One of the most talented emerging names on the London Fashion Week scene, Korean-born, St Martins-trained designer Rejina Pyo has become both a retail and street style superstar. But building a brand rarely translates into overnight success and often the years of graft are edited out of the story. Here Rejina offers an uncensored account of the many bumps along the road of both her professional and personal journeys. From scraping a living to taking zero days maternity leave, the life of a young designer can be a world away from the ritz and glitz of the runway.
Training, Trials & Tribulations
I’ve always wanted to be a fashion designer. My mum worked in the industry—so we had a sewing machine and fabrics everywhere at home. She really didn’t want me to go into design, but there was no stopping me. Getting into art college in Korea isn’t straightforward as you have to pass a crazy exam and get really good grades in maths and science as well as classical drawing. After a huge amount of work, I passed, trained in fashion design and got a job working for the best fast fashion brand in Korea. Even though it was a really successful label, there was very little creativity in the work, so I decided I needed to go abroad and ended up applying to St Martins in London. Incredibly I got accepted.
I did my MA with Louise Wilson, which was an incomparable experience and then as I graduated, H&M selected me to collaborate with them. My graduation collection was so arty with sculptural wooden pieces, and it travelled around the world for different exhibitions. One curator mentioned that there was an award in the Netherlands that he’d like me to enter and a few months later I got a call saying I’d won. The prize included a solo exhibition in the oldest museum in the country and a good amount of money. At the time I was like, ‘is this a new international scam that I haven’t heard about…?’ I was working at Roksanda and got the call during my lunch break and I just couldn’t believe it. The judging panel included Penny Martin, Editor in Chief of the Gentlewoman, and Viktor & Rolf—and everyone was so excited. It was a truly surreal moment.
“I was really, really, really naïve and jumped in blind and blasé. I had no idea about buying seasons or mark ups or anything like that.”
That award and the collaboration meant I had some money and as I’d always wanted to do my own label it felt like a sign. I thought if I failed, I could just get another job as a designer at another brand again. I was really, really, really naïve and jumped in blind and blasé. I had no idea about buying seasons or mark ups or anything like that. At the beginning I was not as resourceful as I should have been, I didn’t yet understand when it was important to save and spend money. When I look back at what I spent on that first collection, I now realize I could have made two or three for the same price. I loved that first line, but because I’d missed the buying deadlines and didn’t realize that buyers never buy after closing their orders, it didn’t sell at all. But there were some incredibly supportive buyers like Erin Mullaney who was at Avenue 32 at the time who explained to me all about the system and I suppose it was a good learning experience.
Shop Rejina’s collection above
Buyers tend not to buy anything that they don’t think they can sell, which of course makes perfect sense. As soon as you’re out there, sales agents start coming after you and have very clear opinions on what you should be doing to attract more sales. You can’t help but listen and in the end, you can totally confuse yourself. At the beginning when you aren’t selling you also start comparing yourself to others—especially when you’ve just graduated. But as the time has passed, I’ve learnt that you can’t try to be something else, or fulfill what anyone else thinks you should be: you just have to be honest to yourself.
Last Chance Label Saloon
Knowing what you really want and sticking to it is really hard in fashion. There are so many moments when you think, ‘Why am I doing this? I need to quit,’ or, ‘This is bullshit and it’s not going to work.’ It doesn’t always make you happy. I had three really difficult seasons and there were moments when I wasn’t making any money whatsoever. At one point my husband said, ‘Rejina, if the collection doesn’t sell, it’s just a very expensive hobby,’ which was entirely true. Even people in the industry were advising me to give up ‘you’re so talented,’ they said, ‘you could just get a job as a designer for another label and you’d get a salary and could have a life.’ When you don’t have any resources and you’re not making sales, it’s a huge struggle to find people who will work with you and every other day there was some issue or headache. It can feel incredibly depressing and like you’re banging on a locked door week after week, month after month. After about a year and a half of my label, I thought I was going to have to give up and close the business. I gave myself one last chance—if the next season didn’t sell well, I’d just get a job. At the time, I thought that my lack of success was because I just wasn’t good enough and I’d totally lost faith in myself.
That season I didn’t think about what I should be doing or what anyone had told me, I just made clothes that I was excited to wear and that I’d like to see my friends wearing. After I made the collection I literally didn’t have a penny left and it looked like it was all over. But suddenly people really responded to the label and the momentum hasn’t stopped since then. I think when you’ve come that close to failure, you never take anything for granted and even with the success of my collections as I’ve expanded in sales and retailers, I’m still always looking over my shoulder. The main lesson I have learnt though, is listening to myself, and not getting too distracted with the opinions and advice of others. Of course you should take on board as much good advice as possible, but you have to make and be comfortable with your own decisions.
The Family Way
While everything wasn’t entirely secure—it’s not like I have a huge workforce and I still have to work very long hours—there is a sense of relative stability with the brand now, which was why my husband and I decided it could be time to try and have a baby. But yet again, I was extremely naïve. We had been married for five years and both knew we wanted a family, but because we didn’t really know anyone with a baby, we completely underestimated how much it would take. People laugh when I say this, but I’d planned to take two weeks off after the baby was born, and in my head I thought I’d be back to relatively full-time work after five days.
“You forget about the mental toll of doing something like running your own business, so I needed to learn how to relax and reduce my stress levels.”
Things didn’t happen quite that way. Firstly, I didn’t get pregnant immediately—you can’t plan these things to fit your schedule! As we were both healthy and young we presumed it would happen quickly. But as the months went by I started to think, ‘what’s wrong with me?’ I’m competitive by nature so when it didn’t happen, I felt like I was off-course. You turn in on yourself very quickly thinking, ‘was it because I did this or that…? Did I work too hard, or not eat well enough?’ After a few months, we turned to my sister in law who is a natural fertility specialist. She believes in a more holistic approach to fertility – not that she doesn’t think there is a place for IVF—but as it’s such a tough process, she looks at other factors in both the mother and father first. When I sent my blood samples and filled the questionnaire, she could immediately see that my hormones were so messed up from years of stress and living on adrenaline. My cycle was completely off and my ovulation was all over the place. You forget about the mental toll of doing something like running your own business, so I needed to learn how to relax and reduce my stress levels.
As a fashion designer, it’s so easy to become so completely attached to your business. When people talk about your collection, it’s like they are talking about you. If they say something negative about it, it feels like they are saying that you are crap. There is just no barrier–the collection becomes you, you become the collection. So I needed to learn how to detach myself for my own mental health, which was really hard for me. I was also prescribed all the supplements that help with conception–my vitamin D was rock-bottom low and you really need that to get pregnant. Finally, I didn’t get my period and I took a test and it was positive.
The labour was in some ways great, but it was really hard on my recovery. I used hypno-birthing techniques and the pain felt manageable, but after pushing for three and a half hours my uterus didn’t contract and I lost 1.8 litres of blood after the birth—which is about half of all the blood in the body. For the next few days I felt like I was half dead and couldn’t stand without getting incredibly dizzy. As a result of the blood loss, it took longer for my breast milk to come in, so Luka had become dehydrated, and we had to go back into hospital for a night only a few days after being let out. As I hadn’t put an out of office on, work was always present—I was back on email the day after I delivered even though it took about two and a half weeks to get back on my feet again. Because I couldn’t go to Premiere Vision in Paris [the most important materials show of the season], I had set up a meeting with an agent in London as of course, seeing the materials is a huge part of the design process. As I don’t have a team who could take the meeting for me, I just had to make it happen even though I was still so depleted. So two weeks after giving birth I had to pull myself together and get there. Everyone at the meeting was like, ‘hey Rejina! How are you?’ When I told them I’d just had a baby 2 weeks ago, they said, ‘What are you doing here?!’.
Work-wise as a designer of your own label, you are constantly multi-tasking, or at least trying to! It’s not like I just sit at my desk waiting for inspiration to come, sketching all day. Every week I’m speaking to the accountant and managing all the production out of Korea and that means I’m working on two time-zones–midnight here is their morning. It often feels like you do one workday in London then you work the nightshift in Korea. The first month was overwhelming, especially as the baby needs you 24/7, but as you don’t have a language in common, you can’t ever work out exactly what they want, so you have to be intuitive. You’re also getting used to the baby. You worry about even the simplest things—have I put the nappy on correctly? Is it too tight? Is it too loose?
Three to five days after the birth, as everyone tells you, your hormones crash and baby blues make you super emotional. There was just this feeling that my life as a designer was over and that I was going to be stuck here at home alone feeding and changing nappies forever. There was a lot of pressure because I knew I had a collection to design and produce, but I just couldn’t get any work done. I couldn’t even get down the stairs. People found it funny that I was so distraught that I couldn’t work–most other mothers I spoke to said that having a break from work was one of the things they loved, but it didn’t feel like that for me. I really missed my work and the creative outlet I get through designing. It was nice to learn from other working mothers that it’s OK to miss your work and you’re not a bad mother if you don’t want to spend every waking moment with your baby.
“When people talk about your collection, it’s like they are talking about you. If they say something negative about it, it feels like they are saying that you are crap.”
As the days pass, you become a new person. Because you don’t have the luxury of time, you work out how you can fit things in differently and approach your workload in a different way. Then slowly you become organized. Now I’m certainly not spending time scrolling mindlessly through Instagram or replying to emails that aren’t relevant. When the baby is sleeping that is the time I have to work on fittings and physical samples and I need to be 100% focused on that. Having a young child is an incredible procrastination killer.
Shop Rejina’s collection above
Of course, I envy women who have a clearly defined maternity leave that allows them to disconnect from their email for months and months. Of course, I would have liked to spend my time with my baby just holding him while I was feeding instead of multi-tasking. Of course, it made me feel guilty that I still had to go to a meeting or answer an email. But when I left the hospital, the midwife said to me, ‘firstly you give birth to a baby, then you give birth to your placenta and then you give birth to guilt,’ and over the past months I’ve realized that all women carry that feeling of guilt and inadequacy inside them to some extent. On the other hand, the bigger picture is that I’m in the incredibly fortunate position to have a job where I am with my baby all day every day, as my studio and home are beside each other, so I’ll never be ‘going back’ to an office away from him. Because I have an integrated work and baby life and there is a flexibility there that I would never get if I were in a 9-5 job, I do feel really lucky. Now we have a part time nanny which gives me the space I need—even if it’s just a couple of hours a day— to be able to work.
Time now is precious. These days I separate out the things I can do with the baby there and the things I need to do alone and I’ve become extremely efficient at getting those tasks done as quickly as possible. We are working it out as we go, but in the end, it has to happen some way, because that’s just where the business is right now. We’re experiencing lots of success and the past year has been incredible for the brand, but it isn’t like I’ve suddenly got a studio of assistants to look after everything. Sometimes I don’t even have time to shower—it’s definitely no fantasy yet. But I feel incredibly grateful and even though it might not be quite how I thought it would be, it’s incredible to have both my baby and label growing side by side together.