It might sound like the most romanticised image ever: young and ambitious artists trying to make a living in New York just by making art. Being independent, working with the most creative people in the industry and last but not least; kickin’ ass. Not easy and only a few artists seem to succeed at it, and Sophia Chang
, aka Esymai, is definitely one of them. After she attented Parsons School of Design she got active in the art and design community. Armed with her trademark bun, Sophia manages to run her own creative agency working in the fields of media, graphic design, illustration, printmaking and apparel.
With a destined love for hip-hop and rap music, the youthful and eccentric spirit has worked for organizations and brands like the NBA, Staple Design, Nike, Undefeated, Jason Markk and recently with PUMA on a full collection of clothing and footwear. Sophia became an established name in the streetwear scene over the past years, and now we’ve caught up with the “bun queen” herself to discuss career, the streetwear scene in New York and how she pulls through in this male-dominated world.
Can you remember the first time you were inspired by a design, a specific artwork or illustration? Does that particular piece still influence your work?
I used to be heavily influenced by cartoons. Of course it still influences me today, in different ways. Some people still see illustration as cartoons. Using line and color and giving life to drawing is something very exciting to me. I love being inspired by other illustrators and creatives.
Can you tell me more about your career, how did it all start?
I’ve been drawing my entire life but it wasn’t until college when I learned about the commercial world of illustration. I had no idea you can build a career out of it. When I was in school I wanted to be like a sponge soaking everything up. I didn’t exactly have a style or creative voice, I had specific tastes though. I took full advantage of my school resources, libraries, went to talks, I loved going to museums, I did a lot of internships which paved the way for my career.
I was able to work with a lot of great brand names such as Complex Magazine, Stussy/Undefeated, Ryan McGinness and so forth. These experiences put me in a creative professional environment so I could see how a fine artist worked, how an in-house graphic designer worked, an art director, a fashion designer, a production designer and more. I was able to dip my toe into each of these fields and gain a lot of great experience from each. This knowledge was everything I needed to start my career and start making a living out of it.
You also go under the name of Esymai, is there a special story behind it?
I don’t want to offend any graffiti artists but as a young high school student living in Queens I used to go around tagging with my friends. My friend made up the name ESY for me. “MAI” is “I am” backwards and ESY sounds phonetically like my initials “S” and “C.”
You just teamed up with PUMA on an exclusive collaboration, is this something you’ve always wanted and how was the creative process?
I actually used to work in retail at PUMA in Union Square as a part-time job in college. You never know where you’ll go. Personally I would’ve never imagined that I would be able to have my own full collection of apparel and footwear for men and women, fully branded with my name. Never would I have dreamed of it! The creative process to apply art to clothing is something I was familiar with before I worked on this collection with PUMA. In college I studied silkscreening so I learned about art application to 3D objects. I also interned under a menswear designer so I learned about colorways, and graphic applications to tees. That was pretty much the next step in bringing it all together.
You also had the chance to curate your own art exhibition at Agenda WMNS, called “Babe Show.” You picked artwork from female artists “who embody today’s modern renaissance woman.” What does that exactly mean to you? How are they an example for you and your work?
The Agenda WMNS show was an extremely fun project. As I’ve worked professionally in the creative market over the past 4 years, I’ve built my network of photographers, artists, designers and so forth. The “Babe Show” was a really fun way to tap into my network and bring forth the female leaders that inspire me. The modern renaissance woman in the context of Agenda WMNS is a female who pushes past the male-dominated streetwear market and brings a respectable attitude as a career-oriented woman who leads. She accepts challenges fearlessly and fights creative blocks. These are the type of attitudes that inspire me and drive me to do more and be more.
How is it for a young aspiring woman to work in a scene that’s mainly dominated by men?
Not easy. You’re always approached as a female first, instead of a professional. But I believe that the way someone carries themselves shows how they want to be approached. So I make sure I act and dress like how I want to be treated. I dont walk around with my tits hanging out and my ass everywhere. Not saying there’s anything wrong with that but I present myself in a professional manner and wear appropriate clothing. I am told I have a good handshake. I make sure I keep eye contact. I speak firmly and enunciate my words. I make sure I don’t mumble and I try my best to keep track of my sentences and the direction of my conversation flow.
The boundaries between high fashion and streetwear seem to fade more and more, how do you experience this crossover in your career?
I live it everyday. I grew up in New York wearing streetwear so I definitely still have select pieces in my closet. However, as I’m getting older and more involved in the creative crowd, certain fashion brands come into play. I also workout so I’m at the gym. In New York you have to plan your outfit around your day. I have meetings, interviews, hit the gym, go out to dinner, then stop by a friend’s party. I need to plan my outfit around all these activities and that’s how all the magic happens.
What streetwear brands are your favorite at the moment?
There’s such a fine line with streetwear and fashion these days. I’m a big fan of VFILES and everything they’re doing with their shop. Stussy is a classic brand, though I gravitate towards the mens apparel a bit more. I like to blur the lines between sportswear and streetwear and fashion as well.
Are there specific people who affect you creatively?
Absolutely. Sometimes its brands and not individuals. I love Instagram, its a great way for me to be inspired and keep up to date with “whats going on.” I love Native Shoes, Opening Ceremony, SSENSE and their approach to product photography. There are a few illustrators, photographers and designers I like to follow as well: @nai_vasha, @bludshot, @takubeats, @stacytarver, @petewilliams and @linaviktor.
How does the streetwear scene in New York inspire you and your work ethic?
I feel like streetwear was rooted in the street hustle. That mentality definitely carries through. Working hard to move forward.
What’s the coolest part of your job?
The coolest part is that I get to handle my own schedule. I’m not a morning person and I have a hard time waking up and functioning. So a lot of times a regular day is a “sleep-in” day for other people.
Do you have any career advice?
A teacher in high school once said to me “be the best you can be.” As in, be the best in whatever you do. Whether you’re a janitor, librarian, doctor, designer, etc. Doesn’t mean that I will be or think I am, but to work with that attitude – you’ll definitely go places.
Written by Chloë Alyshea Emily exclusively for Highsnobiety.com.
Photography by Ja Tecson