Designer Michelle Lai is the kind of girl who makes you feel inspired when you talk to her; she makes you want to get up and get moving. Not only in terms of your career, but also in terms of your personal life, your overall health and your spirituality. She speaks slowly and with purpose, making it clear to you that every word she chooses has been selected with careful thought and consideration. She says wonderfully inspirational things such as, I get to incorporate my life and my lifestyle into what I do. Of course, she is talking about her line of couture vintage clutches and travel bags for her company, Mischa. We sat down with her for a lovely chat on a glorious afternoon before Easter; what ensued was a delightful conversation about everything from vintage shopping to doing yoga in Koh Samui.
A colourful array of small accessories from Mischa.
How did you start Mischa and what does Mischa mean?
Mischa is my nickname, my name is Michelle – and this is before Mischa Barton, by the way. I was the original! When I started my brand, I mean, I started it organically; before I started the company, I was doing it as a hobby. I studied Japanese and art and I traveled to Japan a lot and I started collecting vintage kimono and obi. I had this thing about Asian mystique and, in particular, Japan. I love antique markets. Back then, clutch bags weren’t really easy to find, so I decided to cut up one of my obis and make a clutch bag and I wore it out and people liked it and people started asking for them. I was teaching art and English – this is the boring part. During that time, I started up the brand and I was doing private sales and by-appointment only. It grew from there. It was a combination of a couple of things: I had a big investor invest a lot into the company, and at the same time I did this – I’m really into yoga and I did this 40-day yoga programme and after I finished that programme, at the same time I got approached by this investor. Everything just added up. And I quit and started Mischa fulltime.
Michelle Lai of Mischa.
And what about the print that you’re now so famous for? Where did that come from? Did you design it yourself?
Yes, I did design it myself. The brand was built on bespoke, vintage, every piece is different, for the last 5-7 years. When I was doing the private sales in Hong Kong, London, New York and Switzerland [I found] the nature of my lifestyle is that I travel a lot and my friends travel a lot. All the dinners, events and parties we go to, we also needed stuff to travel with, stuff to use during the daytime. There’s the Louis Vuitton bag, the Goyard, but people wanted something that was still sort of Asian-influenced, something fun and cool, something by me. So they kept asking for it and asking for it and so I had to make a professional decision to start a second line. It’s called the 'Travel Series'. The print is based on the Japanese hexagon, and why I chose the hexagon is because when I decided I wanted to do a second line, I knew that I wanted to do something that was a signature, something that I could reproduce. I looked at all of the old obi that I had used and I had bought and I found that three-quarters of them had hexagon prints. I didn’t event realize it until I started to look back! Then I did research into the hexagon print and it represents the sea tortoise shell, you can find it in a lot of Asian symbolism for thousands of years, but specifically in Japanese art the sea tortoise shell symbolizes longevity. So I thought that was a really nice sentiment and a really good starting point for my brand because I wanted it to last and not just be a fad.
An iPad case in Mischa's signature print.
Who’s your customer?
They’re professionals; they’ve been there, done that. They travel frequently. A lot of my friends and clients are all women whom I admire. They’re very accomplished and they hold these important positions in their company or they're really accomplished moms and they work for a charity. I have clients that love it, they really love it; they buy it in all the different colours, they buy it for all of their friends, all of their family. These women have character, they have personality. I think my brand is not really about dressing supermodels; they’re real women, they know what they want, they know what they like.
What do you love most about what you do?
Every day is different. It’s an adrenaline rush. It’s like personal boot camp, because when you’re your own boss you really have to live the example and you’re personally accountable for how well you do. I love it because I do everything on my terms. You can say it like, “I call the shots,” but I think because I’m in that situation I’m much harder on myself than if I worked for somebody else. And I get to incorporate my life and my lifestyle into what I do. That’s what I love about it. I love travel, photography, art, design, yoga, meditation, health; that has to show itself. The flipside is: you’re personally accountable for everything! The flipside is: from a creative point of view, sometimes when you don’t have inspiration you just don’t have inspiration. It’s like getting blood out of a stone. You have to remain childlike and have wonderment and find things that are interesting.
What do you do when you hit a roadblock and you can’t find inspiration?
I travel. I don’t try; I let it go.
Mischa 'Bucket Bag'.
Where’s the most inspirational place you’ve been to recently?
This is a very cliché answer: Paris. It’s the air, the smell, the streets, the surroundings. Everyone’s personal style; it’s effortless, it’s elegant. When I look at the girls I don’t think that they’ve thought about what they’re wearing, it looks like they just put it on and left the house and look fantastic! Also beautiful and glamorous Bali; there’s something very magical about that place. I think because they’ve preserved their artisanal culture, you see beautiful sculptures and houses so it’s a feast for the eyes when you go to Bali. I really like Koh Samui because I’ve started this tradition that every January, after the craziness, I go by myself and I do this yoga retreat and detox holiday. It’s not totally pleasant, but you come out feeling great. You’re in the sun, and Koh Samui is relatively underdeveloped, there’s no mass tourism, and you feel like you're tucked away somewhere quiet and peaceful.
What does that do for you?
It’s to clear my mind. You know, living in a modern city like Hong Kong, traveling so much and having the very busy sales season, and going to lots of openings, lots of events - you know, eye bags by the end of the week, your liver’s shot, you’re eating at odd hours of the day, you’re constantly surrounded by people! Sometimes you just need to get away. That’s important. I love yoga, but another one of my loves is food and wine. I love whiskey and smoking cigars. So I kind of have to balance it out! I can’t just do all that.
Michelle Lai, shot by one of our favourite photographers, Carmen Chan.
Mischa is available in Hong Kong at Lane Crawford, BALS Tokyo, Kapok, Indigo, Sidewalk, Tiare and White Bridal Couture.