Boston fashion designer David Chum sat back in his chair outside the coffee shop, over-sized turquoise headphones on his head. He had an air of aloof coolness and composition which is reflected in his designs.
Chum did not go to school for fashion. Rather, he originally went to the Art Institute of Boston at Lesley University in 2003 for painting. Only two years ago did Chum — a self-taught designer — start his line Selah D’or.
Designer: Selah D’or
Wardrobe stylist: John Alves
Make-up artist: Alana Degregorio
Photographer: Natalia Borecka
Model: Sadie, Click Models Boston
"I was like, screw it. I bought some textbooks. I figured if I can teach myself to draft my own patterns, then I’m going to do it. Because I didn’t want to go out and buy other people’s patterns. I figured, if you were going to do it, learn it. Learn it so you can really manipulate the medium. Soâ€¦here we are."
The artist, however, always had an interest in fashion. As a child, he would always draw great and elaborate ballgowns, "very Disney inspired." In middle school, he took a home economics class which was his first and only exposure to sewing and construction. Later in high school, while he was part of the theater company, the director saw Chum’s knack for costume design.
"He was just like, â€˜You’re designing costumes, you’re going to do it.’ So I did. And I did very well."
By the time college came around, Chum was divided about whether to go to school for fashion design, or to pursue painting.
"By the time I realized I wanted to go into fashion, it was already too late. I had already been accepted to all these art schools. I had all these scholarships. I was like, â€˜Whatever, I’ll put it off.’"
So Chum did. In the art world, he did brilliantly, showing in Italy, showing in New York, showing in L.A. and around the Boston area. Even in his works, there was a draw to fashion, or it was very much inspired by.
"For my final piece exhibit, I did this huge painting installation where I made a costume, dressing a woman, painting her in itâ€¦"
The human figure had always been a muse for Chum and in his works; he would incorporate fashion design "in every way possibleâ€¦I’ve always worked with the figure. First in my artwork, now with my design is. The thing I love about fashion is that it’s not complete until the garment is on a body and it reacts to gravity. Then the person steps out into the world, and it relates to the environment. I love that."
His transition into fashion design has been "a headache. But I’m learning," he adds with a small smile. His reception by the public has been warm and inviting. His work is featured online with Not Just a Label, a website that features a lot of independent and up-and-coming designers. He was featured in this magazine in later 2009, and did a show during Providence’s Fashion Week. His work is also sold at Calico in New Bedford (173 Union Street) and Suneri on Newbury Street.
"It’s been two years, and it’s been this really steady uphill climb. It’s been very positive," Chum said of his work and with regards to his inexperience as a designer. "It’s been very good. And it’s something that I’m not used toâ€¦I feel like I’ve always had to fight for things."
Perhaps the absence of difficulty in Chum’s new career suggests that it was something meant to be. "It’s been very easy—besides all the work I’ve had to do—and the reception has been very easy."
Chum paused. "Which I’m grateful for."
As he begins to develop and refine his styles and designs, he hopes that people will start to notice the character of each collection contributes something different to each season, yet, carries a distinctiveness signature to Selah D’or.
"There’s a line there. But my workâ€¦it’s very much like when I was painting: everything exists kind of like this gray area—between a hard and a soft place—these two extremes, and I think I will always do it."
The designer went on to add: I always get told I sit in this place between retro and vintage and futuristic, and they [people] don’t get how I do it."
He lists favorite designers to Christopher Kane, Louise Goldin, Alber Ebaz for Lanvin, Azzedrine Alaia, Prada, and Alexander McQueen ("Obviously.").
The designer referenced books and literature which has inspired him. Authors like Haruki Murakami, Jose Saramago, Miranda July, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and J.R.R. Tolkien (from which the name of his line, Selah D’or originates from. It is a play on the phrase "cellar door," that Tolkien once said to have an especially beautiful sound).
"If you read the right book and they have the right character in it—like Tolstoy or Dostoevsky—where they describe the dresses forever," is particularly stirring for the designer’s imagination.
But much of Chum’s inspiration is drawn from films.
"Films! Films are a big one," Chum admits. "My first collection was all Marilyn Monroe-inspired from her movies. I’ve always been obsessed with her, especially her more serious roles that no one knows about. I love the costuming."
His first collection for Fall/Winter 2009 was very "feminine and classic." The pieces emphasized timelessness "for women of all ages who seek pieces thatâ€¦will turn heads."
The structure and the silhouette appear very fifties inspired, which Chum—when asked which time period in fashion he loves the most—confessed, "I don’t want to say the fifties, because everyone loves the fifties. But I love the fifties. I also love the sixties, the twenties—all those periods because it was so ladylike. Women were so demure, so put together—constantly. I mean, the little jewelry, the hat, everything. It was so refreshing!"
He went on to add, "And you don’t see that anymoreâ€¦And now, when they [women] go out, they have this beautiful dress on, then they throw on this wool coat! It’s like, â€˜Couldn’t you have bought a coat to go with the dress?’ It’s like, c’mon, do it up!"
For his new collection, Chum is heading in a new direction and new territory with design and construction. The Fall/Winter 2010 collection incorporates a lot of silks, sheers, organza materials, and charmeuse fabrics. He is also using gold hardware, such as chains and punk studs on top of the sheer fabrics so that "it looks like the jewelry is hanging on the skin."
While Audrey Hepburn would have us "Think pink," like in the movie Funny Face, Chum would rather think black for his up-coming collection.
"It started off with the color black because I avoid black. I always avoid it. It’s hard to see the details, and I think it’s so clich©. Chanel was the first one to use it, and now it’s like this fashion chic clich© now. I never wanted an all black collection, but I was like, â€˜Oh, well, you know what: I want to challenge myself.’"
He also cites the resurgence of the goth scene as something which intrigued and fascinated him. "It’s gone from counter-culture to pop culture," he said. "I kind of wanted to take something that reflected that, but wasn’t gothic, per se."
The movie Dazed and Confused, oddly enough, also began to be integrated into his ideas for the new collection.
"So I started sketching and started looking at thingsâ€¦pulling images from the seventies and different movies, [looking at how] the draping of the dresses looked like nightgowns."
And then, "Parker Poseyâ€¦Dazed and Confused. It’s such, like a classic seventies—not over-glamorized, but such great silhouettes. It’s taking stuff like that and transforming it into a more lux fabric."
The color scheme was also something he admired. "The seventies," Chum noted, "Was very feminine. But the seventies are hard. I know when I decided to do some seventies stuff, people were like, â€˜What? Are you crazy?’ I was like, but I want to do it: maybe some flared pants, the dresses, the blouses I liked."
The designer smiles, "But they used too many patterns! I felt like if you looked at the sheets, they are very structured but then you look and they have these crazy patterns; it destroyed the sculpture that was happening. It was like overload. Drug overload."
Furthermore, the designer looked to the "destructive side of nature" for the lines and figure. Tornadoes, hurricane formations, clouds, manna trees ("how they are just eating temples"), and lines from spider webs—all motivated the new collection’s mood and construction.
Part of the collection making process that Chum loves the most is the look books. "I love doing the look books—that’s where it’ at for me. I think because of my painting backgroundâ€¦these narrativesâ€¦"
But the designer always likes to infuse "some humor in the look books or the videos because I feel that so much fashion is so serious. It’s like these bored girls walking down the runway. Which I like, but it is like, â€˜Really, does it have to be so damn serious all the time? Lighten up a little!’"
He will be preparing for the Fall/Winter 2010 look-book in June, drawing motifs from the 1956 film The Red Balloon.
From there, the prospects for Selah D’or look great and promising. Chum is considering Project Runway ("I want to and I don’tâ€¦") as well as collaborating with Style Boston TV.
Already completed with his Spring/Summer collection, his thoughts are already compelled towards next year’s season.
"I’m thinking I might go more casualâ€¦"
Chum paused, and then added as he thought about the possible collection, "It’s funny, because you start out with all these ideas, and then you look at your sketches and they’re always between your last collection and your new one, and then gradually, they move into a new one on their own."
It’s a progression most artists make as they transition through their career.
"I think the thing that most people forget about fashion is that all the designers are artists. It’s just art that turns into a business, too, and the great thing about it, too, is that it is art that people can wear. I mean," the designer said, pointing out McQueen, "if you look at the great artists, there’s no questionâ€¦of all the skill and vision."
Chum considered how the fashion industry takes a beating for its vain-er aspects with regards to the average person’s ideals.
But then he acknowledged, again, that fashion was art, "Fashion is fantasy, for a designer."