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Asai AW23
Photography Chester McKee

It’s a marathon, not a sprint: A Sai Ta is taking his time

The Rihanna-approved rising star behind ASAI landed on the LFW schedule for the first time in four years. Here he talks taking a break, making his comeback, and doing his own thing

From the moment he burst onto the scene at Fashion East’s AW17 show, London-based designer A Sai Ta was tipped as one to watch, thanks, in part, to his punchy tie-dyed Hot Wok tops – a firm fave among fashion fanatics and celebrities alike. 

But following his first solo show for AW19, in which he traded technicolour brights for neutral, earthen tones and patchworked leather, the designer all but disappeared, making only brief appearances to collaborate with Rihanna’s Fenty line and elsewhere design some very fabulous pillows

“The last four years have been about looking inwards at myself and examining what I achieved and [figuring out] where I wanted to go,” Ta explains. “I went straight from the foundation course at Central Saint Martins to launching the brand, and it was so all-consuming I didn’t really have time to process everything.” 

During this soul-searching period – the middle of which was a void filled by the pandemic – Ta reflected on his success so far and the shortcomings that he felt stopped him from achieving his full potential. “People get too rigid in their mindsets which I think comes from a place of fear,” he says. Eventually, the designer exorcised his fashion demons and finally returned to the runway for AW23

As one of the most anticipated shows of London Fashion Week this season, seeing ASAI’s name on the schedule was a sight for sore eyes. Debuted on the final day of shows, Ta’s comeback collection was a mish-mash of both new and revisited ideas – spanning mesh dresses that exploded into a frisson of snaking weeping willow-like tendrils, to signature nunchuck-shaped handbags and a matching motif that appeared across skintight leather dresses. 

Also back was the crowd-pleasing Hot Wok material, which was this time rendered into an outrageous, shearling-lined puffer coat, and a sweeping, floor-length gown. Now fully back in fashion’s hamster wheel, Ta is equal parts anxious and optimistic about his future. “This whole period has been so positive and everything has been going so well, I’ve just been waiting for something to fuck up,” he jokes. “So far, it hasn’t – but I’ve been waiting.” 

Here, he reflects on his extended break, finding peace in his creative process, and the limitation of identity politics in design. 

Hi A Sai! How are you feeling after the show? 

A Sai Ta: I’m super excited and relieved. It’s such a big relief, but it’s also so surreal to realise so many things I’d imagined over the past four years and bring them to life. So many people turned up to support me and help me make the collection and it felt like there were a lot of full circles closed and new ones opened. 

Your last collection dropped for AW19. What informed the decision to take a break? 

A Sai Ta: I still have such anguish over the last four years, deciding whether to do the next collection or not, but now that I’ve done the follow-up, I realised it was never really a big deal, just something I’d built up in my head. There was no specific reason why I took a break, there were multiple factors, but I’m glad I trusted my instinct and I think there was a power in taking time to step back at such a peak moment. I definitely felt anxious at times, but also powerful because I was following my own path which I’ve always done. I didn’t get into Central Saint Martins until later on and even while I was there I took pauses, so it felt like a natural thing for me to do. Now, I’m back and super excited and prepared to take it to the next step. 

“I felt like I had to [come back] because I had so many ideas rotting in me” – A Sai Ta

Why was now the time to return? 

A Sai Ta: It definitely felt like it was the right time, the beginning of a new cycle. I felt like I had to because I had so many ideas rotting in me. Fashion has always been a pillar for me, providing me with a sense of community and connection with people. It’s always been more than just clothes – I get a lot of my sense of self through the making of my creations and seeing them on others. I still doubt myself a lot and I’m my own worst critic, but people showing up for me is so positive and encouraging and it makes me realise that it is worth doing it for the sake of it. 

How do you approach a comeback collection after an extended break? 

A Sai Ta: There were so many things that had a past presence. The bags were first samples two and a half years ago and there were other items from previous seasons that I hadn’t shown that morphed into new ideas with different fabrics and techniques. 

The hardware and handbags were prototyped lots of times to get the shape and functionality right which was very concise, but I created other items with a completely different, more DIY process. It was all about approaching each garment or item in a new way because I felt more comfortable with the idea of having many influences and the concept of yin-yang as the connection between all of it. 

There’s an overwhelming pressure on young designers to continue to up the ante every season. How has it impacted you? 

A Sai Ta: I’ve always felt like I wanted to achieve a perfect collection of handbags, shoes, ready-to-wear high fashion with 30 looks and a big performance because they’re the kind of shows that I’ve always looked up to and there’s so much pressure to compete at that level. Supriya (Lele) told me to remember that I’m just one person and that was really encouraging and gave me a better understanding that it’s a marathon. I don’t have to pour my heart, soul, blood, sweat, and tears to produce 60 different samples and I don’t have to blend so many ideas. I can maybe say one thing with the collection and know that next season I can say something else. 

Previously, I always treated every collection as if it were my last, but I realised this is one of many, many collections and a chance to move things forward. This collection doesn’t define me – I’m more than these clothes and more than the work that I create. Over the past four years, I’ve really been trying to understand what success means. It’s great to produce great work and that’s something I know, but I want to get better each year. I know I’m not where I want to be, but I know in 10-15 years I’ll become a really great dressmaker and I’m happy to share the process as I get to that stage. 

With the new perspective that you have now, is there anything you wish you’d done differently? 

A Sai Ta: I’m really happy with the journey and I wouldn’t change it for anything. Had I continued, maybe I would have stopped earlier, but we’ll never know. Something that is constantly on my mind is: what is the purpose of fashion? I feel guilty almost partaking in a system that I don’t truly connect with on a soul level. Sometimes, I feel really activated to resist, but it bounces between that and surrendering and trying to find my own way. I’ve learned to focus within my own bubble and create my own community. It’s definitely within my DNA to combat and chip away at it, but I learned that you can make changes when you’re in the house and I need to get to a better position, which hopefully will come. 

“Identity politics needs to move forward to allow people to cross boundaries and show things beyond their race. I’m kind of tired of being used as the voice to speak on racial matters” – A Sai Ta

I’m so happy that you found peace within your creative process and I’m excited to see your progression after this season. What are you excited about? 

A Sai Ta: I’m really excited to shoot the campaign and definitely looking forward to doing another show in September, but that’s about as far as it goes. I want to move the brand forward and continue exploring cross-collaborations. I never thought somebody like me who grew up on a council estate in Plumstead would do a collaboration with Rihanna, so I realised that you can’t limit yourself and you have to dream big in order to achieve things. 

I’m also learning that I can show things beyond my racial identity and look at contemporary dance or architecture without it relating to an Asian identity or the London experience. Before now, I definitely thought that people wouldn’t think my work was authentic if it didn’t relate, but identity politics needs to move forward to allow people to cross boundaries and show things beyond their race. I’m kind of tired of being used as the voice to speak on racial matters. 

Lastly, when can people get their hands on those bags? 

A Sai Ta: Everyone was really excited about the bags and I’m looking forward to getting them out. For now, because this was my first and last NEWGEN show, I’m trying to secure the next season and figure out how I can show again – but I’m definitely going to get the next collection into production soon!