This month we caught up with Prerna Chainani-Monsen who traded in finance for fabric and followed a jewelled path into the world of couture. This Hong Kong born, London educated and once New York City dweller is now back in her hometown creating dreamy dresses for her clientele. We fell completely head over heels with her label Maison Monsen and have a feeling you’ll fall pretty quickly too.
We chat to Prerna about the best fashion spots in Hong Kong and New York, how to make sure you don’t get ripped off when buying fabric and why starting a fashion empire might be easier than it looks!
Tell us a little bit about yourself and your career up until now?
The Chainanis left divided India for Hong Kong in the 1950’s and I’m the third generation. I moved to London and Washington DC for university and then to New York to start a career in investment banking. As a teenager I actually dreamed of being a chef or a fashion designer. I never thought those careers were ‘viable’ – but living in New York gave me the confidence and inspiration to finally forge my own creative path.
I launched my fine jewellery brand Prerna Kumari in NYC– we retailed at Neiman Marcus and appeared in magazines like W and Surface and in the Post and Kee Magazine here in Hong Kong. Now I’m back in Asia, using my hometown as a base for Maison Monsen.
Tell us what sparked your interest in fashion?
As children we would spend our summers at my maternal grandparents estate in a quaint little British military town 5 hours up the hills north of Mumbai. Our favourite pastime was to make dresses and nighties from fabric bought at the bazaar with our grandmother.
My nan was quite a cosmopolitain force for a small post-colonial community. She subscribed to all of the chicest foreign fashion magazines and made dresses following the latest trends from Europe for her 3 daughters – the most stylish young ladies in 1960s small-town India. Seeing old photos of my fashion forward mother was where my love affair with fashion began.
How hard was it to go from dreaming about designing a collection to creating a couture company?
Doing what you love really does make joy of labour. I came into this without any formal vocational training in fashion – so I’ve spent the last two years teaching myself a new trade from scratch, learning from highly skilled craftsmen.
What was the biggest hurdle you had to overcome along the way?
Learning the new language of technical design was a tough hurdle to overcome. Also, finding the right suppliers and craftsman in India has taken some time and trail. We’re lucky to have found New York ateliers who work for the likes of Oscar de la Renta and The Row – and our India workshop who beads for Balmain and Lanvin.
Where do you source your materials from and tips for fabric shopping?
Our solid fabric is largely sourced from wholesalers in New York – so that we’re using the best quality 100% silk failles, chiffons, crepes, wools, organic cottons. Our more textured fabrics come from India – often from small indigenous communities for whom the production of these textiles are a heritage trade.
My biggest tip for fabric shopping is to understand that you get what you pay for. Polyester is a 10th of the price of silk and simply will not translate into a fine garment (however accomplished your tailor might be). Spend a bit more on fabric that has a good feel and drape – your results will be worth the extra spend.
Inside tip: you can test if you’re being wrongly sold a synthetic blend by doing a burn test on one strand of the fabric’s weave. Any polyester will curl away from a flame, smell like chemicals and burn into a hard black bead. Check out: http://vintagefashionguild.org/determining-fiber/ for a great guide on how to determine fibre content of your fabric.
What’s the most difficult part about figuring out what women need and want, because everyone comes in different shapes and sizes?
It isn’t possible to be something to everyone and to get it right all the time in this business. Women do come in all shapes and sizes and that’s why its important to identify who your woman is, how her lifestyle influences what she wears, and how she needs it to fit.
The Maison Monsen woman’s day moves from a career AM to social PM to resort-lounging holiday. She’s polished and playful, classic and creative. She works out but also eats out, needs clothes that look pretty but function practically, so our fit reflects a body shape that is poised, curved, athletic and modern.
Where do you shop in New York City? Any secret finds you can let us in on?
Daily Candy had just launched while I was living in New York. During that time they were the insiders’ bible to sample sale events. These days you can find sample sale listings on Racked NY and TimeOut. This is the best way to access deep discounted fashion. I have a few Malandrino dresses from 2002 that I got for a steal and that I still love wearing. Other items were impulse buys that ended up in charity sales (Re-Dress and Luxarity in Hong Kong do amazing work re-distributing regular and designer fashions to those who will love them best).
For higher-end brands that don’t sell at sample sale I recommend Kirna Zabete and Curve boutiques, two downtown alternatives to the big name uptown department stores. Jeffreys will always be a high-end shoe heaven.
New York is also a treasure trove of originality and unknown designers. Wander the streets of the Lower East Side or Brooklyn after brunch to find some niche stores, or head to Brooklyn for home fashions, Atlantic Avenue is filled with antique shops. You can find some real fixer-uppers that a Hong Kong workshop could revamp for you.
My best Garment District secret is a street-level mecca for trim and buttons and beads and all manner of sparkly wonder that is open to the retail public: M&J Trimming on 6th Ave at 38th Street. Other vendors only sell to people in the industry so this one is a real secret!
Where would you send a fashion lover to in Mumbai?
Go to Neemrana Chikankari at Opera House for the most luxurious of the genre. For more reasonable casual ethnic wear FabIndia is excellent value and also has the cutest baby clothes for friends who have just had kids, a menswear section too.
Find nighttime showstoppers at Sabyasachi. He’s the absolute king of elegant tribal. Your best buy here is the full on lengha that comes in 3 parts (skirt, blouse and shawl) – you can then either wear them as a set or break them up into separates. Rohit Bal is another label that is an Indian gold standard. These brands represent the highest quality of luxury Indian fashion and, while they’re not cheap, they are fairly priced. Bombay Electric has a cool mix of emerging labels, India-kitsch gifts and Manish Arora sparkly disco dresses.
Finally, I have to send you to see Abu Jani & Sandeep Khosla. I wore them for my wedding so it’s like a pilgrimage for me. Their couture line is simply incredible!
Do you have any tips for bargaining? Are you good at it?
As an Asian, it’s in my blood to look for value – but bargaining is a different story. If I believe I am getting quality and value that’s fair, I won’t bargain. I pay craftsmen their fair asking price because I respect that what they do is an endangered art.
In a dusty roadside antique store on the other hand, where price and provenance is less clear, I’m happy to haggle a bit. Always go with your gut!
Where do you live? How have you made your home your own?
I have a place in Brooklyn that took me 3 years to decorate. I ended up with an aesthetic that you might call ‘cozy classic/global nomad’. The Mid-Levels, Hong Kong, apartment that my husband and I share has a similar vibe – India meets Scandinavia meets Japan via Morocco, where craft and comfort co-exist.
Can you recommend any good tailors and seamstresses in Hong Kong?
I love Milk Shirts!! They are not strictly tailors, but they make excellent tailored mens shirts. They have the best quality italian shirt fabrics and the best finishing I have seen in Hong Kong – at a price that won’t burn a hole in your pocket.
What are the most fashionable bars and restaurants in Hong Kong?
Serge et le Phoque, for me, serves couture on a plate. Their originality, lack of pretension, and knowledgable French staff make it one of the most ‘forward’ restaurants in HK. As for fashion hot spots, Duddells is a classic, for a proper night out. From cocktails on the terrace to the art and environment inside and great food downstairs, it’s all effortless elegance and lots of fun. For events, Upper House is the undisputed high-fashion hotel of Hong Kong – any invitation to their lawn or sky lounge should be accepted with pleasure.
What’s your advice for aspiring designers in Hong Kong?
1. Understand that manufacturing a fashion line is not aglamorous business. Getting your designs off the pages of your sketch book, into production and then into storesis going to be physically, emotionally and financially stressful. The glamour is in doing something that you love everyday.
2. Focus on your funding and cashflow. If you are a purely creative, and don’t have a head for business, find a trusted partner who does.
3. Be true to your DNA, and focus on your own creative expression.
4. Be patient. Jean Paul Gaultier released his firstindividual line in 1976 and only became a household name 21 years later in 1997 with his explosively successful first haute couture line.
What’s the secret to effortless style?
Look beyond yourself, be involved in the world around you, ask questions and approach your life with positive intentions and a big smile, then it doesn’t matter what you wear….your style will be effortless.
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