We had the good fortune of connecting with Sandy Phan and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Sandy, can you tell us more about your background and the role it’s played in shaping who you are today?
I’m a first generation Asian-American from South Vietnam, born and raised in Seattle, Washington. My upbringing started off as what my family considered to be the American Dream. Both my parents started and ran their own businesses. My mom, a seamstress, opened two clothing boutiques and my dad ran three successful auto body shops. These sparkling accomplishments were precisely a product of their extreme hard work and dedication.
I can’t begin to tell my story without first telling my mom’s story, in particular, so let’s start from the beginning. My mom possessed a go-getter, hustler mentality dating back to her younger age in Vietnam. She wanted to pursue a career in fashion but did not have her parents’ approval. She was determined to do it on her own and found creative ways to make money to self-fund her dreams. She did everything from food street vending, farming, etc. and saved enough to buy some used sewing machines. She taught others how to sew and eventually opened up her clothing boutique, Kim’s Fashion.The Vietnam War happened and after the dust settled, she made her way to the states where she met my dad and had my two older brothers and me.
Moving to the states and starting all over, we lived in the projects and had a very rough beginning. Living on food stamps where drive-bys and robberies were the norm. My mom began her business in our home, making clothes mostly for friends and neighbors. Eventually, she opened a second Kim’s Fashion boutique, selling clothing for men, women, and children, including alteration services. Her shop was located on Martin Luther King Jr. Way in South Seattle and served all of the communities in our neighborhood: predominantly Ethopian, Asian, African-American, Somoan, and Hispanic. She did her buying based on their cultural needs and provided products which they may not have been able to find anywhere else (this was before the digital age). I grew up in that store starting at the young age of four, surrounded by her colorful rolls of fabric and design books. I was ringing people up by the time I was eight. As a young kid, my mom would make me custom outfits to prance around in our front yard. My demand for her designs continued through high school for dances and events; she was pretty annoyed by this by then. Ha!
I can’t conclude this story without mentioning my father, but that may need to be part two. In short, he became addicted to heavy drugs, gambling, and infidelity. This, of course, took a toll on our family and tore us apart. The constant stress contributed to both my mom’s and brother’s health issues. At eleven, I had to grow up very quickly. Learning from my mom, I used gratitude and positivity as defense mechanisms and as a way to heal. She always made us appreciate every single thing we had in our lives and would share stories of her upbringing to remind us of how fortunate we were, and that no matter how bad things got, someone else out there had it twenty times worse. This was a humbling practice that became second nature to me. Because I was around fashion my entire life, clothes became my happy place. I dress in bright colors and prints because that brought me joy in times of darkness.
I’m incredibly grateful for the adversities I was faced with because they taught me how to be resilient and compassionate. I learned to have thick skin and to fight for what I love, for what I believe in, but doing so with love and kindness. It has instilled my entrepreneurial spirit and is why I’ve chosen a creative professional path. I witnessed my mom do it successfully with grit and grace. She has nurtured every bit of who I am today and I’m incredibly proud to be able to say that.
So you might be wondering what it is I’m up to today? I have been working as a professional fashion stylist since 2012 starting off by assisting some of the top stylists in the industry where I learned SO much. I toured with Chris Brown all over Europe, Dubai, and South Africa, helped style Rhianna for the VMAs, editorials, music videos, TV, and some of the biggest commercial companies. As a key stylist myself today, my work has been published in national and international magazines, seen at the Oscars, New York Fashion Week, and a number of commercial gigs as well. Something my mom taught me is that you don’t have to be rich to be stylish. She would shop second hand for us or make our clothes and would mend them many times over until they could no longer be saved. Little did I know, this would lead to the new business venture I recently launched. I have always loved thrifting; the uniqueness, quality, and stories behind them. I’ve created an online shop, Studio Kimbi, that sells vintage clothes and offers personal styling services. The name comes from Kim being my mom’s middle name that she uses as her first and Bi is my Vietnamese nickname (which means pumpkin, there’s a back story). My typical style of creativity was working on things in the dark until they were perfect and ready to be shared with the world but since the pandemic, I have learned to open up and share my process and be okay with exposing my mistakes and journey because no one is perfect and there are lessons worth sharing.
I’m usually very private and some of my long-time friends still don’t know my family history. Today I can share it with confidence, knowing it taught me some of the most valuable lessons in life. In sharing my personal story, my hope is that it will inspire others to lean into their passions, and find their way.
Please tell us more about your work. We’d love to hear what sets you apart from others, what you are most proud of or excited about. How did you get to where you are today professionally. Was it easy? If not, how did you overcome the challenges? What are the lessons you’ve learned along the way. What do you want the world to know about you or your brand and story?
When I first started, I just graduated the Art Institute of Seattle with a bachelor’s degree in Fashion Marketing & Management in 2009. Although I am grateful for my education, everything I learned about fashion styling happened outside of school. I was working at Anthropologie in the Visual Merchandising department conceptualizing and building the store installations and dressing the mannequins when I sought out Alvin Stillwell, one of the top stylists in Seattle. The first gig I did with him, I knew I wanted more and told him I decided to quit my job so I can make myself more available to intern with him. He hired me and got me on payroll on the spot and I quickly became his first assistant. He was a tough cookie but for good reason and is responsible for a lot of what I know today. I knew I needed to be in a city that offered more so my then boyfriend, now husband and I moved to LA in 2012 both looking for more opportunity and sunshine. When we moved here, we did not know a single soul. I spent my days at coffee shops on my laptop literally googling “fashion stylists & fashion photographers in Los Angeles” and started cold-emailing dozens of people to see if I could work for them for free. I paid my dues as I wanted to learn everything I could. It was very demanding physically and mentally but I loved every bit of being on set and being challenged which is what kept me going. From there, I assisted a number of other stylists and was exposed to everything from TV, music videos, live shows, celebrity, red carpets, editorials, commercials, and advertising. The challenges are far too many to name but some examples are being yelled at and even being hit with a lint roller, given tasks with little to no information and navigating it on your own in a city you’re new to, and learning about the unspoken etiquette and culture on set. I overcame these challenges by simply showing up even at times of wanting to quit and always doing more than expected. It taught me skills that will transfer to anything else I decide to do in life like creative problem solving, to think on your toes, to be agile, competent, pro-active, and tough.
I assisted for about four years until I felt I was ready to start building my book and take on my own clients but that would not have been possible without the mentorship of the many stylists I worked with.
How do I describe my art? I like to think I am a chef of clothes experimenting with colors, textures, silhouettes, and prints. It has always been more to me than just clothes. Fashion represents history, art, science, culture and so much more and while most of us see it as a glamorous vocation, my hope is to raise awareness around the importance of sustainability and mindful consumption as we all know the ugly truths behind the fashion industry. Along with that, I love helping people feel and look their best because there is such an empowered feeling when you are liberated in your expression.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
Oh man, this is a hard question because what I love about California is the variety we are spoiled with here. You can head up North and go snowboarding, West to be a long the Coastline, and South for the desert. We literally have it all so you can pick and choose what to do depending on your mood. Some of my top choices are (let’s pretend the pandemic is over) being outdoors so we would go to Point Dume beach, hiking Sturtevant Falls and Point Mugu Trail, surfing at El Porto beach, ATV quad-riding at Pismo Beach, taking a ferry to Catalina Island for a day trip, going to Santa Barbara for beaches and wine tasting. For cultural activities, I would take them to Broad Museum, The Getty, Jazznight at Lacma, stand-up comedy shows at Laugh Factory and Comedy Store, live concerts and events. We would eat at Pho Cafe, Kazu Nori, Desano Pizza, Fritto Misto Italian, Ave 26 Tacos, and go to a variety of farmers markets. We would picnic at Barnsdall Art Park and go to Rosie’s Dog Beach in Long beach for my puppy Layla and also because it is the happiest place on earth.
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
First and foremost, I have to give credit to my mom who raised me to be everything that I am today. My husband, David who is my number one “Phan” (pun intended) and has been supportive of me every step of the way and is always pushing me to challenge myself. Alvin Stillwell is a stylist I apprenticed with and he gave me a chance when I was first starting off and did not know a thing. I am grateful for my wonderful community of friends that continue to support and inspire me in their own ways.