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Alice Cheng on Opening a Store Before the Fast Fashion Boom

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All photos by Driely S. for Racked

Words like "polished" and "ladylike" get tossed around when describing Alice Cheng's aesthetic, but really, it's much more specific than that. The A. Cheng girl—the one whose closet is full of Alice's perfectly tailored pleated trousers and hand-painted silk tee-shirt dresses—is a devotee of what the designer calls "old school proper." Which isn't a style, so much as a state of mind.

It means, "writing thank you cards. Borrowing something from the neighbors and then returning it with something extra," Alice says. And, most importantly, "throwing crazy parties and inviting people over for impromptu drinks, and not caring if everything looks perfect."

In Alice's Park Slope boutique, her namesake line mingles with enamel lockets, statement socks, hammered gold jewelry, and bold pattern blouses. In other words, everything you need for that perfectly-imperfect look.

Read on to find out how the designer went from Tommy Hilfiger womenswear pro, to East Village retail pioneer, to Brooklyn go-to for your work-to-weekend-to-wedding needs.

Can you tell us about your design background?

I graduated from Parsons in their fashion design program. And when I graduated, I started working at Tommy Hilfiger women's. This was when they only did menswear, I was part of the original womenswear team—there were five people. It was us and Tommy in a room, chilling. I was really lucky because I was able to get a lot of responsibility really early. I did women's cut and sew knits, and then I freelanced a bit at the Gap in sweaters, and I also worked at The Limited.

Do you come from a creative family?

No, I kind of fell into fashion. I've always drawn really well, and I think when you have a visible talent it's easy for people to sort of push you along into a trade that reflects that. And then when I went to college—the only things that made money at that point were fashion design or communications design. Luckily, I really love fabrics and textiles. So it was a nice path.

So how did you go from working for these huge labels to starting your own line?

I was living in the East Village around that time, and I happened to become friendly with one of the store owners on my block. Now it seems like so many people have their own business, or are makers. They start out doing a craft and then selling it, and it seems much easier to do it with a community. But 15 years ago it seemed like you had to be a big company to open a store. So I asked this woman who opened a boutique, "Is it hard to start a store?" And she was like "No, you just sign a lease and open a shop!" And I was like, "Oh!" I didn't know anything. Ignorance is bliss.

What was your first store like?

There was a 250-square-foot space on Ninth between First and Avenue A that used to be a little beauty salon. Six months later I opened a store with like, five items. This was 1999. I had my sewing machine in the back, where I would make all of my samples and patterns. It was like a little lab.

There was no H&M on every corner, no Madewell, no Topshop. It was nothing like it is now. People were hungry for a wearable label that wasn't Banana Republic or J. Crew.

Do you remember your opening day?

The store was so small, I felt like I just had the door open to my room. When you start small, the fail isn't so big. Back in 1999, it wasn't as much of a financial investment. I didn't have a child yet, and I lived in a rent-stabilized apartment. It was pretty low-stress. You get hooked on the energy of watching people loving what they see. It sucks you in.

It seems like it would be much harder to do that now.

Yes! There's so much competition. When we first opened there was no Anthropologie. There was no H&M on every corner, no Madewell, no Topshop. It was nothing like it is now. People were hungry for a wearable label that wasn't Banana Republic or J. Crew. And we really hit that niche.

When did you move your operation to Brooklyn?

I moved our older space, on Fifth Avenue in Brooklyn, eight years ago, and I had both locations simultaneously for a year. I had moved to Prospect Heights at that point, and it was really hard to get to the East Village. That godforsaken train is never coming to Second Avenue! I was also doing wholesale for our in-house label, A. Cheng, and I had a baby, so it was getting to be too much to manage. I had to let the East Village space go.

How has the store changed in going from the East Village, to Fifth Avenue in Brooklyn, to Bergen Street?

It's really been fleshed out. When we got to a bigger space it became more practical and functional. We still have our own collection, but now we have tee shirts, and sweaters, and things that are necessities. You still want to make a choice, even if it's just a tee shirt. So many people who live in Brooklyn—myself included—don't want to go into Manhattan if they don't have to. Especially on the weekends. It's nice to know that you can get the same caliber of stuff you need here in Brooklyn.

When we moved to Bergen Street it was another level of refinement. We had these beautiful built-ins made, and we could really showcase our collections. Our style has become more relaxed, more at-ease. But we still have customers who come in wearing something they bought from me 12 years ago. I have to be like, "Come over here so I can cut a hole in that, because you've had that for way too long!" But that's the ideal, to buy something and have it still fit your aesthetic 12 years later.

How would you describe your label, A. Cheng?

I like to design based on fabrication. If this fabric has an interesting texture, the shape of the dress or skirt should be simple. A tee shirt shape in an old Japanese ikat fabric feels very modern. Some seasons I focus on a certain detail, like pintucking, and I flesh that out in every single category—jackets, tops, dresses. Now, it's about colors and minimal prints. Pretty shapes, things that are easy to wear. I like clean, simple, easy lines. I don't want to distract from the woman's face.

I like clean, simple, easy lines. I don't want to distract from the woman's face.

What do you have in store for spring?

We had one delivery that was all knits under out other label, Confetti. It's a looser celebration of shapes. We let the stitches show up, rather than forcing them into a certain silhouette. They're all in really pretty neutrals. There's this one poncho shape that you can wear over leggings or as a cover-up for the beach. The yarn is sort of dry and twisted, so the pieces feel breathable. It's like mesh, almost.

The second part of the delivery is about seasonless fabrics. There are things that you can wear right now with sandals to a wedding, but you can also put tights and boots with them. We try to use lots of natural fibers. Regardless of the season, you wear cotton year-round. I picked a very limited palette of neutrals and khakis, with navy as the print. We're also getting a bunch of dresses made in white because we're going to experiment with block printing and tie dye.

When you're buying for your shop, how do you pick pieces to complement your label?

It took a while to feel it out, but ultimately we have to love the entire collection. If we love 90 percent of the collection, if we like the way the lookbook is styled, if we like the models' makeup—those things point to all the details of the clothing. In the showroom something can look great, but sometimes when we get it here it looks out of place. I have to look at the entire branding and know that we're on the same path. It's hard, though! At the shows there are goodies everywhere, and I'm freaking out like, "Oh my god, everything is so cute!" But when you really think about the home it's going to sit in and the customer it's going to go to, 80 percent of it is frivolous.

What do you look for when you're hiring?

I probably look for all the wrong things. I look for someone who is really, really smart. I look for nice people, people who are even-keeled. It's important to understand the nuances of the labels—why this store is different from that store. A lot of that just comes from experience.

How would you describe the A. Cheng girl?

I think it's someone who is very no-fuss and wants really clean details. She's feminine but not girly, and is really strong. Kind of old school proper, and doesn't care what people think.

What do you mean by old school proper?

Writing thank you cards. Borrowing something from the neighbors and then returning it with something extra. Those little things that we tell ourselves don't matter. Or inviting friends over for drinks and dinner, and not caring if everything is perfect.

We went away this weekend, and a friend of ours let us stay at her house, and another friend watched our dog, and another friend let us borrow a car. I got gifts for everyone, and my daughter [asked why]. I was like, "Because I want to. It's a nice thing to do." She said, "We do nice things for people and we don't get anything." And I was like, "I don't really care if we don't get gifts from them. I don't remember what they did. I remember what I'm doing. And really, you don't do anything for anyone. You're seven. You're in your pajamas on the floor." I think it's interesting for her to pick up on that. You should be keeping tabs on yourself.

Is your daughter interested in fashion?

It changes. She says she wants to be a designer, but one that sews. Or she'll be like, "I'm going to grow up and work in the American Girl store." The other day she said, "I want to be a miner. For jewelry and coal, because you need energy." I'm like, "Yes! Okay!"

Time for the lightning round! 8am or 8pm?

8am.

Beer or wine:

Beer in am and wine in pm.

Favorite vacation destination?

Paris. Everyone is filled with style. Every little pinky.

Favorite neighborhood lunch spot?

Larder.

Favorite happy hour spot?

Flatbush Farm.

Scandal or Homeland?

I'm a little over her facial expressions on Scandal. Homeland is on my list of shows to start.


Address: 466 Bergen Street between Flatbush and Fifth Avenue
Hours: Monday—Saturday, 11am—7:30pm. Sunday 11am—7pm.
Phone: 718-783-2826
What to Expect From the In-House Line: "It's about colors and minimal prints. Pretty shapes, things that are easy to wear. I like clean, simple, easy lines. I don't want to distract from the woman's face."

· A.Cheng [Official Site]
· All Better Know a Store Owner Posts [Racked NY]

A.Cheng

466 Bergen St, Brooklyn, NY