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That Girl: Michelle Lai of MISCHA

This week’s That Girl is Michelle Lai, the talented accessories designer behind favourite Sassy brand, MISCHA. Girls all around town are rocking her signature print totes and Japanese obi fabric clutches, but what about the lady behind the label? We catch up with Michelle to find out about her style must-haves, tips for packing for traveling and learn how she finds inspiration through traveling!

Can you tell us a bit about where you’re originally from and where you grew up?
I was born and brought up in Toronto, Canada and when I was a teenager, my parents moved us to Hong Kong. It was a huge culture shock at first but my parents put my sister and me into an international school, which made the transition a little easier. I desperately missed my friends in Toronto, though this was soon forgotten as I settled into the interesting mix of classmates at school. I went to university in London with the aim of pursuing a career in medicine at King’s College. Living in London was such an eye-opener, and after I finished my BSc, the creative bug was in me — I was destined to start my own creative business one day!

Where do you live? How have you made your home your own?
I live in Mid-Levels, where I’ve lived since I moved to Hong Kong. The Mid-Levels escalator didn’t exist then! (I remember the first day it went into use, everyone was very excited!) I like to collect things on my travels, so I have lots of textiles – vintage kimonos and old jewellery. Another thing I like to collect are statues and carvings of Buddhas. I have stone ones, clay ones, wooden ones of all different sizes.

Your bag designs are all about the amazing signature pattern that you have created and also vintage Kimono fabric – how do you find your inspiration for new collections?
I’ve always been drawn to Japanese culture – the fabrics and design motifs. I started MISCHA with vintage Japanese obi and kimono fabric, but it’s when I launched the Signature print that I really took things to a whole new level. I studied Japanese when I was in high school and I researched kimono designs and painting to complete an art project.

For me, inspiration can’t be forced. Sometimes it happens in a eureka moment after a yoga class or a run, so I generally just try to live happily and ideas flow. Many things inspire me: travel, books and movies. I’m a big fan of old world glamour, so I’m very inspired by old cities and period films. I’m most inspired when I’m balanced and relaxed, so when I have to design a new collection, it usually happens on a holiday away somewhere. Hong Kong can be a little too hectic at times, so I need a change of scenery to get the creative juices flowing.

If MISCHA were to suddenly catapult onto the word stage, which brand or designer’s success would you like to emulate? Do you have a mentor?
Having started MISCHA without the usual background in design, I look up to designers who have similarly made career switches because they felt it was their passion. I’m a big fan of Sonya Madden, who created the cashmere cardi-wraps, which I always travel with. I like designs that are timeless, so I’m a big fan of the Diane Von Furstenburg wrap dress and Yves Saint Laurent tailoring. It’s quite difficult for me to choose just one designer or brand; they’ve been around for so many years and evolved so many times. I just hope I will be able to continuously reinvent!

How did you decide to take your bag line from a hobby to a profession? Were you scared to make the jump?
I think it was a natural progression. It started as a hobby – I was traveling and collecting a lot of textiles and I wanted to do something with them. I got the idea that I wanted to make handbags with them and was very passionate about it. I was staying up late at night to sew pieces. Eventually, more clients were calling me, more ideas flooded in, so it sort of happened naturally. Then the tipping point was when I joined forces with my business partner and that’s what gave me the push to go full time.

How do you describe your personal style? How does it evolve and change?
I’d say it’s quite classic and feminine with a masculine edge. In the summertime I like to wear lots of colourful dresses and bright colourful tops. In the wintertime I go for more subdued colours like navy blue, burgundy and black. I wear lots of leather jackets and blazers, and my uniform is skinny jeans with leather boots. People always joke that I look like I’m going horse riding!

When in doubt, I’ll put on a little black dress – you can never go wrong with that. I also love to dress up in gowns and experiment with make up and jewellery. I’m in love with matte red lipstick now. And I have a huge weakness for shoes and vintage jewellery.

Where do you shop in Hong Kong? Any secret finds you can let us in on? Any labels we should be keeping an eye on?
Since I started MISCHA, I’ve realised how much thought and effort goes into unique designs, so I appreciate designs from fellow designers. I’m a big fan of jewellery brand Marijoli. For evening gowns I really like Matador Couture and designer S.Nine – I wore one of her beautiful black lace gowns recently. For most things, Zara and Lane Crawford are my go-to places. I really like to shop vintage when I’m in Paris or London. Of course I also like to treat myself to little luxuries! I swear by heels by Roger Vivier.

What are your must-have beauty products? Where do you go for hair/nails/maintenance?
Moisturiser is a must-have whatever climate I’m in. I don’t particularly stick to one brand of products. Right now, I’m using Clarins Multi Active Day Cream and Eye Gel. Their Beauty Flash Balm is my little secret at the moment. In the winter, I use Elemis Pro Collagen Marine cream, day and night formula – it’s to die for! I get my hair cut and coloured at Toni & Guy near my studio on Wyndham Street, they always do a good job. I do my own manicures, I find it therapeutic. But I go to Feel Good Factor for my pedicures.

What is your favourite thing to do at the weekend?
I like long brunches and reading the newspaper. And I’ve been on a bit of a health kick lately, so I’ve been going for morning runs along Bowen Road, and then making homemade lunches and relaxing at home.

What is your favourite restaurant in Hong Kong?
Wow, that’s a tough one! Besides, fashion, my second love is food and wine. I couldn’t really tell you one favourite and I’m trying really hard just to give you three in Hong Kong. My favourite sushi restaurant is Irori, favourite Chinese is The Chairman and French is Amber.

You travel a lot for your work to various fashion weeks – what are your tips for staying glam while travelling?
A nice jacket/blazer worn over a shirt always looks smart, an LBD and a comfortable pair of heels. Also, always pack less than you think you’ll need. You will always end up shopping!

All photos in the That Girl article above shot by the extremely talented Tim Chan – to get in touch with him, email tim.Chang327@gmail.com

Check out the rest of our That Girls here!

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