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Meet Peter Do, New York’s best in show

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FashionQ+A

New York Fashion Week gets a bad rap. Sure, Tom Ford’s skipped town, Marc Jacobs is doing whatever he damn well pleases, and even fashion’s fave fan fictionists Vaquera have swapped The Big Apple for Gay Paree, but there’s still plenty of designers to get excited about in the city that never sleeps. Just take Peter Do, if you’re looking for an example. 

Founded by Vietnamese designer Peter Do just four years ago, the label is making a name for itself on the NY fashion scene with its considered, insouciantly cool clothes: think covetable outerwear in the form of slouchy car coats and enormous, broad-shouldered blazers, sleek weekend-appropriate knits, and (seriously!) the most perfect subversive denim. 

While Do’s name has been on the lips and fashion insiders and those in the know for a while now, AW22 felt like a big leap forward for the label. But then, it’s not surprising that he’s got a real knack for creating the kind of understated clothes women really want to wear. The designer cut his teeth working under his “hero” Phoebe Philo at Céline, before returning to the US to kick start Peter Do with a bunch of equally talented friends.

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The group gathered late at night in NY restaurants or otherwise at each other’s homes, as plans came together over steaming hot bowls of pho and plates piled high with dumplings, with the emphasis on food still a big part of the way the company operates right now: Do often comes into work on Monday mornings with Tupperware boxes full of home-cooked food, with the whole team sitting down together to eat lunch. So important is cooking to Do, that he dedicated his SS22 show to his late father, and the time they spent making pho on Sunday afternoons. 

Cut to AW22, however, and concepts are out of the window. Instead, Do explains he’s keen to establish a “really solid foundation” on which to build upwards and outwards. If the last four years were largely about planning and putting down roots, then the next few will surely see Peter Do hit its stride. As we hit the end of fashion season and the shows wrap up once more, here, the designer discusses his latest collection, his fashion highs and lows, how he dressed in high school, and where he’s hoping to go from here.

So let’s start at the beginning. What sparked your interest in fashion, and why did you think it might be the avenue you wanted to go down for a career? 

Peter Do: So it’s a really long story, but basically I didn’t get into fashion until high school. At the time, Project Runway was really big in the US, and I was president of the art club at the time. The club would gather in the art supply room and plan out this annual calendar with ideas for funding, the murals we were going to paint, stuff like that. Philadelphia was really big on murals back then. I remember we did one mural that was about sustainability and recycling, because that wasn’t really a thing and we wanted to raise awareness of it. 

Then eventually we put on our own Project Runway type thing, and staged a fashion show with all the looks made from old fabric and thrifted bits and pieces. I got really into it! My mom bought me a sewing machine from K-Mart for, like, 20 bucks, and I remember working at the dining table, learning how to thread a bobbin and making little dresses out of napkins and trash bags. That was how I kind of learned that I loved garment making – not just fashion, but clothes, which are so at the core of what I do. I’m still really passionate about actually creating the clothes, I love it. 

I’m the complete opposite! I got a sewing machine when I was in high school, and went to college to do a fashion design course, and I hated it. I was like, ‘I’m just going to have to write about them instead!’ So what was the first garment you ever made like? 

Peter Do: It was a dress made out of curtains that I dyed with beet juice. It was pink, and because I didn’t know how to sew in a zipper yet, it didn’t have a closure, so it was just elasticated. I actually tried to find a picture of it, but kind of hope I never do – I’m sure it was terrible!

But probably good practice for what was to come.

Peter Do: Yeah, exactly! If I find it, I might post it for LOLS, like ‘Girl, we all gotta start somewhere!’

“I always describe myself as an outfit repeater, and that’s what the Peter Do woman is to me. She buys the things that she really loves and she cares about, and wears them over and over again in new ways” – Peter Do

Is the actual act of making the clothes still your favourite part of the creative process? 

Peter Do: The whole development process is my favourite part. Looking for fabric, developing your own textiles, and the fitting process is really inspiring – seeing the clothes on is really interesting, whether you’re trying them on yourself or doing fittings. The dialogues between me, the fitting models, the team… I’m not a straight to the destination kind of designer. I have lots of questions and there’s always things I spend a lot of time improving. From the seam of a shirt to the way a pair of pants sit. 

Did you have a favourite designer when you were growing up?

Peter Do: When I was in school, I was really into McQueen. He was the one designer that I really looked up to. I mean, he was one of the greats, his work was so ‘out there’. And of course, Galliano, who also put on these spectacular fashion shows. But then, when I got older and began interacting with clothes and using them to express myself, my hero Phoebe Philo and Martin Margiela were a big influence on me. And then I was obviously fortunate enough to work with Phoebe at Celiné. 

I feel like there was that generation of designers that were almost on the level of rockstars.

Peter Do: Totally! They were always doing television interviews, which is pretty big for fashion designers. You don’t really get that today. I remember McQueen was like a celebrity – on the cover of tabloid papers and not just fashion mags. 

And even Phoebe was on that amazing cover of The Face, can you imagine that happening now? 

Peter Do: Right? It was such an interesting time. I feel like back then designers maybe had a bit more freedom to play, because it was like ‘If you know, you know’ and fashion was a much more niche thing to be into. Whereas now, everyone’s into it, which isn’t a bad thing – it’s just very different.

How would you describe your own style? 

Peter Do: I mean, this collection (AW22) is pretty much how I dress. It was really personal to me. Those giant sweaters, and a giant shirt, and a pair of jeans with a hole that’s been ripped because they’ve been worn so many times. I always describe myself as an outfit repeater, and that’s what the Peter Do woman is to me. She buys the things that she really loves and she cares about, and wears them over and over again in new ways. 

How has your style evolved? How did you dress in high school? 

Peter Do: In high school I just dressed so that I could survive! It was a time when most people were wearing Abercrombie & Fitch, or Hollister, or whatever. I really wanted to be wearing Hot Topic, but I knew I had to just blend in. Growing up in the suburbs was hard – I always knew New York was for me, and I just needed to make it through four years and get out of there. I would visit the city to see schools on the weekend and see a totally different world that I couldn’t wait to be part of. I knew it was the place I could meet like-minded people and finally get to be who I am. 

Okay, so say you’re stuck on a desert island. What three items are you taking with you, including one thing to wear? 

Peter Do: (Laughs) Wait what, I can’t leave the island? 

No, you’re stuck. You know the Desert Island Discs radio show in the UK, where you pick the records you’d want to listen to when you’re marooned? This is like the fashion version of that. 

Peter Do: Okay, so I’d want my dog with me. But honestly, no matter what I take, I wouldn’t survive. I know I wouldn’t. I can’t swim, I can’t drive, so even if I found some car, it wouldn’t work. There’s probably nothing I could take. I literally would die. So I don’t want to take anything. I’d just watch the sunset one last time and give up. I’ve seen enough apocalyptic movies to know that I’m not the character that’s going to survive. I am definitely not the final girl [laughs]. 

“[If I was trapped on a desert island] I’d just watch the sunset one last time and give up. I’ve seen enough apocalyptic movies to know that I’m not the character that’s going to survive. I am definitely not the final girl” – Peter Do

This is not the answer I was expecting, but tbh, probably same. Okay, moving on – are you a morning person or a night person? 

Peter Do: Usually I have to be a morning person because of my work, but I would love to be a night person. But I’m so introverted, so really I prefer the nighttime when it’s quiet and calm. 

How do you define luxury and what is your biggest luxury? 

Peter Do: I mean, there’s so many things, but I guess time is a big one? I feel like it’s one of the things so few people can afford, like, we just never have enough. I feel like I’m constantly running out of time! In fashion, you always feel like you’re running behind. You’re working so far into the future, you know? We’re already working on SS23, so there’s that constant feeling of being late. It’s a bit of a weight on your shoulders – it’s hard constantly feeling like you’re running out of time and that you’re not living in the moment. 

Totally. I feel like this slow-down we all talked about at the start of the pandemic… didn’t really happen, either. But before we get to SS23, let’s take a minute to appreciate your mega AW22 collection. Could you fill me in on the inspiration behind it? 

Peter Do: Last season was titled Home because it was a point of arrival for us, and I was thinking a lot about my mom and dad when they came here back in 1995. I was feeling nostalgic and wanted a moment to speak to people from where I’m from, where my team is from, how we got here – things like that. This season, for me, felt like I’m back in this school of wanting to build a house in New York. AW22 felt like a good time to build a really strong foundation for what’s to come, so that’s what we focused on. I feel like the collection cements a lot of signature shapes and fabrications that we’ve been working on for the past four years, but doesn’t really even scratch the surface of where we’re going next. We’re just laying out the groundwork this season, making sure that foundation is solid. 

Do you have a favourite piece from the offering, or perhaps one you think sums it all up? 

Peter Do: I have a few. The finale coat – you can detach the scarf and wear it as a top. I feel like that’s my definition of sexy, it’s like a day-to-night thing. That convertibility is interesting to me – designing something you can wear in multiple ways and discover again and again each time you wear it is so exciting. And I love the shirt and sweater we made, that can be unbuttoned and turned into a cape, as well as the jeans with that one little slit detail. I like things that have this worn-in, loved, touched by someone’s life kind of quality to them. 

It feels like a very modern way of dressing, to have just a few really loved pieces you can style so many different ways. Corporations love to put the blame on the consumer and tell us it’s down to us to buy less, but actually – their enormous role in reducing fashion’s impact on the planet aside – it does make a lot of sense.

Peter Do: Exactly. I mean, how long is deadstock fabric going to last? Aren’t we going to run out of that fairly soon? I don’t have the answers, but I feel like if you just buy a few items that you really love, that are made using quality materials and craft and integrity, and fit you well, I feel like that in itself is already helping a little towards this overconsumption that’s taken over the planet. 

I’m always interested to understand the vibe in a designer’s studio. What does the Peter Do team listen to while they work? 

Peter Do: Well, my music taste is terrible (laughs). It doesn’t match what I design at all! I like soundtracks, and I like ambient stuff, but it’s either that or it’s Ariana Grande – there is no in-between. Either beautiful sheet music or hardcore pop. I love podcasts though – I listen to them in the shower, on the way to work…

“In fashion, you’re working so far into the future. We’re already working on SS23. It’s always a bit of a weight on your shoulders – it’s hard constantly feeling like you’re running out of time and that you’re not living in the moment” – Peter Do

Love a podcast. Do you have any recommendations? 

Peter Do: The Cutting Room Floor by Recho Omondi. She’s a good friend, and she just does an amazing job at that. I love how raw and honest it is. Another one is called Crime Junkies, which is these two girls who tell crime stories in an interesting, conversational way. It kind of feels like your friend is telling you the story. 

If you could go back 10 years and give your younger self a piece of advice, what would it be? 

Peter Do: I feel like I’d say… follow your guts, follow your instincts. I try to do what feels right as much as I can, and I feel like it’s been working so far! I mean, I learn from my mistakes, too, but going with my gut instinct took me to New York, to fashion school, across the world to Europe for a job, and made me start a brand with my friends. So I think that’s it. As long as you feel good about your decisions, then you won’t have any regrets. 

Okay, last question. What’s the most fun thing about working in fashion, and what’s the least? 

Peter Do: There’s so many fun things about working in fashion! I feel really free in what I’m creating and it’s amazing working in such an inspiring environment with such incredible people. The least fun thing is the money part, it’s so not fun. And running a company during COVID? Yeah, not fun. Would not recommend!