Insider Industry Interview: Joui Turandot of Vagadu

Hidden away in the mission is one of San Francisco’s daring eco-fashion gems Joui Turandot, the artist responsible for the fashion label Vagadu. When stepping into Joui’s shared loft at 375 Alabama St. #490, which she shares with her friend Giselle, immediately the racks of gorgeous garments caught my eye as interns and employees worked on garments. Often their laughter would swell up and over take the music that played in the background. With such a positive atmosphere, it was no wonder that such gorgeous garments were brought into being.

Joui greeted us warmly as she brought us into her workspace, a small room covered in draped swathes of soft pink rose fabric. Touting one of her highly desired vests, it felt as though we were visiting a friend that we hadn’t seen for a long time.

FNA – I understand that your grandparents were artists and you’ve worked with a lot of artists in the past; was it  your grandparents’ influence that led you to design? What else about your childhood shaped your designs?

JT – My grandfathers on both sides were artists so I grew up doing art.  Drawing, painting, basically whatever I could get my hands on.

But my grandfather, the artist, has definitely has been a huge influence for me, especially with his color theory.

I never knew him, he died in ‘71, but I would say, and I would have an art historian challenge me on this, but I think his color theory is much more advanced and interesting than Maltese and any of those other guys.  But he’s just not that well known.

Hopefully there’s a place for him within the Bay Area we’ve been kind of working up towards that, and his biography will be coming out soon to hopefully create some interest in the long lost bohemian artist of the Sausalito water front.

And it wasn’t just my grandfather. Around the time I was 8 or 10 I started sewing lessons. My grandmother got a degree at the Art Institute in the 40’s, or was it the 30’s? She never pursued that career, but she would always make costumes for me.

I’d always have the best costumes. I would live in my little fairy outfits, so I was always super fem, super into clothes and dressing up, so I think that got me to think ‘Oh, maybe I’ll make my own things…’

And not only that, since my parents both grew up poor, they both had this poor mentality of, ‘We’re not going to buy you whatever you want. You’re going to go to the thrift store and if you don’t like it make it better.’ So I’ve been going to the thrift store since I was very young, and I hated them for it at the time, but now I’m like, eh, they’re good, and it’s in vogue now.

Joui laughs, ‘It wasn’t in vogue then, let me tell you. It really wasn’t. I think that has shaped me to be creative with little resources.’

FNA – Before you attended college you spent a year abroad in Germany. When you moved back here from Germany it seems that something about that trip changed you, especially since when you went to school you didn’t study fashion.

JT – I didn’t for my BA. I did media studies here at Mills; I was doing film and documentary filmmaking.

What happened was I always sewed and I was totally going to become a fashion designer in high school. Everyone knew it; I knew it, all these things and then I actually lived abroad in Germany for a year, and I kind of had this *rolls her eyes* life changing experience where I thought ‘You know, I need to get a regular education.’ I didn’t want to be one of those designers who only knows design all their lives, and so lets just see what happens. And then I got completely enamored and absorbed with film.

FNA – How did Germany change how you saw the world or maybe how to approach things?

JT – I don’t know, Germany, what did Germany teach me? I was very depressed, which was good. Times of darkness are always good for self-reflection. It’s not always good when things are happy and good.

So Germany kind of just showed me what was out there. I think I’m a really well rounded person so I don’t ever want to become completely wrapped up in one thing, but I have noticed that it seems that you really have to choose one thing to become really good at.

That was kind of the hardest thing because I’m a photographer, I’m a video editor, I’m a film maker, I’m all these things and everyone’s like…’well what are you?’ You kind of have to package it tighter.

FNA – What brought you back to design?

JT – I came back to designing years later when I was working on a friend’s film in costumes. Something just kind of clicked and I just had what they call that ‘ah ha’ moment.

There was just something there that I felt was different and was different enough that I knew that I could pursue this to that degree that was needed to become successful. It’s like with film, you have to really pursue it completely with your whole heart and soul, but I never was willing to give it my whole heart and soul and that was the difference there.

Then I started collaborating. And that fell through, and I thought ‘I really need to get more skills under my belt.’ And I really wasn’t interested in going to any really major schools since I had only just graduated. So there is this amazing trade school here, it’s amazing; it’s called Apparel Arts, and it allows you to get a certificate in pattern making.

FNA – How long does the program take?

JT – The program is self-paced, so you give it what you got and you get as much as you put in. And since I was highly motivated I finished it in less than two years. They have really great teachers and they are very thorough (Joui punches her fist into her hand to emphasize exactly how tough the teachers are)

I started taking private lessons for the couture collection because I knew I needed a little extra help. So there is this woman who travels as a couture teacher, her name is Susan Khalje, she’s an editor for Threads as well and she is amazing. I’ve taken two classes with her so far, and I’ll continue to do so while I can afford it because she really takes it to the next level. She’s really wonderful.

FNA – Are you still doing any work with film at this time?

JT -I’m actually doing costumes for this production right now called Handless by the Ragged Wing ensemble in the Bay Area. This is actually my second time working with them and we learned a lot in the last production, and now we’re going to be a lot better.

FNA – What are some things that inspire you as a designer and how do ideas come to you?

JT – How do ideas come to me…. I’m a very physical designer; a lot of the time I figure things out by doing.

Like this whole blazer thing, was an accident with an old intern and the Discarded to Divine contest and I thought ‘Okay I’ll do this, this is kind of my forte’ and I told my intern at the time, ‘Why don’t you go into the closet and pick out some fabric?’ She went in there and pulled out this horrible tan blazer similar to this awful green blazer here and I thought, “This is terrible, what am I gong to do with this?” And some how out of sitting down and playing around with the fabrics it came. So I really learned from that to work with what I have and to find inspiration within constraints.

So that is one of the reasons why I recycle, not even recycle, recycle is a vague word in the fashion industry, I repurpose, reclaim because with recycled you can get recycled plastic bottle fabric. This is cool if you’re doing mass production, which I’m not. I not interested in buying new; there’s enough things out there to take and give them new life. I think I also have a very soft heart for discarded things, things that people don’t see beauty in, it’s like how people adopt animals that look ugly and sad and ideally I would do that with fabric, or just adopt old things and find a new way to make them beautiful again. But I need more space and I need more helpers! And a place to sell it!

There are so many things along the way: the education needed for people to learn that they want to buy these things that aren’t the best quality of fabric but the work and the effort put into it is amazing. Even though I sometimes have amazing fabrics and I put it into the couture because I do understand that it is expensive and I’m not a big designer yet so I do understand, but ideally in the future I would like to make any gown of any fabric and people would just realize it’s like an art piece and so whatever choice of material I choose that is the luxury not so much the materials make the luxury… the act of creating it in itself.

FNA – How has the economy affected you?

JT – It’s an interesting time, and with this economy it’s been even harder – do I stay true to my vision? Or do I find a cheaper version? That’s where it’s been the hardest for me. That’s just not inspiring for me, because I’m truly an artist in that aspect. I’m not inspired to make the same thing over and over again just because that’s what people want, and I’m not inspired to dumb down my ideas.

I recently met the designer Nick Cave. So I’m inspired by him completely, by his work, everything. He does ready wear and gowns and things for his art, but it’s fully wearable, but he was like, ‘I don’t want to work in galleries where they are like, ‘make it in blue’ and I’m like (as she turns her eyes skyward) ‘yes!’ But it’s taken him his whole life, so it’s a very slow process.

I mean, I’ve only been doing this for three years, well maybe you could say it was for years, but the first year was kind of a mistake. *laughter* That was with another partner and that was just jumping off a cliff, just ‘Ah, lets try it.’ And that’s where a lot of people start off, you kind of have to just go for it. But I look back and I go ‘Agh, I can’t believe I did that!’ But it’s okay, there’s sort of this beautify naiveté that isn’t there when you’re old and jaded. And you’re like, ‘Agh, it’s not good,’ and then you’re no fun either. But it is humbling to think back about the dreams and the ideas I had like, ’I’m gonna be famous after my first fashion show I do!’

FNA – I know, ’Madonna’s gonna wear all my stuff!’

JT – I know! It’s so ridiculous, and it’s fine. For an instance I would think that our most local successful designer is Cari Borja, she’s in the East bay, and she’s been doing it for, gosh, seven years maybe longer even, but she told me it was four years before she made any money.

FNA – Wow. That’s a long time to hold down a business.

JT – And that’s quick, A lot of places, they don’t make money until it’s been ten years. So you don’t get into this business if you’re looking to make money. You get into this business if you’re into artistic stuff. There are people in the industry for money, and it becomes this Wall Street figure, it’s not about art. It’s like, ‘Jeans oh people like jeans. Oh what kind of jeans, oh okay, we’ll do that. And we’ll get some famous start to wear them and then boom we’re done.’ You know and it’s some sort of mathematical thing. So if you have this personal vision that no one knows that they want it yet, then that takes a lot longer.

FNA – What was something you learned after you became an official designer that surprised you the most?

JT – It’s definitely been that my whole life I sort of was the fashion setter type. You know, people always looked to me like, ‘Wow she’s fashionable, she really does wild stuff,’ they were always kind of looking towards me for inspiration.

And it’s been interesting that as I create; I’ve discovered that there’s a big gap between people liking how you present yourself and what your selling and learning how to sell that. Like actually selling the clothes rather then just you as a personality.

There’s a lot of people who really just like looking at you, but then everyone has these unsaid rules about what they would actually wear, so it’s interesting to me to know that when you have so many people come up to you and say ‘You look great.’ and you’re like ‘You’d look great too,’ and they’re just, ‘Well if you say so….’

And it’s so funny because there are all these rules, so I’m really interested about that. It actually has opened up this entire new world to me of the psychology of people and their clothing. Because I think we are in a very boring and conservative era where people are so afraid to do anything really different. Even look at the stars, there’s only a few stars that are really interesting, and actually thank God for Lady Gaga, I mean thank God someone is being original and not afraid to stand out.

Visit Vagadu online at or on Facebook!

By Jessica Schoefer