An Interview with Zoe Hong

Zoe Hong spent her childhood in Alaska, watching Fashion File reruns and trying to avoid moose while walking to school. She earned a BFA in fashion design from Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles, and worked as a designer in the industry for over a decade, before transitioning into teaching. Zoe teaches fashion design, illustration, and colour theory both in university and online. Zoe loves teaching and hates writing bios.

Having spotted Zoe’s channel on YouTube not long ago, I have watched it quickly grow in support and after avidly watching almost all of her videos, I can see why. Zoe’s engaging, fun and clear teaching is captivating to viewers and genuinely helps develop your abilities in design and illustration. Now if you are thinking this is just my journalistic hype, I want to assure you it isn’t. Zoe’s channel is one of only 2 channels I have ever subscribed to on YouTube. Zoe’s lengthy videos would normally have immediately seen me divert my attentions elsewhere but in her case the length is justified and you don’t tend realise how long they are when you’re watching them. Enough of me talking though because I have had the chance to hear from Zoe herself. Here’s what she had to say:

What made you get into design?

I don’t know exactly. I’ve been interested in fashion forever. There’s a photo of me when I was about 6 or 7 years old, playing outside with a friend, clutching my mom’s JCPenney’s catalog. I’ve had photos ripped from fashion magazines stuck to the walls of my bedroom for as long as I can remember. It might be in the blood. My mom owned a clothing store in Korea before moving to the US. She used to make clothes for me and my sister. She would buy fashion magazines and doodle in them (before I started stealing them.) My dad is a total clotheshorse.

Let’s bring out the cliché question early on, “What inspires you?”

I used to get a bit of press as a designer and everyone asked me this question so I started making a game of answering this question as outlandishly as possible and one-upping myself in ridiculousness in every subsequent interview. The real answer is that inspiration is a random, fickle sadist with peculiar timing and a crooked sense of humor and whatever you come across in life, you have to be in the right mood to receive it. Some days, children playing on a grassy lawn is the prettiest thing and I’ll want to draw cute kids wearing cute clothes and paint colorful shapes. Other days, the same scene will give me a headache, because kids tend to enjoy screaming as they run around.

898Fashion Design Tutorial: Concept Dev. & Mood Board

Zoe was prominent in designing fashion under her label in 2010/11 but since then I haven’t seen much in the way of Zoe’s clothes on the catwalk. It appears to me that Zoe has found her calling in teaching over design; I took this opportunity to ask her about this.

“I started teaching at a university in January 2012 and the more I taught, the more I enjoyed teaching over designing. I’ve done collaborations and freelance work continuously, and am always open to more, but I officially closed my label in 2014. I have no current plans to relaunch my label or return to designing full time.”

899Fashion Illustration: Sheer Fabrics

Do you have any favourite fashion styles or eras?

The seventies. I love studying costume history and there are so many styles I adore but there’s something about the seventies and its misleadingly prim and overeager daywear juxtaposed with the insouciant grooviness of the eveningwear that makes me nod my head. It’s also when restrictions on gender codes of dress started getting a tiny little looser and I love playing with ideas of propriety in dress (and smashing said ideas into smithereens.) And of course, punk began in the seventies.

Do you have any fashion pet hates?

Lack of properly sized pockets in women’s clothing. It makes me crazy and given even a half-interested ear I’ll often start ranting about misogyny in fashion.

Interestingly enough the day before I received this interview I was reading an article about a man who was designing dresses with the primary function of providing more pockets. I thought they looked a bit odd but it appears he may be onto something.

What made you get into teaching?

Looking back, teaching was an inevitable course for me. I private tutored Korean kids English when I was in junior high and high school. I was a liberal studies peer tutor all throughout college. (My inner grammar geek is probably horrified by my interview answers. I’m sure I’m splitting infinitives all over the place.)

A few years ago, I was organizing an event to showcase some new talent. One of the designers was this guy who was about to start his senior year in fashion school. We were talking about his collection and at some point, he asked me if I ever considered teaching, because I was good at explaining things. I told him that yelling at students might be even more fun than yelling at interns. He introduced me to one of his school professors and the rest is history.

900Fashion Illustration Tutorial: Faces Skintones

How do your pupils respond to your style of teaching?

During demos and lectures, I am the same goofy Zoe you see on YouTube, complete with wild gesticulating, whining about the heat, and the occasional inappropriate joke. As I always say, no one learns when they’re sleeping! I’m probably worse in the classroom. I teach in the same detailed step 1, step 2 methodical way you see online.

However, what you don’t see online is that I am very strict regarding deadlines, work load, time management, and classroom behaviour. I’m notorious on campus for it. I give a big speech on the first day meticulously outlining all my rules and expectations. I give tons of homework. I harp on the importance of practice even more in person than online. I hear that students recommend to other students to only take my classes if they’re taking an otherwise light semester. I’m a tough grader. I dock points mercilessly for tardiness. I flunk absolutely gorgeous work that didn’t follow the assignment. I confiscate cell phones if I catch them taking a peek once too often during class. (Lots of people online tell me they want to be in my class and I always laugh and tell them, “No, you really don’t.”)

On the first day in my illustration classes, I have my students do a 30-minute fashion illustration. They are told to render the very best fashion illustration they can. I keep all those sketches and then on the last day of class, I put those sketches next to the students’ final projects. The students’ reactions to their own improvement is hilarious and often touching. They all improve—a lot. They all impress themselves. They crack up, a little embarrassed with their first-day sketch. They leave my class utterly exhausted but so proud of themselves.

In terms of my YouTube audience, I have had students post on Instagram drawings they did based on what they learned from one of my videos. They tag me, and I give them a little feedback. I’m seeing some cool things out there! But it’s impossible to track their progress like I can with my classroom students.”

901Fashion Illustration Tutorial: Sequins (part 2/2)

Zoe’s Youtube channel is continually expanding and since I first contacted Zoe about the possibility of an interview her channel has gained around 1300 new subscribers. Zoe’ decision to start up a YouTube channel intrigued me; it seemed to me that she was giving a lot of valuable experience away for free. Having interviewed Zoe, it appears that the commercial aspect of it isn’t really a factor she considers.

“Many of my colleagues and students urged me to write a book, but I wondered, and still wonder, if books are really how people learn best. Don’t get me wrong, I love books, I love reading, I love looking at pretty pictures, I glean so much useful information from books. But to learn something that involves so much physical technique like the subjects I teach? Maybe there’s a better way. I am working on a book, because people still ask for it on occasion. I know some people do learn best from books and so therefore in the back of my mind, I think it’s a good idea, but I find that working on it is not my highest priority.”

Is there much planning involved in creating your videos?

Each video requires planning because even though I teach these subjects in school, I organize the information very differently. Drawing and illustrating videos are relatively easy for me. I put together my materials, swatches, and examples, I prep my underdrawings, I have a sticky note with a short “Don’t Forget to Mention…” list. This is why the Practice Packs are so labor intensive—I never wrote much of anything out beforehand.

The design tutorials, or any video that is heavily lecture-based, require organized scripts, which I follow but don’t read verbatim. The project that I use as an example in those videos was something I put together specifically for them. Honestly, editing takes way more time. I have to set aside big blocks of time for uninterrupted editing.

902How to Use Croquis Figures

Do you struggle to find time to balance teaching, YouTube channel, design/illustration projects and still retain some semblance of a social life?

I have always been a bit of a workaholic who loves what she does, so working a lot feels good and natural for me. Even in high school, I was taking classes at the local university while doing an internship at the operahouse costume department. I don’t go out a lot. I struggle to find time and energy for all the projects I want to work on, though. Don’t be shocked; I’m actually an introvert. I crave lots of alone time, prefer one on one time or small groups to big parties. I despise small talk, and one party will fulfil a desire to be with a lot of people for quite a long time.

When I’m passionate about something, I get very excited and talkative and loud, so my students never believe me when I say I’m naturally introverted. That’s who you see on YouTube—that boisterous rambler who loves fashion. I tend to save up my free time for traveling. I love traveling. Anywhere. Everywhere. Mostly. Preferably somewhere with working toilets. I’d love to somehow marry teaching or illustrating with traveling.

Your captivating personality combined with excellent teaching methods has created a channel which will have over 10000 subscribers, probably before I finish writing this list of questions (I was correct), yet you still respond to almost every comment and provide lots of viewer requested content. Do you think that is what makes you so successful?

Thank you. Those are some lovely compliments there. Teaching is, or at least should be, about the students first and foremost. If you’re not interacting with your students, you’re just broadcasting because you love the sound of your own voice. Teaching and learning is a two-way conversation and should be a constant loop of ideas, perspectives, information, and experiences.

My videos have become divided into Subscriber Request Sundays and Whatever I Want Wednesdays. I want to know what my students want to learn. It actually makes things a little easier for me; I don’t have to guess at what the online students might be interested to learn. Wednesdays are for gaps I think that need to be filled—some to answer FAQ, some to address concerns students may not have considered before. No one asked for the interview series, but I thought hearing different perspectives and new information would help people and those videos have become pretty popular. A few Wednesday videos are just demos I especially enjoy doing.

At school, I follow a syllabus and create lesson plans, but if a student asks for a specific demo and it applies to the subject matter I’m teaching, I’ll try my best to include it. I prioritize responding to students through all my various social media channels, although the sheer volume of comments has become a touch overwhelming the past few months. It’s a nice problem to have though! Honestly, a lot of it is me thanking people for their nice compliments. Yes, a true hardship.

I can count on one hand the number of disrespectful comments I’ve received in the year I’ve been posting. Even when offering criticism, almost everyone is respectful. My students are awesome. The plan is to keep replying as much as possible until it’s just logistically not feasible anymore to reply to every single comment. But conversations with students is and will always be a priority for me.
Those things may be what makes me successful. Personally, I love teaching, and I think people see that and respond to that.

Lastly a bit of a random question: what brand are your glasses?

Vision of Division; they’re made in Japan and created for Asian face shapes.

If you are even the slightest bit interested in fashion design or illustration,check out Zoe’s channel, trust me it will be well worth it.