Conversation with Cipango Paris
Legend has it that Marco Polo returned from his Silk Road expedition reporting an island called Cipango. This 13th century discovery continued to invoke curiosity of globetrotters hundreds of years down the line - one being modern Parisian fashion designer, Paola Pimentel.
Paola started Cipango to celebrate our cultural and aesthetic differences. Her innovative brand brings style influences from all over the world to a small atelier in the French capital. “I don’t think there’s a single culture that’s uninteresting when it comes to fashion,” says Paola, who draws inspiration from her many travel experiences.
And she has us convinced. Read on to learn how a new mid-20s designer pulled off three collections (and one Paris runway show) during her first year in business, and why her latest collection is her proudest career moment to date…
So Paola, tell me about your brand.
Paola: We are a young brand with a focus on multiculturalism. Simply put, each new collection represents a fusion of two different cultures. And we aim to meet this vision equally with responsible practices. We upcycle when we can and use sustainable fabrics for everything else - natural linen and cotton, for example. And I like to think our pieces have personality, with colorful and original designs. We are a French brand and produce everything in Paris.
And can you tell me a bit more about the production and supply chain process?
Paola: So we are working with a small atelier in the tenth arrondissement. We also have a studio in Montmartre, where I'm working with my team most of the time. Since the beginning, we’ve done most things ourselves (fabric cutting etc.) as we are such a small team. And that’s really the supply chain - we prepare the collection and bring it to the atelier. They finish everything up and then send the pieces to New York or our store in Paris.
Wow, that’s impressive. So how did Cipango get started? Did you have a background in fashion beforehand?
Paola: Yes, I’ve known I wanted to work in fashion since around five years old. I’ve been drawing dresses and clothes since I knew how to hold a pen. My father is an artist so I spent a lot of my childhood in his studio. When it came time to choose my own studies, I decided to go to a high school that specialized in design. After high school, I went to fashion school and then went to New York to work as a fashion designer for Puma and John Coy. Around this time, I wanted to learn a bit more about the business side of fashion, so I studied international business for two years. Following my studies, I returned to Paris and worked for a luxury fashion brand from Africa. After a year with them, I decided that it was time to start my own brand. I was ready. And this is when I created Cipango.
What was the main challenge in the beginning as an entrepreneur?
Paola: Generally speaking, it’s tough to find your place in the fashion world as a new brand because there is so much competition. It's challenging to make yourself look serious in front of others. Luckily for us, we had a pretty strong identity since the beginning, so we overcame this challenge fairly quickly. After establishing ourselves, we grew quickly and faced obstacles like finding a space to sell, keeping up communication and putting together a runway show. We did our first runway very early and launched three collections in the first year. It was very challenging to create these collections in such a short amount of time, but we found that we accomplished things faster when we had lots to do. The brand is still so new - we’ve only been around for one year, and I think the challenges have changed every few months. In the beginning, the challenge was just to create the brand…then to grow it, create bigger runway shows, tell stories with each collection and find creative ways to be responsible with materials and production.
So each collection marries two different cultures, yes? Where did this idea come from and how do you choose each one?
Paola: Yes, so we choose influences for many different reasons. It could be because of a trip, a simple interest in the region, or a suggestion from someone on our team who would like to explore a concept. Honestly, I don’t think there’s a single culture that’s uninteresting when it comes to fashion. I think we can create a beautiful collection based on any area in the world. For the first collection I pulled inspiration from Japan. My family is very passionate about this country and the name is also influenced by it. Cipango is actually a name that comes from the Nipponese archipelago reported by Marco Polo on his return from the Silk Road. The name represents different trips I have taken around the world and a longing for new discovery. I began with Japan, and wanted to pair it with a culture that would aesthetically fit. So we decided to mix it with a style of the USA from the 70s. For the second collection, I knew I wanted to use African influence as I had worked with an African brand and this time was a very strong period for me artistically. The main color of this collection was orange, to represent the desert and geographical landscape of Africa. We then paired it with the French futurist years of the 60s for a feminine and innovative edge. Finally, we used Korea and the Dominican Republic for our latest collection. I am half Dominican and half French, so I wanted to use elements of my heritage in the brand. I felt Korean style would match well with the Dominican carnival, even if these countries are complete opposites. I think Korea brings a kind of minimalistic purity. Korea also uses beautiful materials like natural linens and cotton that balanced out aspects of the Dominican carnival like colors, flowers, masks and monsters.
So interesting! And what are you the most proud of?
Paola: Maybe the last collection - I'm really happy with how we paired the Korean and Dominican cultures. I think we did a great job at highlighting two very different styles into one new and contemporary collection. Plus the materials we used were 90% natural, so I am very proud of this. Finally, can you give our readers one piece of advice to become more sustainable in their lives?
Paola: I think we should really, really reduce eating meat and fish. This is so important as meat production is having such a bad impact on the environment. Regarding fashion, we should focus on wearing clothing with natural fabric, even over upcycling. Upcycling is still better than fast fashion, however wearing natural products is truly the best option as upcycled clothing can still contain harmful chemicals that are quite damaging. I feel we cannot be 100% perfect when it comes to the environment, but simply being mindful and making an effort really does make a difference.