A Conversation With Designer Emily Brady Koplar Of Wai Ming
Though St. Louis native Emily Brady Koplar may be one of Hollywood’s favorite designers, she’s more excited to dress you. As the founder of high-end fashion brand Wai Ming—which she launched in 2012—Koplar’s designs have appeared on Jessica Alba, Taylor Swift, Emma Roberts, Emily Blunt, Kerry Washington, Carrie Underwood, Naomie Harris, Samira Wiley … the list goes on and on.
While currently rooted in her hometown through the Saint Louis Fashion Fund Incubator program, her inspirations come from across the globe, as the pieces are carefully crafted in the Garment District of New York City with fabrics from Italy and Japan. But it’s Koplar’s ability to marry the wearable with the sublime that defines her collection—which, surprisingly, anyone can pull off.
We chatted with Koplar about her work, what it means to design for women in the real world while still creating a fantasy, and why she suspects she’ll meet her next muse at the St. Louis Fashion Incubator.
You’ve told other journalists that your cultural background informs your work, as your mother was born in China and your father’s side of the family is Irish. Both made sure you explored the roots of those cultures as you grew up. How do your global experiences impact your work?
I think it’s really interesting to see how people live, whether that’s at home or when I travel. I went to India a little while ago, and when you think of that place from afar, you usually think of embroidery and saris and that kind of thing. But actually being there, the architecture and the art and even the food, it’s all so exciting. I love finding new color palettes, textures or indigenous fabrics. I’m always observing, but I do so more when I’m traveling. When you’re out of your daily routine, you can be so much more inspired and stimulated.
You got a degree in economics before moving into a career in fashion, in part because you were hesitant to commit to what felt like a risky career at a young age. Hindsight is 20/20, but if you could do it over again, would you have studied fashion from the beginning?
I don’t know that I would change anything. I really appreciate that I was able to get my undergrad degree in economics, and I think it’s really helped me hone my own business. So much of fashion comes down to analyzing sales reports and margins and knowing the nuts and bolts. If I’d only had that purely creative experience when I was young, it would have been a lot harder to transition into the real world.
What’s the balance between actual designing and the unsexy, necessary work of running a business?
Oh, the majority is unsexy [laughs]. It’s a lot of hauling stuff around to trunk shows, working on pricing, invoicing suppliers, negotiating production—that kind of thing. People probably think we’re all sitting around sketching and draping, and of course sometimes we do, but it’s a much smaller percentage of our time than you’d think.
There’s something so refreshingly pragmatic about the clothes you design. You can just tell that even your most ethereal, daring pieces are going to be wearable and look great on so many diverse women. Is that part of your vision?
Yeah, I think so. Part of it is just coming from the Midwest. Growing up here, your clothes have to be functional, and you have to have pieces that will last more than one season. And then they also have to have beautiful fabrics, and it needs to be obvious that a lot of thought went into the production of the piece.
Your clothes also appeal to women well beyond the Midwest—many celebrities have worn your clothes. Are there any actresses or musicians you’re still daydreaming about dressing?
Honestly, I’m just so appreciative of anybody who ends up wearing the pieces. It’s so fun for me to watch someone come out wearing one of my dresses—suddenly they’re standing up straighter, and they’ve got this new confidence just from putting it on. That’s what’s most exciting for me.
There isn’t anyone you’re still fantasizing about dressing?
Well, maybe Emma Stone [laughs]. But honestly, this question is hard for me because I’m just so lucky. A lot of my pie-in-the-sky fantasies—women like Emily Blunt, Kerry Washington and Jessica Alba … these ladies who are super stylish and have really exciting places to go—have worn the collection already. The fact that they pulled from my line is so exciting.
You’re part of the inaugural class of designers for the Saint Louis Fashion Fund Incubator program, which brings together six emerging designers from across the country to collaborate and receive crucial business support to launch their careers. You’re the only designer from St. Louis. What has that experience been like?
So amazing. We started ten months ago, and it’s all just flown by. I think we were all looking for a place where we could stop working in our little silos and come together with all designers, and also get some business support from industry leaders. It’s been pretty incredible so far. Have you been down to the incubator?
Not yet! Tell me about it.
You should! It has everything we need: an event space, our own offices, a cut-and-sew area. Usually our doors are closed and we’re all working, but on the second Saturday of every month we open the doors to the public and let them shop. It’s become a nice little tradition for us already, and we all love working directly with customers on those days. Everyone should come by.
All images courtesy of Wai Ming