NEW YORK (Reuters) - Some of us are fortunate to find a calling in life early on, and for Vivienne Tam it was literally by design.
At age 8, watching her mother make dresses to save money, Tam decided to try her hand at it as well. She has been designing clothing ever since.
The 60-year-old designer, who was born in Guangzhou, China and moved to Hong Kong when she was three, eventually landed in New York City, where she founded her company, East Wind Code, in 1982. More than 10 years later, she renamed the company Vivienne Tam before staging her first show at New York Fashion Week.
Tam, whose signature style blends Western looks with Chinese elements, is also author of the book “China Chic.” She shares some of her life lessons here.
Q: How did you learn the value of money when you were growing up?
A: I saw my parents working so hard when I was growing up that I felt like I wanted to do something to change the situation so they didn’t need to work any more. They worked in factories.
Q: Who inspired you to enter fashion and launch your own business?
A. My mother. She’s my idol. We didn’t have much money, and I remember her making clothes for herself, like a cheongsam for Chinese New Year, instead of buying them from outside.
I started making clothes for myself, my sister and my brothers. I learned from her how to go to flea markets to buy scrap materials. That’s how I learned to be an individual. And it’s also how I learned that when things are very limited, you can be very creative, and you can make something special.
Q: What was your first job?
A: I was interning at the Hong Kong Trade Development Council in my late teens. They produce fashion trade fairs and shows. It was where I learned to work with international coordinators from London and manufacturers in Hong Kong.
Q: What did you do with your first paycheck?
A: I gave it to my parents. It’s good to give money back to your parents.
Q: What are some important qualities for succeeding for so many years in the fashion business, which can be rather mercurial and unforgiving?
A: Be humble, have passion and do things from your heart. You have to do something that has soul. And, always remember where you came from. It’s so important.
I came from Hong Kong, I was born in China. I remember when I was growing up and this thing that was called “fashion” was basically everybody looking to the West. But I love Chinese culture. I want to bring that to the world, so I have this sense of mission.
Q: What was a highlight of your career?
A: I used my own money to stage my first fashion show (at New York Fashion Week). I wanted money that was not borrowed, and I worked very hard and saved for over five years. It was about $100,000 at that time, but I felt so much joy.
Naomi Campbell was in my first show! I felt like I had made it.
Q: What have you learned from failure?
A: The biggest mistake is thinking that if people charge a lot of money, that means they’re good. That’s not necessarily true. It’s more important that the person is passionate about your work and can help you grow your business.
Q: How do you decide where to donate?
A: I always focus on children and women’s organizations. I like to design T-shirts or items to support causes like breast cancer. The more you give back, the more you receive.
Q: What life lessons do you try to pass down to people you mentor?
A: Don’t think about money. The most important thing is that everything must come from your heart. If you do things from your heart and are giving back to the world, to your parents, to the community, that’s important. Money is just numbers and zeroes.
Editing by Lauren Young and Richard Chang