Fashion Giant

At 33, former Saddle Brook resident Doo-Ri Chung has become a darling of the fashion world.

Designer Doo-Ri Chung, a tomboy ill at ease in high heels and a gown, was at the podium of an awards ceremony for the Council of Fashion Designers of America, when there in the front row she spied David Bowie and his wife, Iman. It was another one of those occasions in the fashion world that she still finds a bit intimidating. But it was not, she says, a momentous occasion. “I don’t really get moved by things like that,” Chung says.

What does move her?

“A young woman who spends her whole paycheck on a piece.”

Lots of women are spending their money on a Doo.Ri piece these days. Although she launched her own line just five years ago, Chung clearly has become one of fashion’s “it” girls. Actress Eva Longoria wore Doo.Ri for the 2005 Teen Choice Awards, and tennis champ Maria Sharapova dressed in Doo.Ri for a People photo shoot last May. Last September Vogue selected Chung as one of ten top young designers in the country to present their designs in one of the exclusive tents at Bryant Park during New York Fashion Week; the folks at TV’s Style network profiled her during the shows. New York magazine has called her an avatar of style. And you can see her in Seamless, a fashion documentary released in December by Sundance. (Consider that the focus of 1995’s Unzipped was then little-known designer Isaac Mizrahi.)

All this from a 33-year-old art jock from Saddle Brook, a woman who never actually constructed a garment until she was an adult, who designed her first seasons’ lines in the basement of the Paragon, her parents’ dry-cleaning store in Saddle Brook. In a blue sweatshirt, wearing no makeup and a haphazard ponytail, Chung sits at a table in her crisp but spare design studio in Manhattan’s west 30s. The digs are so fresh that Doo.Ri is handwritten in pen on a scrap of paper taped over the name of the previous tenant in the lobby’s directory.

“Jersey’s a hard sell,” Chung says. She’s talking about the fabric, not the state. Women think jersey and they think clingy, but when jersey is done right, it can be one of the most flattering and feminine of fabrics, she says. Jersey is one of her favorites, because of its drape and movement. When Chung designs, she starts not at the drawing board, but at the mannequin. She designs in 3-D, insisting that the back of the blouse is just as important as the front, that the energy of the piece is paramount.

It’s early December and one of her favorite times of the year—the few creative weeks between fashion seasons. Tacked to bulletin boards at the back of the studio are ideas for her fall line: some macramé, some felt, some hounds­tooth, a drawing of a blouse trimmed in metal. Hanging on a rack along the wall are some of Chung’s more popular pieces from last fall, including a model-size bolero jacket trimmed in Swarovski crystals, clearly a little beat up from its trips down the runway.

But today Chung is suffering from the beginning of a cold, the result of a crazy, exhausting, whirlwind of weeks—producing the Bryant Park show, moving her studio from Saddle Brook to Manhattan, and traveling to Korea to meet with executives of Samsung, which will produce her next show. “I’m always surprised at Korea,” she says. When she last visited her native country sixteen years ago, she was distraught at how backward it appeared. Today, she says, Korea’s technological innovations are so wondrous, they have transformed everything—the department stores, the museums, the architecture itself. “Everything is so modern, it’s unbelievable,” she says.

The meteoric-rise analogy is almost too obvious. Chung arrived in New Jersey as a toddler. At Ramsey High School, she was more into sports than fashion. “This is not a direction anyone thought I would go into,” she says. But she did like art, and she loved making jewelry. When a representative from Parsons School of Design spoke at the high school, Chung suddenly knew that’s where she wanted to go, to become a fashion illustrator. After Parsons, she worked for Geoffrey Beene, who, she says, taught her so much about constructing a garment that she didn’t want to leave.

Today, just five years after launching her own line, Chung’s clothes are Oscar-caliber stunning. Her spring line, a champagne-hued collection, is simultaneously complex and simple, flirty yet functional, ethereal yet energetic. “Clothes should definitely have that alchemy,” she says. “You should always feel that confidence.” “I don’t think Doo-Ri knows how good she is,” says Meredith Melling Burke, senior market editor at Vogue. “She’s a master of technique.” Chung, she says, will add six yards of fabric to a dress to avoid inserting a seam.

Perhaps it’s not a paradox that this tomboy makes flirty clothes that work. Perhaps it’s because she’s a tomboy that they do work. The clothes are sexy, but they’re also practical. “I think women feel really comfortable in her clothes,” says Melling Burke. “She’s really the girl in apartment 1B.”

This is, after all, a designer who lives in her jeans. “I’ve been wearing these Levis forever,” she says. “It’s boring.” But Chung understands the value of a pair of great-fitting jeans, an essential wardrobe item for any woman. “I want to be that go-to designer,” Chung says. “The one dress you know you look great in—that’s the piece you want to have in your closet forever.”

And this is just the beginning. “I want to be somewhere great in ten years,” she says. “I want to have a say in American fashion. I hope that I can do something to the language of fashion.”

Teresa Politano is a regular contributor to New Jersey Monthly.

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