As two of New York's more experienced and savvy menswear designers, Jeremy Ho and Peter Hu have seen firsthand how the men's market has evolved (or stayed stuck in its ways) over the course of their careers.
After stints at Opening Ceremony and Thom Browne (Ho) as well as Proenza Schouler and Tim Coppens (Hu), the duo have come together to bring what they call a new level of sophistication to menswear with Ouer, their new label and design studio that just launched with Collection 000.
"Our pieces focus on 'occasion-wear' that are always special without being precious," the designers noted in an introductory post on Instagram in October. For them, it's about the constant tension of wanting to be "rambunctious and sophisticated; graceful and sensual; formality and youthful."
Hu, currently the head of menswear at 3.1 Phillip Lim, and Ho, the head of men's design at Kith, launched their new brand with just eight pieces, including a scoop neck tank and cummerbund shorts in colors like aubergine and copper. Their references come from history's leading men, with actor and martial artist Bruce Lee one of the inspirations for their debut offering.
The looks are sensual, youthful yet sophisticated while subtly pulling from the designers' Chinese-Canadian backgrounds. Ouer is a Mandarin word meaning “occasionally” and stems from the duo's inclinations for a wardrobe of occasion-wear rooted in queer experiences. Below, Ho and Hu talk about their vision for Ouer and its multicultural origins.
So what was the catalyst behind Ouer and its beginnings?
Peter Hu: The brand name is Ouer is Chinese word meaning “occasionally." We picked the word because it has a bit of a poetic sense to it, and I think what we were trying to do was a way to dress up menswear. We were thinking there is a gap in the market, where you can either choose to wear suits or streetwear but there wasn’t really anything in between. I think coming from our experiences from being queer, and just everything that we were doing, I think it made a lot of sense to explore the idea of dressing up.
How did you guys first connect?
Jeremy Ho: We actually met in business school when we went to college. We studied in Toronto. I think the first time I met Peter, we were doing a marketing project for a business conference, and people around us had always said, “Oh you two should meet each other, you’ll be great friends.” And in business school, we both didn’t dress like other people, and we were slightly different from everyone else in school, so when we met we bonded really quickly over shared interests, and cultural upbringing. Now we’ve known each other from eleven to twelve years now. We have gone through very similar journeys, both transitioning into business school, and then Parson’s in New York for fashion and then working in the industry afterwards.
Tell me a little bit more about your design experiences and how they informed your approach to launching your own menswear label.
Peter: I started in the industry with my first job at Tim Coppens, and it was a very small studio. If you wanted to design something you had to find the fabrics, trim, do the tech pack and then make it. It was a very creative experience, being so hands on from the very beginning to the very end. Also since the studio was so small, I also got exposed to the PR and production side, even the sales and marketing side. Then at Phillip Lim, the thing I learned most there was that making product is very important. When you’re at a smaller studio you take creative liberties.
You can do a lot of things by trial and error. And then being with Phillip, he’s a little more established, so I learned a lot about the process of how to make this garment really great for commercial reasons. It's more considered, there are more things to think about, so I think it was actually great training for me to have a little bit of both extremes. With Ouer there are just two of us, so having had those kind of connections, having worked with fabric vendors and factories, it really helped us understand the process of really getting our product made, and has been such a life saver.
Jeremy: Similar to Peter, working at Thom Browne, there was always both sides to it as well. I think a lot of people are more used to the crazy avant-garde runway shows, but working with Thom, I think he really understands the importance of commercial relevance as well. I did both runway and commercial collections, so it was nice to see how these crazy, amazing ideas are translated into commercial collections. From the time I worked with Thom, he’s such a master of his craft in just everything he does, and he such a visual storyteller, I think working with him made me really fall in love with fashion over and over again. So I'm bringing storytelling aspect to Ouer.
Your debut launch only has a few pieces. What kind of statement did you want to make with your first full collection?
Peter: When we first thought about this collection we wanted to think of this first collection as the foundation that we can build our house on. We wanted to take the idea of the gap in dressing up menswear and distilling that into something commercial, but also having a very distinct point of view. Ouer as whole is to spark dialogue about masculinity in a new way, so for this first collection, we thought a lot about Asian masculinity, and what that would mean in today’s terms. And also thinking about representation.
A lot of the cultural references for North American audiences, when it comes to Asian culture, has been a lot of Kung Fu "Woosha” film genre. So I think our first collection was kind of a play on that, and how the heroes or male leads in those films are typically a “macho” or hero type of story arch. We wanted to pay tribute to that but also kind of subvert it in the sense that we don’t want it to be so direct. We wanted to play our queer heritage and show how we can move this kind of representation forward.
Can you talk a little more about both of your backgrounds and heritage and how you references that in your first collection?
Jeremy: I was born in Canada but grew up in Hong Kong, then obviously we went back to Canada for school and then I came to New York afterwards. Peter was born in Beijing, and then moved to Calgary afterwards and has kind of lived in between, and now we are both in New York. I think when it came to our brand, we wanted to bring our experience and lend something in between cultures. When you move to a new places you constantly have to adapt and learn new things, and I think that was a very interesting perspective to us to bring to a fashion setting. Within the collection itself, especially when we are thinking about tailoring, instead of going for a more western suit, we went for something that pulled from our heritage, like the cardigan jacket that has a nod to that Kung Fu genre, which was something interesting to for us to put into the fashion world and show a new way to perceive tailoring and what sort of silhouettes and things you can wear.
Peter: For me, growing up in Calgary, I never really felt that I really belonged there, or that I belonged in Beijing, because I was always kind of neither here nor there. I think through this collection what I was really looking to do was rediscover my heritage a little bit more and pick up things along the way that I almost forgot or learned to put away to be more “North American" and fit in. So with this collection I wanted to explore, if I experienced my past again, how that would look.
Lastly, how do you guys envision evolving and moving the brand forward?
Jeremy: We definitely want to keep on producing products, and putting out collections. For us, right now the way that we are seeing it, we see the brand as more season-less. We want to be slightly off-calendar, and keep our status as selling our products online. We still want to put out at least two collections each year and try to develop products and build the branding that way. One of the biggest reasons we started was also because a lot of friends around us work in creative industries, and we really want to be surrounded by people we repeat and love, so going forward we definitely want to collaborate more and work with people who can help us tell our stories, and have our stories really resonate with them, and we kind of build the brand bigger that way.
Peter: Adding onto what Jeremy was saying, for us it’s less about a “season”, like Fall/Winter or Spring/Summer. What we are more thinking about is how each collection is sort of like a short story or a poem, and the brand is a collection of our stories. So that each collection can stand on its own, but is not necessarily tied to a season.
Photos courtesy of Ouer