For as long as she could remember, Angeline Oei would draw clothing, but she did not believe designing was a career.
“I am originally from Singapore,” says Oei, who now designs clothing for her D.C.-based brand A.Oei Studio. “I grew up in a place where creative arts were not regarded as something you should pursue. I never thought about doing fashion at all. I thought of it as a hobby.”
In downtown D.C., Oei sits in front of her sewing machine, surrounded by her folder full of sketches and creations hung on racks. How the designer found her way to fashion can be seen in her garments.
A Global Design Influence
Whether a dress, slacks or a blouse, Oei’s designs are crisp in structure, reminiscent of architecture. This structural style was influenced from her time at Amsterdam Fashion Institute. Dutch fashion is known for clean lines, dating back to strict conservative Protestant styles.
Initially, Oei studied English literature at the University of Singapore. But during a college exchange program to Europe, she visited the Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp’s fashion department in Belgium.
“It was my first feeling this was the right place to be,” Oei says. “When I saw the different student’s artwork and clothing, the whole atmosphere, I was like, ‘I have to do this.’”
Following the trip, Oei applied and was accepted to fashion school where she began to learn the basics behind creating clothing. After graduation, she moved to New York to work for a ’90s street style, minimalist designer.
The influence of street style and minimalism is evident when looking through Oei’s catalog. None of her pieces are embellished, and she works with natural, breathable fabrics like cotton, lyocell and bamboo, often with a black, navy and white color palette. Oei strives to create wearable art that values function as much as aesthetic.
“The fabrics and cut of the designs I use are made so you can [pair] with sneakers or heels,” Oei says. “A lot of my customers are busy women with kids, but they also work at nice jobs so they have to meet clients constantly. My clothing allows them to transition between different environments.”
Fine-Tuning the Process
A few pieces displayed on Oei’s studio racks showcase custom fabric designs — an approach she’s fine-tuned over the years. One navy blouse is embroidered with teal birds perched on long grass; another blouse has blue-outlined, abstract flowers blooming over the torso and sleeves. The juxtaposition of printed organic shapes against angular garment construction creates a striking statement.
Oei began designing fabrics following her job in New York. She moved back to Singapore to work for a clothing company where she eventually became the fabric designer.
“In Singapore, I was doing embroidery, digital printing, knitting — different kinds of artwork for new fabrics.”
Now with her own line, Oei has the freedom to explore wherever ideas take her.
“I typically work with some kind of concept; for example, with this print,” Oei says, pointing to the most colorful print in the room. “I was inspired by the idea of hybrid flowers. So, combining different floral species to create a new species. I tried to create my own fantastical version by using turquoise and bright red colors you’re not going to find anywhere in nature.”
When coming up with a design concept, Oei looks to her surroundings.
“I have a whole archive of things I find interesting for inspiration, like news articles. When I go to museums, I take a lot of pictures of different artwork.”
She uses clippings and photos to freehand sketch her design or digitally collage photos before sending to a manufacturer to print the fabric digitally. By incorporating original prints, Oei adds another artistic dimension to her clothing that sets her brand apart.
Building Her Brand
Oei moved back to the States first to Seattle and now in D.C. The transition allowed Oei to start her own clothing line and pursue the type of brand she envisioned. While she initially worked with manufacturers and local retailers, the Covid-19 pandemic shifted how she made and sold her clothing.
“When Covid hit, a lot of retailers closed,” Oei says. “I started sewing facemasks and during that process, a few customers asked, ‘Hey, can you make me a custom dress?’ They just really wanted to support me. So, I started making custom pieces and fell back in love with sewing and doing things myself instead of outsourcing from manufacturers.”
The garments hanging in the studio around her are custom-made for clients, tailored to their measurements.
“I enjoy working directly with the customer, learning about different people’s habits and needs. A lot of women fall in between sizes, so standard off-the-rack sizes might not necessarily fit. I like being able to provide this service.”
The custom process also allows for impromptu design inspiration.
“A customer asked me, ‘Do you make modern Cheongsam that is not old-school style?’ Cheongsam is a Chinese dress style with the mandarin collar. Women wear it for weddings or formal occasions. It’s very form-fitting and feminine. So, I started transforming this sort of classic dress style into something more contemporary by adding relaxed fit pockets, making it more loose-fitting and functional.”
Oei has now created a line of Cheongsam-inspired shirts and dresses. On her website — where some standard size options are offered — there is a whole tab dedicated to this style.
As someone who has lived around the world, Oei picked up pieces along the way to create her distinct aesthetic, carving out a space in the fashion world she can call her own. A.Oei Studio is her story told through clothes.
A.Oei will have a fall trunk show pop-up at Shopkeepers on October 8 and October 15 from 11 a.m. – 5 p.m. To view, shop and request Oei’s custom designs, visit aoei-studio.com or follow her on Instagram at @a.oei_studio.
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