Career Spotlight: Interview with Pia and Melissa of Senpai + Kohai

Thursday, October 22, 2015

I'm so excited because today I am bringing you another interview with two local Philadelphia fashion designers, Melissa Choi and Pia Panaligan, the two brains behind the brand Senpai + Kohai. I first was introduced to these ladies' brand at the Philadelphia Fashion Alliance Spring Preview event, which I wrote about in this post

I was so impressed with the unique designs, beautiful fabrics, and wonderful colors incorporated in their designs I knew I needed to reach out to them to see if they would like to be interviewed for the blog. Luckily, they said yes and were more than willing to answer my questions! I'm so excited to share the experience and brands of local Philadelphia designers with you all, there's just something so great about supporting local designers (especially when their designs are so good!)

Melissa and Pia met in college in 2003 at Philadelphia University. After years of working for other designers and companies, including Urban Outfitters (another Philly based fashion company!), Free People, Anthropologie, and David's Bridal, they began collaborating on a collection of 12 pieces which was launched in 2012. Each piece was handcrafted at home by the designers themselves. Read below to hear more about the backgrounds of the designers, the brand, what its like to work in the fashion industry, and what's in store for Senpai + Kohai. 

Melissa Choi and Pia Panaligan of Senpai + Kohai

Q: When did you each know you wanted to be a fashion designers?

Melissa: I can't pinpoint exactly when, but I wanted to be an artist at age 8, I picked up sewing and realized I loved designing my own clothes.  

Pia: I realized I wanted to be a fashion designer when I took a home economics class, where I got reintroduced to sewing, my teacher then suggested I would be good at it. As a young girl, I was raised by my grandmother, who sewed a lot, so sewing has always been a big influence in my life.

Q: Tell me about your backgrounds and how you got to owning and designing your own brand.

Melissa: While finishing up my last semester at school, I started working for Free People doing design.  I stayed with them for a few years, took a break to travel, and ended up in India working for a vendor that produces for all of the UO brands.  I always wanted to have my own line, I knew I couldn't do it alone, but it was just a matter of gaining experience and waiting for the right time.

Pia: After graduating, I kept working retail and splitting my time going up to Greenpoint in Brooklyn to assist textile, costume & fashion designer, Christian Joy. In 2007 I got introduced to fashion styling for photoshoots at Anthropologie, where I got hired full time and became their Sr. Stylist. I started freelance styling in 2011 (and currently still doing so) and worked with UO Inc. brands as well as other Philadelphia and NYC brands. Having a freelance schedule was great when starting S+K where I'm able to focus on keeping my styling jobs while living my dream.

Piece from the brand's first collection

Q: What's it like being in the industry?

Melissa: It's a lot of work! It's exciting to see your work out there, but it can be exhausting, at the same time it's fulfilling. It's great to meet all these other designers doing the same thing we are though, we've met so many great people who have helped us along the way.

Pia: The fashion industry has been a real learning experience, especially in the business sense, it always keeps you on your toes but can be very rewarding every time you finish a collection.

Q: Can you describe some of the struggles that new fashion designers face?

A: The fashion world is very fast paced, you have to be on top of what people want to buy, quality is important and you also have learn to manage money because it's expensive to have a business. Running a fashion company isn't just about being creative, it's a business, if you don't acquire any business knowledge, it's going to be very difficult.

Also, as a new and small company getting the word out there about your brand is a lot of work, networking can be very tough.

Q: How are you working to overcome these struggles?

A: We've learned a lot since we first launched in 2012, a lot of it is trial and error.  We took some business classes which has helped us with marketing and creating a business plan. We realized we invested more time designing and on photo shoots but needed to better plan for more selling events. We had to learn to balance the time we put into designing and planning events to bring awareness to our brand, and that's only the half of it.

Q: How much of your time is actually spent designing and what other behind the scenes tasks do you need to accomplish?

A: Design happens for us twice a year, besides some small projects in between, so it's not a significant portion of our year. The rest of the time is spent planning, photographing, putting new product on our website, doing events, sewing our product, social media etc. We do everything ourselves with the help of our amazing interns.

Q: How would you describe your brand?

A: A Philadelphia based clothing brand that is globally influenced, created for the free spirited woman who approaches dressing  as an art. Senpai+Kohai strives to create value that is desired for a lifetime by focusing on textiles, fit, and quality to compliment the modern woman.  We like to show the "hand of the artist" so that each piece we produce has distinct personality.

Images from the brand's fourth collection, out now

Q: What are your inspirations for your fashion line?

A: Mostly the textiles we work with. We love mixing texture and pattern to create something dynamic. For example, we work with a Burmese weaver in South Philadelphia who makes amazing Karen tribe fabrics along with some vintage hand embroidered Indian textiles.

Beautiful kimono from Collection 3

Q: Tell me about your newest collection.

A: Our Fall Winter collection is inspired by modern silhouettes with a mix of structured and soft shapes. Our small but concise collection includes hand dyed and splattered silk tunics, long Sherpa fleece vests, gorgeous shibori-dyed silk scarves, tie-dyed hosiery and simple yet modern vinyl totes. We made everything in very limited quantities, so get it before it sells out!

Hand-dyed silk scarf

Q: What's your favorite piece and why?

A:  We like them all! It's hard to pick one thing out because we hand make everything ourselves so we have such a personal connection with each pieces.

Look from Collection 4

What can we look forward to from your brand in the future?

A: We have an on-going collection of one-of-a-kind denim jackets on our website using our vintage and handmade textiles. We are excited to do more season-less clothes that are relevant year round.

Q: Where can the readers go if they are interested in supporting your line or purchasing pieces from your brand?

A: Our website is the best place to find our designs or during our events, which we email out about from our newsletter (sign up on our website). We update our Facebook page regularly (@senpaiandkohai) and have an Instagram (@senpaiandkohai). We also sell some of our product at Toile in Fishtown and some of our denim jackets at Style Camp in Chestnut Hill. 

Look from Collection 3

Q: Do you have any advice for anyone out there who would like to pursue a job in the fashion industry?

A: It's hard work, it really has to be something that you are ready to invest 110% into, and most of the time it is not that glamorous. Interning is a great way to get your foot in the door and see what it's like. Just keep working and don't be afraid to make mistakes, that's the best way to learn and truly discover what you're passionate about.

What is your favorite piece from the collection? Mine is the plaid vest from collection 4, love it! If you liked this post, check out my interview with Victoria Wright of Victoria Wright Designs for another career spotlight featuring a local Philadelphia designer!

NOTE: All lookbook photos by Anthony Nocella. All photographs used with permission of the designers and were taken directly from the Senpai + Kohai website. 

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  1. Yes!! One of my favorite things about being a philly fashion blogger is hearing about local artists and residents in fashion. LOVE this. These girls are insanely talented. Love your interview!

    1. Thanks Chelsea! I'm going to follow your blog too, it's great finding other Philly bloggers, especially when they also enjoy hearing about local artists and fashion designers :)

  2. I love the midnight crush dress, very pretty!

  3. Great post dear! You have a wonderful blog:)
    What about following each other on Instagram, Bloglovin, Twitter?


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