Courage, creativity and consistency – three ingredients that are necessary in creating a brand from scratch. These are what Ho Su Mei has. The founder and designer of childrenswear brand Sea Apple jumped into the world of design—as well as the many logistical and less colourful parts of a business—despite having no formal training. Her recent collection, ‘A Day at Sea’ features prints that are joyful and pleasant but also subtle, evoking a childlikeness of spirit without resorting to predictability and garishness. We do love a good print! Most impressively, they are authentic designs drawn by Su Mei herself.
A long time friend, Su Mei is also mother to two-year-old Reishan—the perfect muse to test out her creations. We ask her about the journey of Sea Apple and her motherly roles and thoughts.
Can you share some favourite memories of your childhood that were important to you?
I spent about a year in Holland when I was five and remember learning to flip on bars, playing board games in the attic and falling into a canal when learning to ride a bike. I also remember fondly my times in primary school doing all those things a kid would do—dancing around a ‘magic far away’ tree in the school yard, sucking sour lemons at the back of the school bus while trying not to grimace, and having swinging competitions where we’d swing so high we would see past the high bar of the swing and be terrified by that.
How have your daily rituals changed after becoming a mother?
I became a mother shortly after deciding to leave my job in the government to start the label. So in a sense, my life and schedule changed all at once from both a personal and professional standpoint. The biggest change I experienced was that I went from working in a very large organization with lots of teams and systems to navigate, to suddenly having to drive everything pretty much on my own. I think that was one of the things I struggled with most at the start – that immediate loss of structure.
What was behind your decision on setting up Sea Apple? Why did you decide to set up the brand?
I had been working in various policy roles across the government for six years. But despite the pride and achievement I felt in my work, I had this constant and deep-seated feeling to try to build something of my own, or pursue something that was more design oriented. I could never quite figure out what, or how I would do it, because I had no training or experience in anything design based. It was only after attending business school, where I met other like-minded individuals, that I finally freed myself from thinking that I needed everything in place before starting. “People start completely new businesses at 60!” they said. It was a whole different way of looking at things. I decided to trust my instincts more and began working intuitively to start Sea Apple. I found that designing for children had this awesome mix of utilising my creative brain, but also the more rational side of me through the rigour of measurements and drafting, as well as finding storylines and angles to centre the collections around. I was also drawn to the very tactile and hands-on nature of the job—choosing fabrics, understanding drape, selecting color, deciding on proportions, etc.
Please share about your journey in setting up Sea Apple. For instance, you mentioned you took sewing classes? What were the biggest hurdles to overcome?
I knew I did not have the luxury of time to be formally trained in design or fashion, so I started taking a bunch of short courses in drafting, sewing, fabric knowledge and tried to make up for the rest by borrowing books from the library and enrolling in whatever online courses I could find. I walked as many fabric shops in Singapore as I could, and made detours to fabric markets when I was out of the country. I did all of this while setting up the business-side of things and sourcing for suppliers so that I could multi-task and save time. The biggest challenge for sure was finding the right partners to work with, and then convincing them that they should take me on. Without a track record, or anything to show for, no one knew who I was at the start, or if I was even serious. I was constantly having to pitch wherever I went, even though I was technically supposed to be the customer!
You design the prints yourself and they have been really well received. Can you share with us some of the ideas behind the designs?
Yes, the prints are all original—mostly hand drawn—and then I finish them on the computer to create the final fabric designs. Each collection is inspired by a theme and each print often comes with a back story. The fishing boats print from our Summer 2016 collection for example was inspired by one of my favorite childhood books, ‘The Old Man and the Sea’, by Ernest Hemmingway. We used to have an old worn copy sitting on the book shelf [when I was young], and I remember it standing out against the other more modern looking titles around it. Unfortunately it was lost in our move to a new home. Designing the print was hence a bittersweet experience. I still recall images from the copy, especially the one on the last page of the book, with a picture of the old man’s hand upturned. That left a lasting impression on me.
Can you give us a spoiler on what you are currently working on now? Also, what are your aspirations for the brand?
I have always been fascinated with the aurora and the elusiveness behind the search that draws so many people to it. That, and the clean, modern Scandinavian aesthetic that I’ve grown to become such a fan of. Our next collection, which we hope to launch in time for year end, will be inspired by both of these. In terms of the future of the label, I hope to continue challenging the way people think or approach a childrenswear brand—that it needn’t be overtly childish, fussy, or predictable in its designs or motifs. In fact, there is incredible room to be creative with childrenswear, just as children believe and imagine and make us think bigger. I will always want Sea Apple to have that spirit, to constantly surprise people on the upside, and to become known for making really awesome, well-designed and affordable clothing.
What are your biggest personal challenges in balancing motherhood, career, being a wife and having time to yourself?
That self takes a backseat, because it is the easiest thing to neglect.
What, in your opinion, is the most overrated, and also the most underrated aspect of motherhood?
Underrated—that you are actually more patient, loving and giving than you believe yourself to be. Overrated—really can’t think of anything, I think too much of motherhood is underrated!
What are your passions and how do you aspire to share them with your daughter?
Music, design, art and creating things. I saw this video the other day of a young 19 years old-or-so Canadian inventor explaining that she became creative out of necessity, because she was never given many toys to play with when she was younger. An idea perhaps? : )
(Continue this sentence) Play to me is:
How we stay and grow creative.
The collection is available at the Sea Apple x Minejima pop-up store at Tanglin Mall, which is open until end-2016, as well as the stockists below.
+ photo credit (portraits): Playground
+ photo credits (prints and products): Sea Apple