Small Business Profile: Alice Wang, Founder of Uniforme - New York City
Hi Alice! Tell us a little bit about yourself.
My name is Alice Wang, and I launched Uniforme a year and a half ago. I grew up in Chappaqua, NY, studied film at Yale, switched industries a few times, and now I run Uniforme and live with my boyfriend Will Griffin (a consulting chef who makes hand forged chef knives griffinbladeworks.com) - and our dog Potato (@potatonyc).
What was your first job?
My first ever paycheck came from playing violin in the pit orchestra for another high school’s musical rendition of Anything Goes. I think I made about $100. I was so excited to get this first paycheck that I don’t think I actually cashed it- I wanted to keep the actual physical object.
My first grown up jobs were working freelance as an assistant on film productions in NYC.
What lead you to begin Uniforme?
A few years ago, I had decided to adopt a personal uniform and wear a simple white shirt everyday. I was looking for simple white shirts with certain heft to the cloth, a certain attention to detail when it came to stitching, finishes, buttons. I wasn’t finding what I was looking for in womenswear, and I bought some men's shirts but they weren’t quite right. I still wanted to maintain a sense of femininity in my daily wear. I was feeling a bit anti-fashion, to be honest! I launched the brand direct-to-consumer, releasing one piece at a time, and now I’m getting ready to work on my first complete collection for wholesale.
Can you go a bit into your design process? Where do you draw your inspiration from and how are your pieces crafted?
When I first started the line, I was designing for a fantasy version of myself: This version of myself owns very few things, always has a spare, clean apartment and wears a variation on the same thing every day. I was inspired by menswear communities - I was lurking on styleforum and Ask Andy about clothes and had sort of a fetishized relationship to cloth and buttons. I work with patternmakers, samplemakers, and production rooms in NYC’s garment district.
I wore my own white shirts everyday for almost two years, but I’ve since given up the uniform. I’m seeking inspiration and stories and allowing myself to play a little. Now, I’m still designing for myself but also for some muses, real and fictional. I’m designing for a woman who wants to be understated when she gets dressed, but she also wants to be memorable. Understated statement pieces. The phrases that I’ve been keeping in mind are “a quiet drama” and “romantic minimalism.”
How do you source your materials?
For my initial collection of shirts, I knew I wanted to work with classic high end menswear mills. I knew I wanted to work with a certain weight of fabric, and I wanted Giza 45 cotton. I had my mother-of-pearl buttons custom made based on some images and specs. I wanted small, thick buttons with a luminosity to them, almost like little jewels.
For the upcoming collection, I’m casting a wider net, beyond menswear-centric mills. I still personally prefer high quality natural fibers, a substantial, coarser cloth, but I’m also looking for contrast and juxtaposition. I’m thinking more about texture and drape, and also using more color for the first time. Sometimes I know what I’m looking for and I inquire with mills and agents to see what they have that fits my description. Other times, I’m just browsing and a swatch will jump out at me.
How do you connect with your customers and community?
I’ve been doing pop ups and events in NYC. I’d love to branch out and meet people in other cities! I’m excited to be coming to Chicago for the first time and doing an event with Jean Cate of Martha Mae. She’s a customer who has actually adopted Uniforme pieces as part of her everyday uniform at the shop.
I’ve been putting out a monthly newsletter featuring our friends and customers. I meet a lot of people through Instagram! I have real life friends that I’ve met through Instagram.
What are some brands/designers that you are excited about that we should know of?
Tapley: gorgeous, sculptural jewelry. My friend Elizabeth Whitcomb sculpts each piece using the lost wax method and then casts them in fine metals. She stocks pieces in sterling silver, but will take custom requests - I’m allergic to nickel so I’m getting a pair of earrings cast in gold!
Handbuilt vessels from ceramicist Simone Bodmer Turner. She studies ancient techniques and brings to it a modern sensibility.
Ply-knits: my friend Carolyn comes from a line of knitwear designers and producers. Her family owns a factory in Hong Kong, and she created a lovely, seasonless line of simple knitwear. She has recently designed a complete collection with beautiful, complexly-constructed stitches and pieces and I just saw the lookbook. It’s incredible - lush, feminine knits with a hint of whimsy.
Why do you think it’s important to shop consciously and ethically, especially when it comes to fashion?
We live in a day and age where we have no other choice - if we care at all about the future of our planet and society, we have to make ethical and sustainable choices. (Seems pretty silly when the alternative is choosing the unethical, unsustainable option).
I don’t buy very much anymore, and definitely a lot of vintage and secondhand. If I purchase new things, it’s something special that I will treasure - usually from a friend or independent designer I admire. There are some exceptions - sometimes I just really, really covet a designer piece and after much thought I will indulge, but these are special pieces with a long life span.
When I shop, I consider what role the item will play in my life, and its quality and longevity.
When designing, I’m thinking about why (and if) a piece should exist. I love the idea of creating modern heirlooms, pieces that deserve to be taken care of and passed on.
What role has New York played in the development of your designs?
I’ve spent my whole adult life in New York, and my experiences here have undoubtedly influenced me. New York life and culture is so full of diverse experience - I think it allowed me to explore my own identity and look for “my people” in a lot of different places. I’m inspired by people who mould the aesthetic world around them to reflect their own identity.
Was there any particular person who helped shape your career in formative way?
One of my first bosses, Massy Tadjedin, taught me the power of leading with grace. I was her assistant while she was making her first feature film as a director - I was a few months out of college and I really knew nothing about the world, but she valued my opinion and created a really empowering environment. She’s incredibly kind and thoughtful, but unafraid to stand her ground when warranted. I want to be a great boss one day, and she’s my inspiration.
What creative women do you find inspiring?
All of my pieces are named after women I find inspiring! There are so many. Should I name a few? The actress Rebecca Hall, who I just saw in ANIMAL at the Atlantic Theater Company. The photographer Laurie Simmons. My friend Pippa Bianco who is getting ready to direct the feature-length adaptation of her Cannes Cinefondation-winning short film SHARE. Georgia O Keeffe.
What makes you passionate about the work that you do?
If I weren’t passionate about it, I don’t think I could do it! It’s not an easy business. One of my favorite things is getting a photo of a client who has chosen to wear Uniforme at an important moment in their lives and careers.
What are some of the setbacks or challenges you faced when starting your line?
Everything taking twice as long (and in some cases, costing twice as much) as expected. I thought that the learning pains were from jumping into fashion with no prior experience, but have since heard from other designers and brand founders that even a career at a larger organization in fashion can’t prepare you for the uncertainty of being a new, independent designer. You have to learn to be resilient, learn from your mistakes quickly and plan for the worst case scenario.
A lot of the business has grown out of local events, word of mouth, so it’s still a little thrill whenever a complete stranger in another city places an order out of the blue.
At The Glossary, we believe in women working together and helping one another. Why do you think it is important for women to support each other?
Men have had each other’s backs for centuries! I love being part of communities of women supporting one another. My life is filled with amazing women! I’m also a member at The Wing, a space and social club for women.
What have you learned from owning your business that you think can apply to any creative endeavor?
As a sole founder, I also am learning that it’s better to act and then pivot and react rather than taking too much time to make a decision. I generally like to research and plan extensively, to look at all my options and make the best decision when I understand the problem and variables, but I am learning that this might come from a place of fear and anxiety, and sometimes there are important lessons to be learned in experimenting and making mistakes, as long as they don’t kill you. And, time becomes an important resource, so sometimes it’s better to make the mistakes more quickly so you can correct. Even if you’ve planned perfectly, things can still go haywire!
What are you looking forward to in the coming months?
Designing my first complete collection! And going to the catskills with some friends for a long weekend.
How do you manage a work/life balance?
I don’t think I do, to be honest. I don’t think it’s that realistic at this stage in the game! I’m working on it. The one saving grace has been taking classes at New York Pilates - i have a monthly membership there so I try to make sure to take a class a few days a week. You just follow the instructions, breathe, and count the reps. It’s the closest I get to meditating.
Some friends and I held a fundraiser for Planned Parenthood NY last week, and Lisa Rubin, who is on the board for Planned Parenthood of NYC kindly spoke. She said something which I thought was amazing - to choose one cause that is important to you, and figure out what you can contribute to it, and knowing that you are working for change can help you get through each day. To look at activism as self-care.
I also have made some amazing friends who are also female brand founders - (shout out to Olivia/Rallier, Nicole/Industry Standard, Carolyn/Ply-Knits, Eva/Maude & Tinker Watches, Johanna/Peet Rivko!) and it’s been really cool to have a little community of women who are in a similar place. We can lend an ear for moral support, collaborate on projects, and turn to one another for practical advice so we can learn from each others’ experiences.
What are some of your favorite places in New York?
Culture Espresso for Chocolate Chip Cookies. There are a few locations in the garment district. I did a month without sugar and I broke the sugar fast with a chocolate chip cookie here. It’s definitely the best chocolate chip cookie in NYC. There’s a good chance that it’s the best chocolate cookie in the world!
Nethermead at Prospect Park for picnics and BBQs.
New York Pilates for reformer classes. It’s a beautiful space, amazing teachers and an ever evolving workout that I’ve been able to stick with for 2.5 years! My dear friend Heather started the business in scratch just a few years ago and she is now opening a 4th location this weekend in Montauk!