Maria is basically a wonder-woman, doing literally everything for her brand – from modelling to designing to selling and more! Not only does she create gorgeous, wearable dresses, but she also stocks some fun and fabulous jewellery to boot. On top of that, she is one of the loveliest designers about, whose friendly and approachable nature translates into her collections… find out more about what inspires her, her plans for what the frock?! and get some tips for starting a successful business!
Tell us a bit about your background and what got you interested in fashion?
I was born and raised in Mexico, which I absolutely loved. To me it is one of the craziest, fascinating, most dynamic and most enjoyable places on the planet.
During my school years I had the opportunity to study abroad in places like Florence and the South of France, which sparked my desire to travel and live abroad. So after graduating and working in Mexico for a while, I decided to move to London to study a master’s degree in Fashion Business Management. I thought I was going to stay in London for quite some time, but an opportunity to move to Hong Kong came up so I grabbed it, packed my bags and moved. Hong Kong has been my home for the past 6 years and I don’t think you’ll be able to get rid of me that easily! I simply love it here.
I’ve always been fascinated by fashion (and shopping!). I think the way you dress can say a lot about your personality, so I truly enjoy seeing how people use fashion as a way to express themselves. Also, the more I travel, the more I’ve opened my eyes to different ways of dressing and styling. I love getting new ideas and inspiration from the places I visit. This interest went from a hobby to a career when I got a job as a Fashion Buyer in Mexico, and that was when I truly knew I wanted to pursue my professional career in fashion.
Why did you decide to start what the frock?!
I always had the desire to start my own business and shortly after I moved to Hong Kong I met my business partner Lauren. We both thought that there was a limited offering of good quality summer dresses at affordable prices, so we saw a gap in the market and decided to give it a try. It’s been a steep learning curve since we started, but it’s so worth it! There’s no better feeling than hearing that your customers love your dresses, or running into someone wearing your designs!
You mentioned you used to work as a fashion buyer – has this helped you as a designer in any way?
Definitely. Thanks to my job as a fashion buyer I realise how crucial it is to know your customer. I learnt a lot about different fabrics and materials, which I now use to make our dresses. It helped me to understand shapes and fits and also the financial side of fashion. And above all, it taught me the importance of reconciling the past, seeing what’s sold well and relating this to new trends. Based on that, I try to anticipate what our customers want.
What’s your most memorable what the frock?! moment so far?
Every time we reach a new milestone it’s an amazing feeling that pushes me to keep going forward. That being said, there is no better moment than when I see somebody I don’t know walking down the street wearing a what the frock?!.
What challenges do you find in the design process/production?
The process of finding a good, reliable factory that was willing to manufacture small quantities for us was very challenging. And even once you’ve found one, you have to be very hands on as there are so many details you have to be managing at the same time. There are always going to be unexpected issues that you have to solve as you go along, so you learn to anticipate these issues to ensure you avoid bigger problems later down the line.
From my experience, the key is to establish a mutually beneficial long term relationship with your factory or agent and suppliers. It takes time and hard work and it’s something you never stop working on, but once you feel that you understand each other, it completely changes the game.
What inspires you and how do you choose your amazing prints and patterns?
I am a very visual person, so my inspiration usually comes from anything I see that I like, often from a magazine, website, movie, a book or something I see while travelling.
I love colour too, so I am always drawn to fun colours and patterns and I like to mix and match them to create interesting combinations. I’m always on the lookout for this when I go fabric sourcing, so whenever I come across a fun colour or print on a nice silk or a beautiful material I snap it up immediately. It’s so much fun to think of the possibilities you can create with a great print and high-quality material.
I also get inspired by women I come across with beautiful personal style. I love femininity and simplicity with a quirky touch, so outfits from women like Jenna Lyons, Sarah Rutson and Inès de La Fressange are always on my inspiration board.
I also love street blogs such as Atlantic-Pacific, Sincerely Jules and Pink Peonies. These girls have developed a style that is fun, girly and quirky but completely wearable, which is something I always admire.
What is your must-have dress from your collection?
We put a huge amount of work and passion into creating our collection and we truly love every single dress we make. I’m sort of obsessed with maxi dresses right now and we are creating some really cool ones for next summer – I can’t wait until the sun comes out again and we can finally release them.
However, if I had to pick a must-have dress from our collection I would choose our Wrap Dress. It has become such an important part of what the frock?!, it’s the only style that we keep reinventing and bringing back in different colours and prints season after season. It’s super easy to wear, very comfortable and flattering on most shapes. Depending on how your style it, you can wear it to work, for a night out or in a more casual way over the weekend, so it’s no wonder girls can’t get enough! We are really thankful that it has become such a staple for us.
Who are your Top 5 Designers?
It’s hard to pick only 5, but the designers I always tend to look first for inspiration are Jenna Lyons from J.Crew, Marissa Webb, Diane Von Fusternberg, Kate Spade, and for my rock chick days, Alexander McQueen never fails to bring a bit of edge.
Any other local Hong Kong designers or brands that you love?
Oh yeah! I admire girls like Susanna Soo and Michelle Lai from MISCHA. I love their designs and I find them so inspiring the way they have built their companies from scratch (girl power!). I love the beach accessories from RO & MO, and swimwear from Vamastyle too! (Check out Sassy’s Top 50 local designers here)
What are some of your favourite shops in Hong Kong? Any hidden gems?
I think the shopping in HK has changed quite a lot since I moved here 6 years ago. I definitely see more independent boutiques and designers, which I love. I enjoy wandering around Wan Chai, Sheung Wan and Sai Ying Pun and discovering new boutiques with lots of character. I love the concept behind the PMQ and all the markets organised there during the weekends. It gives independent designers the opportunity to showcase their creations and allows customers to snap up some unique products.
One of my favourite boutiques in HK is Polkadot Boutique. It’s one of the few shops here where you can find wearable and unique pieces at affordable prices. From the high street, my favourite shops are Zara, Club Monaco and J.Crew. It’s hard to come out from any of them without something. I like to call it market research!
What are some of your favourite places in Hong Kong?
I love Tai Long Wan. It’s definitely one of my favourite places in HK. It’s so beautiful and once you get there it’s easy to forget you’re still in HK and completely switch off.
On a very different note, another favourite spot has to be Crystal Jade! I go there every week to get my dose of dumplings. They are so good that sometimes I dream about them!
At the moment I’m also loving exploring Sheung Wan, Sai Ying Pun and Kennedy Town. I feel like they are the new kids in the block right now and it’s great to just wander around and find the coolest coffee shops, restaurants & bars and boutiques.
What’s your favourite thing to do on the weekend?
One of my favourite things to do on the weekend is to go on hikes. I love discovering new places in HK that you never get to see unless you are hiking. I also love the feeling of achievement after completing a tough trail, especially if it’s followed by a day at the beach! I don’t know many other places where you can do that on your doorstep. I feel HK is truly unique in that sense.
Also not much can beat a day out on a junk. You totally feel like you are on a holiday with your friends.
Something more common but that I equally enjoy doing is going out for a nice dinner or brunch with friends. In HK we are so spoiled in terms of choice and quality in regards to food and there is always a new place to try out while enjoying the company of your friends at the same time.
What your plans for WTF?! in the future?
We’re ready to take the brand to the next level! Next year we want to focus on growing our stocking distribution list of boutiques so our dresses can be easier to reach (boutique owners get in touch!). We want to do more fun collaborations with other designers and bloggers and we want to organise regular pop-up shops with interesting concepts and unique offerings that bring something different to our customers.
There are also some interesting projects that we are working on right now. I can’t say too much yet, but keep an eye out on all our social media channels so you’re in the loop of what’s going on!
Any advice for aspiring designers or those who want to set up their own business?
Sadly there is no shortcut. The only way to succeed when setting up a new business is by working hard and being strategic. First of all, you need to have an amazing product that you believe in, then focus on driving sales and developing relationships that will create opportunities. Don’t be afraid to approach people. You’ll be surprised by how much help you can get if you just ask!
Also, make a business plan that will guide you through your journey. It’s very likely that it will change quite a lot with time, but it’s always good to have a vision and some objectives of what you want to achieve so you can work towards something. I wish I knew how important this was when we first started the business.
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Check out the rest of our Super Stylers here!
Hi, I’m Lauren and I was born and raised right here in Hong Kong. That being said, with a blonde-haired, blue-eyed mum from England and a Chinese-Australian father, I would definitely say that I grew up as a third culture kid! I love every part of this city and all its many contrasts; from the green of the country parks (and the scary monkeys…) to the shimmery lights of the skyline – it never gets old. I’ve always loved to travel and living here is such a privilege as we’re so close to so many incredible countries and different cultures. I’ve always got a bad case of wanderlust and I’m constantly on the look out for an adventure… here’s to my new adventure at Sassy!