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Getting To Know Tessa Vermeulen: The Creative Behind Everyone’s New Favourite Brand Hai

After collaborating with Hai this season, we took the chance to get to know the founder Tessa Vermeulen a little better. Tessa embodies everything we look for when choosing a creative to collaborate with; as well as being committed to her craft, she’s warm, ambitious and ready to embrace new ideas.

We visited her partner’s gallery and store, Studio Leone, to photograph her and talk about how the brand was born, her intrigue in style over fashion, sourcing natural fabrics and the power of accessories.

Tell us about the inspiration behind your brand, how did it come to be?

The story of how Hai came into being isn’t a linear one as the roots of the brand had been growing in my mind for a long time. Different phases of my life helped shape and crystalise what it is today.

Hai draws a lot on my childhood and the experience of growing up between Shanghai and The Netherlands; this instilled an appreciation in me for design and beautifully made clothes. More specific childhood and teenage memories of dressing up, altering my first clothes and discovering fashion magazines have all influenced me too.

Hai was also inspired by my time ‘growing up’ in my twenties in London. Even before when I was working in music, I always had a real interest in great style that’s assured and confident, as opposed to fashion. I’ve always loved people-watching and that thrill of seeing older women with brilliant style, which makes you want to know more about them.

I’ve always loved people-watching and that thrill of seeing older women with brilliant style, which makes you want to know more about them.
And can you tell us a bit about the name, Hai, what was the inspiration here?

‘Hai’ is the Mandarin word for sea. If you think of the character of the sea; the grace and fluidity in the way waves move but the strength of that body of water, that really mirrors silk for me. The first silks we were using were crafted in China too, so I wanted to reference that and my own memories of Shanghai. As the brand has grown we’ve moved beyond just using silk but I still love the ambiguity of Hai as a name and even just the way it looks as a word.

When did you first fall in love with fashion and design?

As I’ve mentioned it’s always about style over fashion for me. I can’t really remember a time when I wasn’t in love with clothing and the whole process of getting dressed. I was the little girl who loved getting the dressing up box out and I would always be staging mini-photoshoots and plays. I also had a phase of creating imaginary clothing brands. I’d sketch designs, cut up old clothes and customise what I already owned; embroidering T-shirts and jeans by hand. I think I always loved the craft behind clothes and that’s why Hai is so led by materials today.

I think I always loved the craft behind clothes and that’s why Hai is so led by materials today.
Silk is a really key fabric for you - what drew you to using it?

Hai wouldn’t exist without silk and I’ve always leaned towards natural fabrics. What I love so much about silk is that it has real connotations of luxury but it’s actually this incredibly durable fabric for everyday use too. Some feedback we get a lot on our bags is that people are surprised by the fabric; it doesn’t snag easily, it’s washable and it looks fresh and new for a really long time. I love items that are luxurious, practical and beautiful really interest me.

What are the challenges of working with silk?

I think balancing keeping the brand as accessible from a price point perspective with the fact that fine fabrics like silk tend to be more expensive. In terms of using silk as a fabric, I never feel that limited by it with design and production because we’ve worked hard to source different versions that work for different clothing. By using douppioni silk, for instance, we’re able to create solid, structured dresses, which couldn’t be made from finer, satin silk. It’s a surprisingly fluid fabric.

How would you describe the Hai team and community?

Happy. We are a small team of four people including myself in London, plus our wider team in Seoul. It’s very much a team effort; no one has one specific role and everyone’s opinion is valuable. That collaborative way of working really works for us right now. Everybody brings something to the table but there’s a lovely overlap of skills and perspectives, and I think that’s why it works so well.

In terms of our community, the Hai Society section on our website is a tribute to just some of the women who’ve supported Hai from the beginning. They have become muses of the brand but I like repurposing that word ‘muse,’ which has of course so often been used about male artists and their ‘subjects’. The Hai muses are creative women with a lot of personality and agency, and they have great style too.

It’s very much a team effort; no one has one specific role and everyone’s opinion is valuable. That collaborative way of working really works for us right now.
Can you talk us through your design process - where does the inspiration usually come from?

Our design ethos is very much ‘what do we want to wear?’ and most designs stem from a gap in our own wardrobes or an ideal of an item we’ve long been searching for. We would never create something we wouldn’t wear ourselves and we test designs on friends of Hai.

In terms of the actual process, we’ll all come up with ideas together as a team, make sketches and refer back to vintage pieces we’ve owned for ages. Mathilde our designer and product developer will then synthesise these sessions into the final designs, and these will get sent off to our sampling team.

We usually go through two or three rounds of samples and once the first is finished we’ll keep amending it until it’s perfect. By the time a bag or garment goes into final production I might have been carrying it around or wearing it for a year already. For us it’s so important the pieces have been really tried and tested to make sure they’re functional and durable, as well as look good.

Our design ethos is very much ‘what do we want to wear?’ and most designs stem from a gap in our own wardrobes or an ideal of an item we’ve long been searching for.
And what do you love about styling accessories yourself? What do you feel they can bring to a look?

Accessories are such an integral part of any outfit and I do think they’re where personality can come through the most. You could be wearing something as simple as a classic jeans and white T-shirt combo, and if you add a colourful bag or a string of pearls it becomes a totally different look. I also always think that accessories help make an outfit ‘finished’, not polished, but just complete.

Accessories are such an integral part of any outfit and I do think they’re where personality can come through the most.
How would you describe your own style?

I lean towards classic simplicity. I don’t like flashy things and I don’t shop often – instead I tend to buy pieces that I know I’ll have for a long time. I love hunting for vintage treasures and I look out for garments that are well-made or crafted from luxurious fabrics. I do lean on accessories a lot too. I tend to wear the same core pieces then use bags and jewellery to dress them up or down, or to move through seasons.

What would your advice be for those looking to embrace something new in terms of looks for spring-summer?

If you tend to default to black and white clothing, playing with colour can be a good way to embrace summer. I think bags in particular are a great low-key way of doing this. You don’t have to worry too much about whether you ‘suit’ the colour, so you can be a little experimental or bold with your pick. I love a classic white vest made more unique with jewellery for summer too.

Can you tell us about your collaboration with ourselves at Whistles, how did this design process work? What inspired the pieces?

It’s been such an organic and wonderful process to work together with Whistles. We really wanted to create a capsule of silk staples in opulent, brighter colours. The resulting pieces and the beautiful campaign is better than we ever could have imagined.

Can you summarise this collection in a few words?

Bold and playful. We wanted to really explore using colour, so vivid too. These are clothes for day and night but there’s definitely a celebratory, party feeling to them. I think we’d all been riding the high of that period of lockdowns ending, and Hai reaching some milestones, so that celebratory feeling comes through in the collection.

Favourite piece from the collection?

For me it’s the Florence dress. It’s been a Hai favourite since we launched it and I’m always delighted by how different it looks when we try making it in new colours. It’s long so it can be worn for special occasions but it’s also light and floaty, so you can throw it on with flats or boots for a surprisingly casual look. It can be tucked into a skirt and worn as a silky top, or it can be belted for more structure. It’s the dress I keep returning to.

Which other designers or brands inspire you?

I really look mostly to vintage designs and classic pieces for inspiration. I have a big love for Miuccia Prada of course and for me, she is one of the most stylish women.

I believe style and clothes take on their form through experience.
What pieces of clothing bring you the most joy?

Soft delicate silk dresses.

How do you spend days off?

I have to admit I don’t find it that easy to switch off. It’s rare I’d spend a day not doing something Hai-related and I like to balance that with a pretty active social life, as well as a lot of travel. That’s not to say I don’t spend the odd Sunday relaxing at home and I do love to read.

What else are your great loves and interests?

I love to travel and I feel very lucky that through Hai I’ve been able to travel so much this year. And definitely music, I worked in music for years and I appreciate it even more now I’m not in the industry.

You’re a resident of East London, what are your favourite spots in your neighbourhood?

I have been living in Stoke Newington for nearly seven years now and I love it around here. Abney Park and Clissold Park for my daily morning stroll, Esther’s for a weekend breakfast, Rasa is my most visited neighbourhood restaurant, Rochelle Canteen for summer days, Hector’s or P.Franco for wine and Spazio Leone of course, for beautiful furniture and objects. I could go on…

What’s next for you and Hai?

It’s a very exciting time for Hai right now, we have moved to a new studio in Canonbury, which will also function as a showroom for press and private appointments.

We also opened a store in Seoul, South Korea, a few months ago and I’ve been delighted by the interest in it. Long-term or in the next year, I’m hoping we’ll be able to launch another store for our Asian markets too.

We’re also working on our Spring Summer ‘23 collection and as with all our previous collections, we’ll be expanding the Hai wardrobe. I love the trial and experimentation phase, so this is a really exciting time for me as we see how Hai grows.

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