This week’s That Girl is the fabulous Paola Sinisterra, the designer behind wonderful clothing label Tangram. We’ve already fallen in love with their signature bright colours and beautiful prints (see here!) – so now it’s time to meet the equally gorgeous girl behind the brand.
We chat to Paola about her Latin heritage, the stories behind her dresses, her love of wet markets and what it’s like to work alongside her husband!
Can you fill us in on your background and where you grew up? How did you end up in Hong Kong?
I was born in Cali, a tropical, green and noisy city close to the Pacific Coast of Colombia. Cali is the capital of salsa and a super chilled place, where I grew up in the middle of two huge families, very close to nature, swimming in crystal clear rivers and learning to dance at family parties.
After high school I lived in Paris for a year, which started my on-going love affair with the place, then moved to Bogota to start university but quickly found myself back in Europe, this time in Barcelona where I finished my studies in Interior Design and then Textile and Fashion Design. After a stint as a designer in Zara, Asia beckoned in the shape of a nice job offer and the Hong Kong adventure started!
Do you think you fit the ‘fiery Latin’ persona?
I do definitely love my Latin roots and I’m always happiest when dancing but not sure if fiery would describe me as I’m a pretty laidback person. I do love partying and being loud and having unorganised fun and often feel Hong Kong needs more spontaneous fun, more devil-may-care dancing and less mingling nervously drink in hand, but oh well!
Where do you live? How have you made your home your own?
I spend most of my time at the studio where we have more space for entertaining and which we use as a work-play space. I collect knick-knacks, textiles, vinyls and ceramic stuff that I like to display and use… nothing is too precious, not even that soup serving mould from the 1930s that belonged to my grandmother’s mother. Each object has a little story behind it and I reorganise them in little scenes, which my husband calls Paola’s museum. I’m crazy about flea markets but since being in Hong Kong I’ve been curbing my addiction and trying to edit more and de-clutter (with mixed reviews!).
How would you describe your personal style? How does it evolve and change?
As with most everything, I go through obsessive stages, some become part of my style, some are ditched (corduroy skirts! what was I thinking?!) but the one constant is good quality, no nonsense garments with a vintage or quirky touch. I rarely shop and don’t really follow trends but adapt stuff I already have with a few new pieces and accessories here and there. Lately, it seems to be colourful, bordering on the silly at times, mixing too many prints perhaps, wearing big chunky jewellery, doing funny things with my hair, definitely not very put-together, a little haphazard but never boring!
Where do you shop in Hong Kong? Any secret finds you can let us in on? Any up and coming designers we should be looking out for?
I rarely shop where I live, as I can’t stand the thought of going shopping and the crowds. I save to then splurge when travelling on stuff that feels unique, takes my breath away and/or makes me feel like doing a little dance. During my trip to Colombia I bought the most amazing brogues from a small brand called Gala.
In Hong Kong, I think ABoutique in Aberdeen Street has a very interesting selection of up and coming contemporary labels. Moustache up the street might be menswear but Alex’s and Ellis’ (the founders and tailors) universe is very inspiring. I love Kapok for their selection of great accessories, tomboyish clothes and the best magazines. I have a penchant for vintage clothing and Andy from Standard Vintage tends to have the kind of stuff I will immediately fall in love with.
There are a bunch of Hong Kong based designers that we find interesting and feel super lucky to be surrounded by. ffixxed (although based in Shenzhen) bridges art and fashion, while the 15 Square Street crew does great Void watches and fantastic leather goods. Cipher is menswear but makes the perfect boyish bags, The Yesterday Skin’s hand-makes unique reworked vintage clothing, Barnett does glam jewellery, Latitude’s homeware designs are divine… actually we could go on and on, it’s so exciting to see all this entreprenurial creativity blooming in Hong Kong!
What are your must-have beauty products? Where do you go for hair/nails/maintenance?
I’m pretty low key with make-up, as long as I have some mascara and the red lipstick in my bag I’m good to go. I am however very proud of a skill I inherited from my mom; I can put my make-up while driving, on the bus or on the go!
In order of application:
- SF 50 Eucerin moisturiser.
- Sisley Phitocernes Concealer… Loads of it!
- Nars Black Kohl, applied dry and then smudged to create an smoky effect – and hide the fact that I can’t draw a straight line!
- Max Factor False Lash Effect Mascara. All the other ones I’ve tried, even the fancier ones, leave clumps.
- Bright Pink MAC Blush. My friend Paula told me pink makes you look fresher and it’s true.
- For the lips a heady mix of MAC Russian Red, MAC Lady Danger and a creamy red I stole from my mom, applied with a lip brush mirror in hand.
- Natura Bissé Vitamin C, which feels like a splash of cold water and makes the skin feel all tight specially after a long night out.
- Although I haven’t used them in a while, Aesop’s serums are amazing.
I’m too hyperactive to sit in a salon so only cut my hair a couple of times per year at Paul Chan’s in Prince Edward (320 Sai Yeung Choi Street, 9267 5115). He is old-school and very professional; the first time I went there he literally told me “Don’t worry, I know what I’m doing”. He also takes his time and doesn’t talk too much, which is fine by me. They bring me milk tea from the cha chaan teng next door and I’m a happy customer.
For nails, I love red nails but tend to paint them myself… again no patience to wait around in a salon for hours! I do love a mani in Colombia where they do it in twenty minutes flat and the nail polishes have cool names like Descarada (which kinda means Sassy!).
What is your favourite thing to do at the weekend?
Hike and go explore the amazing natural corners of Hong Kong. I love the gritty side of the city as well and often go on expeditions looking for old ‘mom and pop’ shops, great noodle joints and wet markets in random neighbourhoods.
I love to entertain, we get people together around food often and dinners tend to turn into karaoke/dancing sessions. Luckily we are surrounded by friends who love cooking and eating, so we tend to always have a gargantuan meal or picnic in our plans!
Sunny Sunday afternoons are well spent strolling around Tai Ping Shan (and having a delicious cup of Colombian coffee at Knockbox), Star Street (great window shopping) or Tai Hang (try some delicate pastry in Le Goût, Chinese desserts in Xiao Tian Gu or have a strong coffee sitting in the outdoor bench in Unar).
What are your favourite restaurants and bars in Hong Kong?
As we cook so much I’m not so big on dining out, but I am a big fan of discovering little local places and definitely an adventurous eater. Kowloon City is a great place to spend a Sunday eating Thai food, watching people and shopping at the wet market. Shau Kei Wan’s main street is also a favourite, with a great Indian place and a bunch of delicious noodle and dim sum places. When we have visitors we always take them to Tung Po, for an unbeatable Hong Kong experience. I’m crazy about the thick noodles and admire the entrepreneurial spirit of the owners of Yat Woon Min in North Point, kill for the truffle xiao long bao of Din Tai Fung and can’t get enough of Sift’s Ispahan or the coffee at Fuel. For a fancy hush-hush evening, nothing beats 001.
For a night out, I wear my dancing shoes for any Songs For Children organised event, love the programmation and vibe of XXX and I’ve been recently visiting Dandy very often. I’ve also heard a lot of good things about Salon Number 10 in Arbuthnot road, but haven’t paid a visit yet.
Where are your favourite travel destinations? What are your suitcase must-haves?
I haven’t been to a destination I didn’t love and instantly wanted to move to! I loved Vietnam for the food, Cambodia for the history and Thailand for the beaches and fascinating Bangkok. Travelling in Asia in general is a delight, such variety and mix! I have gathered unforgettable experiences such as cycling in Beijing’s hutongs on a crisp spring afternoon, finding unbelievable buildings while lost in the middle of Shanghai, finding my way back under the rain after cycling for hours through ride fields in Yangshuo, battling traffic in Mumbai to try some new street food and learning to navigate Tokyo’s intricate address system…
Lately though, I am fantasising of going back to a deserted beach in Bahia Solano in the Pacific Coast of Colombia where we have been going with my family for years. There is no electricity, no telephone, no hot water and the only food is the fish they catch in the morning, the coconut from the palm trees and the eggs the local chickens lay. It’s no frills but being in an untouched place like that makes me feel not all is lost.
My husband is adamant about traveling light and I have learned this amazing skill… not without tears though! When tempted to over-pack now I tell myself, “If I need it, I will buy it there”, it gives me a sense of mischievous purpose. I do however always pack a big colourful silk or cashmere scarf that can multitask as neck cover, shawl, outfit enhancer, turban; a couple of striking pieces of jewellery to spice things up; comfortable shoes to walk and walk and walk. Actually when I’m designing for Tangram, I always try to think of garments that are versatile, easily packable, lightweight (thus the silk blends) and easy to “steam” on arrival by hanging them on the bathroom while you take a hot shower.
What inspired you to start Tangram?
It was a long-time dream and at some point everything just aligned. The correct fabric supplier, finding a couple of amazing prints, working with a small factory where they treat me like family, but most importantly the desire to work slowly, in small quantities, getting back to craft, quality and details and collaborating with designers, artists and creatives.
The collection is all about bold colours, prints and unique silhouettes, for a woman who is constantly on the go, confident and unconventional. She dreams of garments she can throw on and be out the door in 5 minutes looking fabulous. Women who are adventurous but understand the importance of buying good quality pieces that will last through the years.
I want all Tangram products to be a bit poetic without being gimmicky, fun without being silly and comfortable without being hideous.
Where do you get ideas for your designs?
I’m constantly revisiting my vintage garment collection in search of a detail, the way of finishing a hem, the length of a sleeve, the colour combo of a print, the cut of a dress. I have a big silk scarves collection and can remember the story behind each of them.
Inspiration comes in haphazard ways – someone I see on the street, a story I read, the colours of the buildings in HK, the amazing women in my life, the colours of nature… I actually get some of my best ideas when hiking.
I also have a super organised inspiration folder, both virtual and in scrapbook mode. I have been using the same type of foldable Moleskine sketchbook for years and when in need of inspiration, I look through an old sketchbook and never fail to find a new way of looking at an old idea.
So how similar is designing clothes to the antics we see on Project Runway?!
I don’t watch a lot of TV and haven’t seen Project Runway, but from what I hear there is drama…and yes there is drama when designing! Probably not as fascinating as the ones on TV but the process between idea and finished product can be excruciatingly long, fabrics run out of stock, you find out the beautiful print you built the collection around is too expensive to use, trips to the factory are not very glamorous… but it’s not brain surgery and most problems are there to teach you something about the process so you just paddle through. Being a fashion entrepreneur does require nerves of steel.
How is it working alongside your husband Ignacio, who you founded Tangram with? Any arguments?
It’s a challenge but it also gives us a freedom we had always dreamed off and we love shaping projects together. We are constantly redesigning how we work and finding ways to make it interesting. We have pretty different aesthetics (I’m a magpie, he’s a purist) but we try to meet in the middle and it works well. Tangram is definitely the result of our on-going dialogue on everything and anything and that is how we want it to grow. Cooking and eating is the moment to stop working, so it’s good we do three delicious meals per day!
You’ve been in fashion a long time and in many different countries (including a stint at Zara). How does the fashion scene in HK compare – both as a designer and as a customer?
Hong Kong is eclectic! I love the bold haircuts, adventurous dressing and towering platforms local ladies wear but have to say I’m often more intrigued by the way men dress. The array is interesting, from odd pant shapes, to silly T-shirts, to very dapper gentlemen to the workers on the street sporting a Hong Kong cleavage (T-shirt tucked in the crease above the tummy) to old men dressed in their Sunday best. I’m not sure HK is a fashion capital, but people seem interested in trying trends out and the market is definitely vibrant.
I know your time at Zara is in the past, but do you have any insight to what goes on behind-the-scenes there?
Zara is a perfectly oiled machine, where everyone works super hard, wears towering heels and the standards are high. The team of creatives is huge, there is quite a bit of travelling (or at least when I was there) and the turnover of designers is fast; a lot of my colleagues are no longer there and we often joke that working there was like doing the military service, it makes you light on your feet, curious and prepared for battle.
You’ve also got your food blog Kitchen Nomads. What are your kitchen pantry essentials? Where do you recommend for foodie shopping in HK?
We started The Kitchen Nomads with my very good friend Jessica as a way to share our recipes with each other and friends. Being such nomads, the blog is a way to hang on to our roots but also spread new ones.
My list of kitchen pantry essentials expands by the minute! I’m always looking to discover new ingredients and will try anything at least once. Right now I’m learning more Chinese dishes, so Shaoxing wine, five-spices mix, mandarin peel, fermented bean paste, preserved salted veggies, chilli flakes….
Lately, I’ve been very much into pickling and jamming as a way to preserve stuff that is in season and to guarantee that I can whip up a nice meal out of stuff in the fridge. I keep having friends encouraging me to make enough for selling but that will have to wait until days have more than 24 hours!
Hong Kong has the most amazing supermarkets of any place I have lived in. My fave one is Apita in Tai Koo Sing. You can get ingredients from almost anywhere and thanks to this you can cook almost any cuisine. That said, I always encourage people to buy at the wet markets, produce is fresh, inexpensive and makes you familiar with local producers and support small family businesses. There are a number of organisations (such as Homegrown Foods and Seed HK) supporting organic farming in Hong Kong, which I think is amazing and deserves all our attention.
What’s next for Tangram?
We are slowly deploying a small online shop on our website, that will offer a selection of exclusive items for a limited time. We are starting with some accessories and will refresh the offer on a regular basis. We’ve also rolled out a selection of our pieces at Kapok, Polkadot, The9thMuse and Signed By, with different items available at each store!
We are also involved in organising events and pop-up shops in the coming months, so keep checking our Facebook page for news. There is a very interesting concept pop-up shop project in the works that will take place during the Hong Kong Art Fair and will involve other local designers.
If you could give everyone just one piece of fashion advice, what would it be?
Smile and don’t take yourself too seriously. There is nothing more sexy than confidence. Learn to wear what looks best on you and invest in a few good pieces that you can continue to wear forever.
SASSY GIVEAWAY: We have a fabulous necklace to give away courtesy of Paola! She has especially chosen a new necklace from her PIEDRAS collection. Click here to enter the giveaway and get a peak at what’s up for grabs! Good luck!
All photos in the That Girl article above were taken by the hugely-talented Sabrina Sikora of Sabrina Sikora Photography – get in touch with her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Check out the rest of our That Girls here!