Starting Your Sartorial Journey : A Conversation on Style w/ Warren Liao and Derek Tian
Black Lapel was built on the principle that all men, regardless of size, shape and color should have the ability to be their sartorial best on a daily basis. So we asked two of the founders of Black Lapel, Warren Liao and Derek Tian to discuss their own stylistic journeys. Read below for their thoughts on the process.
BL: Tell us about how you came to discover and develop your personal style. What was the journey like for the two of you?
DEREK: It’s definitely a process that took place over time.
WARREN: Yes, it certainly isn’t something that happens overnight but it’s a journey that we all can, or rather, should embark on.
DEREK: For me, it began when I was growing up in the 90’s. At that time, it was all about hip hop. It was more than just music; it permeated pop culture, entertainment, and of course, style. Everyone was wearing these vibrant, colorful and baggy clothes that were somewhat rebellious, but fresh and cool at the same time. It was about obscuring your real silhouette. The less someone knew where your real waist was located, the better! I was young and had no clue, but I knew I wanted that look.
BL: And what about now?
DEREK: Right now I’m not so much interested in ripping any particular style. Now, I’m looking to be inspired and to create my own.
BL: And what inspires you?
DEREK: What real people around me are wearing and what I’m feeling. I can be inspired by anything from a song I hear on the shower radio to what a random guy on the subway is wearing. More than anything, I love people who just have confidence in what they wear. They are inspiring because when I see them I think to myself, “that guy dressed the way he did to show the world who he is and what he’s feeling today”. It doesn’t get more authentic than that. And I know I can do that too – I can craft my own look and let it really just be an extension of me. And the search for that authentic voice is what inspires me to be better.
BL: To be better dressed?
DEREK: To be better dressed and to be a better man. There’s definitely a connection there. When I take the time to look my best, it gives me the confidence to do anything.
WARREN: For sure. It feels great to be well-dressed on a daily basis. In a holistic sense, you feel like you’re getting better when you always try to look your best. Coming out of college, I didn’t know how poorly I was dressing. I never thought about what I was wearing until one year, I got a button down shirt as a gift that was two sizes smaller than my other shirts. I never wore it because I thought it was the wrong size, but it actually fit me just about right. I came to that realization when one day, all my other shirts were at the cleaners and I had no choice but to wear that shirt and I got tons of compliments. It turned out to be my best fitting shirt.
BL: So that “wrong-sized shirt” gave you more confidence?
WARREN: Absolutely, because it fit better than anything else I owned and everyone around me recognized that. When you wear something that fits right, you’re telling people that you are self-aware and you care enough to wear something that brings out your best. But that shirt was just a step in this style journey we’ve been talking about – the first step towards putting in that small but effective time and effort to learn how to dress better.
BL: Where did you go from there?
WARREN: Well, after seeing how well the shirt fit, I realized that nothing else in my closet worked.
DEREK: Hah! I know exactly what you mean!
WARREN: I remember one night shortly after rediscovering that shirt, trying to pick out an outfit before going out, and I just couldn’t pick out a look that I was happy with. I didn’t know what to do but I knew at that point I wasn’t dressing as well as I could or should be and had to improve my entire wardrobe.
BL: So how did you build your wardrobe?
WARREN: Well, I learned you can’t expect to go online or to a store and build your wardrobe without knowing what you need. So in the beginning, it’s really all about learning how to break down looks. It’s about finding elements that you think work well on other people and understanding why it looks good on them. Then, you can figure out how those items can work for you.
BL: So for you, style is about learning and experimenting?
WARREN: Right. Style really is an art. And art is personal, it’s self-experimentation. Sure, there are certain fit or pattern guidelines that are easy for all guys to follow but its like taking an art class – you’re not an artist just yet. You become an artist by working to create your own style. It’s about experimenting to create that coherent outfit that not only looks good but makes you feel great.
DEREK: Absolutely. I remember when I started experimenting and building my wardrobe, I knew I needed to learn the basics and take it slow, but that also meant keeping an open mind and not being afraid to try things I wasn’t used to…like slimmer fitting shirts.
I knew a slimmer fitting shirt looked good on others but I never thought I was a slim fit kind of guy. I was the muffin-top-puffy-shirt-hanging-out-of-the-side-and-back-of-my-pants kind of guy and completely ignorant of the potential for improvement. Then one day I tried on a truly slim fit shirt and was blown away by the fit and how it just made me look better. Forget ignorance, enlightenment is bliss! And that’s how you build your confidence, by just doing it. Another thing is consistency. When I first started making the transition and buying new clothes, I had a bunch of loose-fit, double pleated pants with my new slim fit shirts, and let’s just say it wasn’t my best look.
WARREN: Haha! Yes, it’s important to think in outfits. For example, buying things like your shirts and sweaters together. Using these items as a foundation then working towards a look or concept.
BL: What has been the best thing you’ve discovered so far through experimentation?
DEREK: The best thing for me, and probably the most fun, was finding out that style is in the details. Adding or changing the smallest details can make a huge difference in how you look – and the best part is that small details don’t require large effort. For example, say you just purchased that sharply tailored suit – you’ve finished the hard part. Now you can exponentially step up the look with a patterned pocket square or a knit lapel flower.
WARREN: Yeah and accessories are not only affordable, but easy to incorporate into any look.
DEREK: And it just brings your style to that next level.
WARREN: You start feeling good about these details because you’re doing something you originally thought you couldn’t pull off. But you know what? You can! Now that you’ve learned the power of something like a pocket square, you might take a small step further…like getting a ticket pocket on your next suit, wearing more colorful socks with your outfits or wearing some cool and unique cufflinks.
DEREK: And the moment you realize you can pull off these stylish details, your confidence increases in leaps and bounds. It gets easier and easier to try new things. You don’t look at embellished advertisements and get intimidated anymore. Now, you know that you’re in control and you can project your own ideal. And that’s when you become that artist. And just like in art, those style rules can be broken too. Your socks don’t always have to be the bridge between your pants and your shoes. A canvas belt with your suit? Go for it. Just wear it all with the confidence of an artist at his own gallery.
BL: Is there anything about style that you wish more guys would know?
WARREN: Developing a “sense of style” is not an overnight process. I wish more guys would know that. It definitely took time and effort for me, but it was well worth it. It’s okay if some days you do something “wrong” or don’t look your best, so long as you keep an upward trajectory. I guarantee you this… you’ll never meet a stylish guy who said, “I really wish I never tried to dress better. I wish I could go back to how I used to dress.” It’s all about patience, trying new things, and stepping out of your comfort zone in a way that’s challenging but fun.
DEREK: Absolutely. Challenging yourself to improve your style should be a part of and really just mirror how you approach life in general. Good style might feel unattainable if you’re just starting out, but it’s within reach for everyone. Improving your style is a component of working towards that ideal you, a fundamental step in self-actualization.
WARREN: You can see and feel your own progress on a daily basis. That’s incredibly rewarding.
DEREK: And at the end of the day, that’s what I want in life…to always progress and to improve both my style and who I am as a person. And that’s what Black Lapel is for me. It is progress and it is giving guys the tools they need to progress.
WARREN: It’s always incredible seeing guys start down that path towards developing their style. We see the growth in their confidence and we can really tell they’re feeling good about themselves.
DEREK: And when you’re looking good and feeling good, all kinds of great things move your way.
Looking for more? Read a more personal and in-depth interview by Modern Fellows with Black Lapel Founder, Warren Liao, on risking taking, leaving Wall Street, and the future of professional menswear.
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