How ESPALIER Founder and Creative Director Karen Hsieh Got Her Start

Where were you born? Where did you grow up?

I was born and raised in Taipei, Taiwan until I moved to Fremont California USA when I was 13. I went to a boarding school in Massachusetts when I first became more hands-on with art. My dad worked in finance but is a self-taught painter, and I grew up watching him paint after work, even though he would work super long hours. That was his method of relaxing. Now he’s retired and paints full-time and it just brings him so much joy.

Which artists, besides your father, inspired you early on? 

 

In high school, I finally had the opportunity to pursue my own interests in art. I especially loved the Josef Albers - his compositions explored relationships with color through simple forms and inspired me to be bold with my own color play and minimal with my designs. You can see many color-blocking styles in the current ESPALIER collection. To me, it's always going to be the epitome of modern chic.

 

Another artist I really loved then and still love now is Lee Krasner. You can almost feel the energy surging from her fluid lines and colors. It's so passionate, powerful, and eye-catching. What I love about women is when it comes to dressing, they see themselves as a blank canvas, and picking clothes as though they were applying brush strokes, and Krasner's work inspired me to look at fashion this way. 

How did you get started as an artist? 

I was pretty shy and liked the fact that with art, in a studio, there was no talking needed – you express yourself through the medium you pick. I found comfort in that and would spend most of my free time in the studio, working on paintings and ceramics – I really loved working with my hands. I still love ceramics and if I wasn’t a clothing designer I’d just travel the world and make pottery. I wore ripped baggy jeans and hand-painted t-shirts. At the time my hair was bleached so I could dye it blue, but the blue never stayed for long and would eventually turn into this gross greenish color!

Were you always interested in fashion and design? What drew you to it?

I never saw myself as a “fashion” person but was more of an artist, seeking individuality not just through clothes but also random projects. When I was a senior in high school, it was time to pick my college and major and even though I was young, I knew that the artist’s path was rough and the “success rate,” was slim to none. Especially coming from a pretty conservative Taiwanese family, anything that didn’t lead to a career in finance, medicine or law was a big no-no for my parents. In the end, however, my parents and I compromised on something in-between art and practicality and would be more applicable to different fields. That was design. To me, ‘design’ is a different way of saying “problem-solving.” You design or “create” a solution to a problem. It’s not only creative but also practical.

Where did you go to college? What did you study? 

I was accepted to FIT in New York and picked accessories design as my focus. At the time, it was the easiest way for me to experiment with different looks. You can wear the same white t-shirt and jeans day in and day out, but change up your shoes or a purse or even a tiny necklace and you can change the whole look.

Later, that translated into my design philosophy for ESPALIER since each piece was not just a statement piece but also versatile enough to mix and match depending on the occasion.

When graduation came up, I was so ready to start my career in design, and to gain as much experience as possible in a big fashion house.


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