Understanding Fashion as a Universal Language | Jasmine Ting & Mandy Cai of Arete Studio

Author: Olivia James

Situated within one of Shanghai’s discrete backstreets is Arete Studio. The entrance to this particular snicket of the city is notably unexceptional; no signs, no neon lights, no bustling crowds. It is deliberate, like the brand itself, seeking only to be consciously sought out, rather than simply stumbled upon.

The studio is white; a veritable blank canvas, drawing the focus of visitors to the works of art that adorn the clothes rails within (although it’s safe to say the pieces would demand attention against any interior).

As the brainchild of Jasmine Ting and Mandy Cai, whose collaboration united Ting’s fashion brand (Arete), and Cai’s branding company (Kae Collective), the studio for VIA China Group is an explosion of creative prowess that caters to the strong, intelligent, modern woman. Its mantra, inspired by the life experiences of the founders themselves, seeks to elevate Arete as more than just a clothing brand, provoking conversations that go far beyond fashion and inspire its wearers in many aspects of their lives.

Jasmine and Mandy recognize that the women who visit the studio are so much more than mannequins for its clothes. They are women who not only seek to understand more about the world in order to enhance themselves, but who seek meaningful interactions.

MISSBISH sat down with Mandy and Jasmine to find out more about their work and what inspires their relentless determination to create something unique in a world full of noise.

You both have Chinese heritage, but were brought up outside of China (Jasmine grew up in the U.S, while Mandy was raised in Australia). How has this contributed to who you are today?
JT: Exploring my Chinese heritage was always very important to me, as my parents made sure I was aware of the sacrifices my grandparents made to ensure a secure future for their family. They were fleeing a civil war with five kids. Growing up, my dad didn’t even have shoes! When you are aware of the hardships that allowed you to live the life you were born into, you start to question things. I knew being Chinese-American was due to no merit of my own, and therefore considered it a gift. That is why I left New York for China. As people, we are all the same and I wanted to use my dual-heritage to foster a greater understanding between cultures.

MC: My story was a little different as, growing up in Melbourne, I truly believed I was Australian and therefore didn’t understand the root of my family’s behavior. It wasn’t until I moved to China and met family friends in different cities that I came to appreciate that these traits, such as the overwhelming hospitality extended by strangers I met for the first time, were rooted in Chinese culture and therefore inherent to my being. Once I learned more about my heritage and what my family had been through in the past, I not only developed a newfound respect for them, I came to understand myself on a whole new level.

How does this influence your work?
JT: After leaving my job in finance in New York, I moved to Taiwan to learn Chinese. This was not only about exploring my heritage, but about my belief in the power of communication; something which is central to my work today. Communication is essential in order to understand others and, of course, ourselves. However, what a lot of people don’t understand is that communication goes beyond words. Fashion itself is an important method of communicating with the world around you. Everyday you decide how you want to represent yourself -and how the world sees you - through your clothes .

MC: Identity is very important to the brand and to us. For Jasmine and I, the existence of different cultures is deeply ingrained in who we are and how we live our lives, which is something that translates into Arete. It is a brand for women who, like us, have come to accept and be proud of who they are.

JT: It is essential to us that Arete is understood as a global brand. The designs are inspired by mine and Christina’s (Arete’s head designer) cross-cultural experiences of living in New York and having a strong Chinese heritage, but the brand itself is inclusive of cultures all over the world.

Jasmine, your background is in finance. What led to you to start a fashion brand?
JT: After leaving my job at Lehman Brothers during the financial crisis, I started to think about how I could exercise my desire to help people communicate across cultures - I even explored the idea of being a diplomat for a while. However, after working with the Chairman of Alexander Wang for two years, I came to understand the principles of the fashion world. During this time, I came to see fashion as a universal language. It's how you express yourself from an early age and continue to do every day of your life. This led me to create Arete, as I wanted to create a fashion brand that, through unique design and quality craftsmanship, would allow women to reach their true potential.

“This is the kind of woman Arete is designed for. The woman who knows exactly who she is, and who doesn’t have to rely on smoke and mirrors to present herself to the world."

Mandy, what do you hope to achieve through your collaboration with Arete?
MC: My approach to branding is simple: engage with your consumers as if you are their friend. To be interesting, you must give your customers the respect they deserve by having meaningful conversations. Saying you’re great shouldn’t be the conversation. It should just be an organic process that happens when people discover you’re great because you provide genuine value.

JT: I have always paid attention to marketing but with so many brands in the world, there is a big difference between brands who say they are great and brands that that provide an experience beyond anything you can convey in words.

MC: The problem is, there is so much noise around brands these days and very little curation. We want to work with brands that provide a feeling you weren’t even looking for, the ones you just know you can’t live without once you’ve experienced them. I was jaded by the fashion industry for a long time and didn’t understand why people would spend money on expensive clothes. However, once you find a brand like Arete, one that is able to alter how you feel about yourself, you are changed forever. We want VIA to present a range of lifestyle products that will have this effect on our customers. From candles, to art, to jewelry; with careful and thoughtful curation, we hope to create a space which raises the bar in every lifestyle category.

Have the two of you always used fashion to express yourselves?
MC: I have been through a few interesting sartorial stages in my life. For a while, in my teens and early 20s, I completely equated being single and wanting to feel sexy with showing skin. My wardrobe was full of skimpy clothes that I thought gave me confidence, or at least, made it seem like I was confident.

JT: I’m not surprised - being single in Shanghai is quite the experience! I think a lot of women go through this stage. Of course, you can dress how you want, but sometimes we use clothes as a facade to hide deeper insecurities.

MC: Totally. My clothing made me feel like I looked confident and self-assured, while on the inside I didn't feel like that at all. Now that I have developed as a person and am more confident in myself, the way I dress only has to make me feel good. I don’t care about wearing clothes to give off a certain impression, because I can rely on who I am to do that. My clothes are an extension of me, not a device to hide myself.

JT: This is the kind of woman Arete is designed for. The woman who knows exactly who she is, and who doesn’t have to rely on smoke and mirrors to present herself to the world.

Sitting opposite Mandy and Jasmine, you can’t help but be struck by their self-confident determination and overarching modesty. They are unapologetic about who they are, but strikingly honest about their journey to get there. As a formidable duo, both in the business world and as inspiration for women across the globe, we can’t wait to see more of what they do next.

Photos by: Gabriel Gauffre

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