shy and embarrassed to meet customers face-to-face. On the second day, we decided to see what the other salespeople were doing. We saw that they were very friendly to the customers, so we decided to just be friendly, without any pressure to sell our merchandise. We just focused on introducing our line and meeting people. And then it went really well. That day, we ended up being the number one best-selling brand on the floor! We believe that the products truly speak for themselves, we don’t have to explain anything. The customers know it- if the products are beautiful then the customers will come on their own.”
Chloe and Kate cite their inspiration to come from everything and anything- from the energy given off by a person to their vintage finds at the market.
“We always try to stick with our instinct while researching the latest trends- that’s necessary. You have to know what’s going on out there. You can’t just be stuck in your room and then one day bring out your products, because then people will be like, ‘Oh my god, that’s so ten years ago’. We don’t want to be like that. We also love going to galleries, getting inspiration from color and shapes, sometimes people and their energy. We also really love going through vintage stuff. We just want to hear and see as much as possible.” Their original History collection, which is currently presented at a gallery held by private buyers, is almost completely sold out.
"It’s a one of a kind vintage collection, where we collected vintage items like beads and necklaces and shoe buckles and repurposed them into new accessories. For instance we turned a shoe buckle into a part of a bracelet, and earrings into a part of a necklace. Because these pieces are so time-consuming to create, we don’t produce them anymore nor do we sell the pieces online.” It was this collection of repurposed vintage jewelry that caught the eyes of the editors at Vogue Korea, which led to Avec New York’s first feature in a published magazine, in their April 2014 edition:
“It was amazing because we didn’t even think about the Korean market. In fact, we didn’t even consider the market at all because we just wanted to start something that we loved. In that sense we were naive. But the Korean market is really fast, always catching up on everything. We hadn’t introduced ourselves to Seoul at all, but they just picked us out after they got to know us through people they knew and they loved our brand.”
Kate and Chloe credit much of their success to the skills they learned at previous internships and jobs.
“I (Kate) remember how in the beginning of my career as a concept designer at Ralph Lauren, I was puzzled, because sometimes my superiors would look at a design and shift a logo to the left by a millimeter, or make the color two shades lighter. Back then, I used to ask if such minuscule changes even mattered, but after working there for so long, I myself began to notice these details. Those little things made all the difference, and are what we believe set Avec apart from other jewelry brands. We also learned responsibility. In school, it’s easy to say, ‘Oh I’m sick,’ and skip class, but at a company it’s different. There’s a deadline, there are people who are waiting for your work. There’s definitely a different sense of responsibility.”
Despite the cold and superficial image that the fashion industry has, both Kate and Chloe argued that personality is key, not only for succeeding in the industry but also in life.
“There are so many people in the company who you work with everyday, and we learn so much from all of them. People in the fashion industry are incredibly nice and amazing, but they can also be strong-willed and opinionated. You have to be able to take stubborn people and collaborate in order for a successful outcome. There are so many people at big companies, and when you’re an intern for a famous designer, they don’t really care about the interns because there’s so many. In that case the important thing is to have confidence. We always say to be nice to people because it’s just essential. It’s more than just strategizing your connections, but instead building genuine relationships with people.”
Chloe and Kate also encourage those who aspire to work in a creative field to explore as much as they can, “Internships are definitely helpful to see the fashion world, but also, don’t be afraid to try things! Just be out there and try things that you love. And then you’ll encounter people who will support what you do. That’s how we got into the Korean market as well. We didn’t really mean to sell our stuff in Seoul. We just met some good friends who really loved our work and introduced us to a buyer at a department store.”
While Avec New York is loved all around the world for their jewelry, Chloe and Kate have bigger visions for their brand.
“We definitely want to do a clothing line as well, since we worked in apparel for many years, so in the end we want to do a lifestyle brand. Definitely jewelry, but we want to start our own clothing and maybe even cosmetics, not necessarily in the close future but something other than jewelry.”