Thursday 1 June 2017

Dee Tang - The Creative Energy Behind Kawaiian Lion!

I first came across Dee and her label Kawaiian Lion in a Homes To Love online article and I remember flicking through the photos oohing and aahing constantly at the carefree style that is so synonymous with this lifestyle label. So I wrote to Dee asking whether she would like to be featured on La Maison Jolie and I was smiling from ear to ear when I read her reply!

Her cheery reply started with the words ahoy rani and ended with big love; the entire email was written in lower case, sprinkled generously with exclamation marks and had a fun vibe. Trust me, you could not help but smile!

When I received the responses to my interview questions from Dee, I read and re-read them itching to edit but I decided not to. I love the way Dee writes, just the way she designs - infused with love, light and texture! So I wanted to tell you Dee's story in her words, how she got into design and how it feeds her soul, her love for her family, her work and the environment evident in every little word sans any fancy editing.

Dee Tang and her husband Desmond Sweeney live in an apartment on Sydney's Northern Beaches with their two little gorgeous girls Kawa Leaf and Rafa Rose. The couple run a very sought after homewares label Kawaiian Lion and a wallpaper company 8footwalls.

Perfect for a bachelor pad (or as Dee puts it dude-friendly), a girly bedroom or a contemporary living space, there is nothing pretentious about her designs, they are all laid-back, beautiful and just plain and simple COOL!

Their home exudes a similar old school vintage vibe with their Sunday Palmy wallpaper up on the walls punctuated with cool art prints, scattered collection of peace cushions- a staple in the Kawaiian Lion range, new crocheted pieces and snuggly throws on the day bed all available from the Kawaii love shack. So here's the cool, down-to-earth and completely unadulterated interview with Dee Tang, the design guru behind Kawaiian Lion!
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Oh hai! I’m Dee. I’m a mama of 3 baes - Kawaiian Lion (4yo), Kawa Leaf (3yo) and Rafa Rose (1yo). I am really into feedsack patchwork blankets, moccasins, hawaiiana, old rattan baskets, swimming in the ocean and overalls. I have about 12 pairs on high rotation. You will usually find me in a pair of them with a vintage bandana these days. I particularly dig the Americana workwear variety worn by smelly ole tradies from the 50’s - 60’s era.

My husband Desmond is an artist. He’s very tall, has a beard and I like to ruffle it and his feathers much to his chagrin. It’s been super cute seeing him bring up two little girls. It tickles my heart immensely.

I grew up in Western Australia and hence find it perfectly normal to say hi to strangers on the street. Now we live in Newport beach, in the northern beaches of Sydney above an old fruit shop. I don’t like driving unless its totes necessary and walk everywhere with my babes in tow - which pretty much is our bermuda triangle of the beach, our store - the kawaii love shack and the op shop.Can you share with us your creative journey to where you are now?

It was never entirely creative. I wasn’t encouraged to be creative as a kid. With my ethnic folks growing up in the ‘burbs of Perth, their dreams of me becoming a doctor or engineer were dashed and slashed with my penchant for drawing and dreaming. I ran away from West Oz as soon as I could at 19 and worked and lived overseas for a while painting surfboards, teaching english and chasing the sun, snow and sand.

I went back to uni to study design at RMIT in Melbourne and that's where my creative trajectory really started. Upon graduating I worked as a visual merchandiser - I adored making props, sourcing paraphernalia and the act of creating a visual display in windows. I did that for years for various fashion brands before I began freelancing as a set dresser for TV and print ads.

I have always enjoyed creating a space and environment that was specific for a product so the move across from fashion to homewares was quite a natural and smooth transition. At this point I was really interested in interiors for my own home and found that there just was not anything that took my not-so-fancy. Anything beachy was too boaty or stiff lip Hamptons looking or fell into that super cheesy fake driftwood territory. Get my drift?

I wanted pieces in the home which were worn and washed out but also super hardy and dude friendly. Homewares which were not at all precious looking and looked like you have had them forever. I wanted to translate fashion techniques such as embroidery, stone-washing and patchwork into the home. These have become classic motifs of a Kawaiian Lion piece.

We released our first range “Love is an Island’ pretty much exactly 4 years ago. Its been a majorly eye opening and pretty wild ride of constant learning about design, production, running your own business all while balancing little lions and family/life balance. Kawaiian Lion has grown at a pace that I can just handle - it still remains small, family owned and bespoke as I try to spend as much time as I can with my family.

I don’t believe in mass consumption or taking over the world. I stand strongly in my ethos of slow production, quality and creating long lasting relationships with my suppliers and customers which make Kawaiian Lion what is is - a laid-back, luxe lion who knows how to chill the coconuts out and lazes around with laid-back abandon with well-made and unique pieces.

Recently I was asked to style a supper club event for a coffee conglomerate. Five years ago, while I was a struggling freelance stylist I would have leaped at the opportunity. But at this point in my life, as a mama and a small business owner, at first I could not understand why I felt such hesitation towards the project when the money and exposure sounded all too good to be true.

Like, I seriously asked about 20 people on their opinion on what to do, as my heart and head seemed to be in direct conflict. In the end after much deliberation, conversation, meditation and research the decision to say no was made. In a video about the company, the former CEO left the business due to their unwillingness to change their production of un-biodegradable products and stated, “We don’t own this earth. We just borrow it from our children”. This really hit home and made the decision to say no, a simple and easy one.

So this is where I’m at. Growing but not really wanting to grow too big for our Lion boots. Being as conscious and thoughtful as possible with production but also working towards making it a sustainable business for my family and lifestyle.How would you define your style and how has it evolved over the years?

I’ve always been a major tomboy which is reflected in the way I style myself and the surrounding environment. There is always elements of femininity but its always mixed with masculine vibes. The yin and the yang. It’s never fancy, and I can’t handle anything looking dressy in any way. I used to collect tonnes of stuff off the side of the road and from the tip or snooping through people’s garages. But as I get older, as much as I still love to forage, I have become more picky in my hunt for quality, well made pieces. I like an all-white base to begin with so you can layer colour, texture and mix up elements as you go.

I’ve started collecting artwork this year. I recently had a print framed by our artist friend Lisa LaPointe. As I walked to the car, clutching my newly custom framed piece, I thought to myself, “Wow. I’m in my 30’s and I just paid a butt load of money to get timber wrapped about this bloody print. This is truly a marker in my life. I am an adult”.

Our home is a constantly evolving space according to season and mood. I’m always in awe of people’s homes where they don’t ever move anything around and that fruity teapot has sat there for like, 25 years in the same spot. Amazing. My teapots are always itching to move and try out another shelf or sit next to a new ceramic cup.Do you have a favourite collection or design?

The upcoming collection for summer SS17 Les Palmiers - which takes the Kawaiian Lion’s preoccupation with palm trees to the next swayin’ level. I’ve been working with a small crochet team in India to make bespoke throws, bags and cushions with palm motifs for this collection. I have absorbed so much about hand dying and hand woven techniques through the creation process of this range. The current range I work on always becomes my fave range - but once I’ve finished designing it, I’ve usually moved onto the next season and that becomes my love.What is a typical workday like for you?

I try to wake up just before dawn, so I get a moment to breathe, stretch, drink chai and do some indulgent insty without any distractions. Then its time to make brekkie and get Kawa off to kindy. Rafa and I usually hang around at our local cafe rukus for a chai and stop by the love shack to pack orders. When she naps, I try to get the bulk of my work done - all the brain intensive stuff - where I churn through emails and production notes. After the little cubs go to sleep I try and squeeze in work and catch up on social media.Can you describe the design process?

Usually it starts with a word, phrase or a reference of some kind which unravels and reveals the story to me. I am forever flicking through mags, pinterest, insty and old books to see if anything catches my eye. I tear out sheets all the time and use a pinterest board and soon enough a pattern will reveal itself to me with all my current influences and interest. A certain fabric and/or texture will work with the artwork and the story will grow from there.

What are you working on at the moment?

AW18 where khaki and crochet play the lead roles. There’s also a collaboration with Drifter surf store in Bali which is super exciting as it's our first foray into tee’s for big people. What according to you is the next big thing in interior design?

Bah! No idea. I don’t follow trends or really care to know what is big or small. I generally design what I like, love, am ridiculously besotted by and they’re not anything to being on trend. If anything, as I like to translate vintage for a modern audience so these things are usually well and truly “dead”. I guess you could say I am always conscious of trends but I do not abide by them in any capacity and will only create things which rings true to the Kawaiian Lion’s journey and his style.

However, I have noticed that the trend is definitely moving towards a warmer, softer palette. That whole cool minimalist thing is well and truly frozen and old skool 70’s shades are swooping in.

Coz’ my husband works more in an interiors based world with his painting, I do see a big movement towards distressed wall effects and making everything look legit proper old. The more patina, the more weathering, and the more use of a muted palette seems to translate as the new fancy.What advice can you give those seeking a career in interior styling?

Just do it. Find peeps you dig and ask them if you can assist. Don’t be afraid to ask. With insty these days, its pretty easy to hit up folks that you like and say hey and *hand wave emoji* Gather as much experience as you can and while you can. Get a van or a wagon or at least some roof racks cos’ you will be hauling heaps of sh** all the time. Also spend time developing your interior style and collaborate with other folks - like a photographer, or designer who you can create content with and do fun creative stuff together.What 3 words describe your brand?

Surf-folkCan you share 3 things people don’t know about you?

Dee is short for Doris.

I was on a mega flop reality TV show called ‘Top Design’ - you may not remember me as the “Fashion Rebel” who designed the modular decking system on episode 1 container challenge. And yes, I have cried on National TV.

I haven’t had a TV since I left home - so I have no pop cultural references from circa year 2001 onwards. Don’t ever ask me to join your Quiz night team.Which is your favourite room in your home and why?

The lounge room for shizzle. The ole’ chesterfield I picked up on ebay for 100 bucks sits there all weathered and stoked on life with his kawaiian friends. Also the leather butterfly chair we got as a wedding present and the 20 buck cane daybed I scored on gumtree which is covered with old patchwork blankets for the girls. There’s the whole extended family of Kawaiian Lion pieces in the lounge, so its one huge cushie love fest. We also have the Sunday Palmy wallpaper up on the main wall which lends a real vintage folk laissaiz-faire feel without even trying.Where do you see Kawaiian Lion in five years time?

I have no idea. I can’t really see beyond next year’s AW18 at the moment. I would however like to collaborate more with awesome Air BnB and guest houses around the globe and artists I admire. I would like to travel more and visit my makers and bring my girls along for the colourful ride.

What's your favourite inspirational quote?

*putting on bad german accent* There is so such thing as a problem - only a situation. All problems are illusions of the mind - Eckhart Tolle

And another one I’ve been trying my hardest to stick to - When you judge people, you have no time to love them - Mother Teresa
Cool vintage bohemian vibes with explicit messages of war is dumb and makes waves not war and lots of peace thrown in for good at the very heart and soul of the luxe yet laid back, riding the waves- Kawaiian Lion!

I'm seriously besotted by their peace cushions and their uber indulgent soft linen sheets and doona covers. Everything you see on their website is true to Dee's vintage-folk style and ethos of creating quality, laid back lifestyle products that will remain timeless and treasured forever.

The homewares collections are sold through stockists from Berry to Byron Bay, across the seas in the U.S, as well as through their website and from the brick and mortar Kawaii love shack.

Till next time... if you're visiting Newport Beach then be sure to bask in the magic of the exotic Kawaiian Lion! Mahalo!

PHOTOGRAPHS BY SARI SHARPE (1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 8, 9, 12, 13, 14) & SAMANTHA MACKIE (5, 10, 11)
CLOTHES FROM CHASING UNICORNS (PHOTOS: 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 8, 9, 12, 13, 14)

A big thank you to Dee for taking time out of her schedule for the interview!

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