How Jamie Lau Launched Her Fashion Career

Jamie Lau in one of her designs, and a dress featured in the book BurdaStyle Sewing Vintage Modern
Jamie Lau in one of her designs, and a dress featured in the book BurdaStyle Sewing Vintage Modern

Jamie Lau, co-author of the new book BurdaStyle Sewing Vintage Modern, learned to sew on a sewing machine in 2007. Back then the self-described public policy wonk was working full-time for California’s judicial branch as a senior research analyst in San Francisco. (For more on the book, read my interview “Q&A with Jamie Lau….”)

“I worked primarily in family law doing research on child support and all the other things associated with that,” Jamie explains. “There was a federal program to provide services to self-represented litigants throughout the state.” She launched and implemented a statewide database to collect statistics on people who used the program.

After a friend gave her a sewing machine for her birthday in 2008, Jamie eventually began making reversible tote bags, which she made for friends and soon began selling bags and reusable fabric covered notebooks, yoga mat totes, and checkbook and passport covers at Indie Mart and Renegade Craft Fair.

In January 2010 Jamie began squeezing in as many fashion and textile classes as she could, beginning with courses at City College of San Francisco and Apparel Arts, and spending nearly every night and weekend in class or doing homework. “It was really hard doing that and working full-time,” says Jamie. Sometimes she’d spend her lunch breaks at the main library in San Francisco doing her pattern-making homework or gathering fabric swatches for a textile class.

In addition, whenever she traveled for vacation, Jamie took more classes and made a point of visiting local fabric stores. She took a textile design class in Portland called Summer of Making, at Pacific Northwest College of Art with Heather Ross.During one vacation, she participated in a week-long intensive fashion class at the London College of Fashion. All told she took about eight different classes at multiple schools that year.

After immersing herself in fashion classes, Jamie soon realized that she seriously wanted a career change but she didn’t want to go back to school full-time. After all, she already had a master’s degree in social work and public policy from Columbia University in New York and she didn’t want to invest more money into being a student again. So she decided to take a leave of absence from her job and find an apprenticeship to get more design experience. Clearly she’s an extraordinarily focused and talented individual. But her success didn’t happen overnight. Here’s what happened after she left San Francisco to embark on her fashion adventure. 

Chuleenan Svetvilas: How did you end up interning at BurdaStyle?

Jamie Lau: I learned about BurdaStyle through my friend Karen, who’s an architect in San Francisco. She came to my booth at Renegade Craft Fair one year and was wearing this dress with a nice sweetheart neckline and a gathered waist. I said, “Oh wow, where did you get that dress?” Karen told me she made it and I didn’t even know Karen sewed! She said it was a free member pattern on BurdaStyle and that I totally needed to check out the site. I probably went on the website that same night after the event.

I found their contact information online and submitted a very professional cover letter to talk about my transferable skills. [I mentioned that] I didn’t go to school for fashion traditionally, but that I had all these other great skills and knew how to sew. Someone wrote back to me about scheduling an interview and I was then offered an unpaid internship doing creative and editorial work. I took a leave of absence from my job and began my apprenticeship in November 2010. I learned how to sew in September 2007 and just kept teaching myself, but only started taking formal classes on a regular basis in January 2010, and then I started working at BurdaStyle. I was really excited to go back to New York and I knew that it would be really hard to find more opportunities like this in San Francisco. I thought, well time’s ticking and I just need to know if this is for me.

At BurdaStyle, I had to tile a pattern together on my very first day and start sewing a pinafore dress. It was another member pattern and within a week it was featured on the website’s homepage, which was really cool.

CS: You were a full-time volunteer intern?

JL: Yes, I was doing it full-time. I was like, I just have to do this, and saved up since I wasn’t getting a paycheck. I started teaching sewing and draping classes at the Textile Art Center a couple months later, which came naturally to me.

CS:How long were you interning at BurdaStyle?

JL: I interned from November 2010 to early May 2011 when the book project, BurdaStyle Sewing Vintage Modern, began and started working as a freelancer for BurdaStyle. I then came on full-time in February 2012 as the site’s editorial and e-commerce manager. Everything just kept evolving and I ended up with basically every single responsibility imaginable for this book. It was a super DIY effort. Everything from administrative stuff to casting the models to writing the instructions and picking out the fabric and designing the looks. (For more about the book, read my interview with Jamie here.)

CS: What do your parents think about your career change?

JL: I think they were shocked at first. They were like, “You have such a great job, you work for the state. Why? Why would you want to leave?” I was only 27 years old at the time and wanted to pursue my creative passion, so I decided to take a risk.

Then, when I was mentioned in the New York Times last year, they said, “Oh, you got into the New York Times! Twice in one year! That’s amazing.”

CS: Did you ever think you would end up in fashion?

JL: I always liked to shop. Even when I was in middle school, I didn’t want to wear a uniform. I wanted disposable income in high school so I could shop and buy things that were unique in order to express myself, which is why I always had a part-time job.

Even when I was working in public policy, I loved to shop. It was retail therapy, but that starts to get expensive after a while.

I had never really tried to do fashion illustrations. I didn’t study fashion in college. But then everything just kind of happened and I realized that I could be good at this even though I didn’t go to school for it. All you really have to do is be diligent and serious about it, work hard, but also have fun with it.

I sew almost every day. Except now during the holidays when I’m not quite near a sewing machine. It’s just part of my life – whether I’m teaching or writing this book or I’m writing about fashion.

CS: How do you find the time these days to design and sew for Jamie Lau Designs?

JL: Most of my friends know that I don’t really sleep very much. I don’t even drink coffee, I’m a tea drinker. I’ve just always been an energetic workaholic. Even in high school I was working while being a student with all these extracurricular activities. I even graduated from college a year early. I’m just always going, going, going.

I work full-time at BurdaStyle, but I also teach at 3rd Ward and Textile Arts Center. My design stuff happens as soon as I get home. On the weekends I’m basically sewing – whether it’s sewing a project that I’m making for BurdaStyle or doing a custom order for somebody or getting ready for a show.

The fabric selection process is my favorite part of sewing. I really like Japanese textiles because the prints are very interesting to me. I’m really into metallic brocades right now. I made a dress to wear to every single book launch event and I was sewing down to the last minute. I had my Brooklyn book launch party on a Thursday and was flying out at 7:30 a.m the next day to come to San Francisco for Renegade Craft Fair and more book promo events. I basically stayed up all night sewing because I had to finish one last dress for the San Francisco book launch party. My mom has a machine, but she doesn’t have a serger and I also didn’t want to have to bring my whole sewing kit with me. So I finished everything except for the hem right before my flight and when I did my book signing in Santa Cruz the day before the Britex event, I borrowed their machine (and even brought my thread and bobbin pre-wound) to put on the finishing touches.

CS: How would you describe your style?

JL: My style is very clean and minimal. I like very geometric, architectural things. For example, I like the work of ’60s designers such as Pierre Cardin and Courrèges, as well as ‘50s Balenciaga. It’s all very clean and I like that you can see the lines.

CS: Very distinct shapes.

JL: Yes, but even if it appears to be just a simple silhouette, you can still do it in a really interesting fabric or make some minor changes and treat it like a palette – like an art piece. I also really love color and  prints. I don’t really wear too much black, but if it’s something black then I would like it to have a little bit of texture.

There’s also a nice elegance to a lot of the ’50s cuts. While researching the ’30s and the ’40s for BurdaStyle Sewing Vintage Modern, I discovered some amazing stuff and found some really cool silhouettes, too. Like the peplum – it’s totally back now, you see it everywhere.