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Mi (The Mi Concept Interview)

AShley B. Holmes
July 2009
vhcle 09:fashion
The Mi Concept is much more than a label or a brand - it’s a project, it’s a movement, it is fashion; and creator/designer Dean Hunt is the first to point that out. With his designs, it’s more about the thought process behind it - the way a piece of clothing can become something different and unique on every person who wears it.
Dean’s shop sits on an unassuming block of a very unassuming street. The Mi Concept is located in San Francisco’s niche recently dubbed the TenderNob, due to its location being the melting spot of both the gritty Tenderloin and the high class Nob Hill. The store is nicely situated between a small art gallery and a sneaker/skate shop. Many people wouldn't think to walk down Sutter much farther then the Borders on Powell. Mostly it consists of small restaurants, coffee shops and about a handful of Academy of Art University buildings. But with Union Square just a few blocks east, the store gets its fair share of passersby curiously peering in at what is hard to discern as a men’s or women’s clothing boutique.  
I remember when I first moved to the TenderNob and walked by Mi; with no sign on the door and just a few sparse racks of minimalistic clothing, it left a lot to the imagination. I instantly fell in love. It was a bit frightening and it took me a while to walk in, but when I finally did, it was worth it. It would seem that such a sparse store with an intimidating color palette would mean snooty, by-appointment-only shop owners, but it’s exactly the opposite.
Dean is warm and energetic about his designs and is eager to make anything you see on the rack to order. If a woman fell in love with what would technically be a menswear coat, he is delighted to have it made in her measurements…and vice versa. Dean’s designs are very well made, as one can easily tell just by looking at them, and the color palette is right up many San Franciscans alley. The concept that these clothes are simple but beautiful in their design, and could be worn by either sex is something I am instantly drawn to. And so I wondered what the story was with this store. Wondered what the designer was like, what inspired them? Why put such beautiful things on this street? I was pleasantly surprised with what I learned during the interview, and left feeling both inspired and seeing that fashion can be more then what meets the eye.
When I met with Dean, we met at the shop, which is located on Sutter between Jones and Leavenworth. The interview was held in the back room that serves as both his office and design lab. The entire store follows suit with the design - black painted floors and white walls with a few long fluorescent tubes of light leaning here and there. The clothes are on three rolling racks, with one of each design displayed. Sometimes the designs are split by sex and sometimes, to make it interesting, he will mix the designs up so that people cannot judge what is for a man and what is for a woman. The back room is bare concrete with a stark white desk and filing cabinet. It’s all very simple and one can easily see how this creates a great design space…no distractions. During the interview, shoppers come in and out and Dean pops up to greet them, telling them to feel free to ask questions.
Vhcle: Okay, so first off, how did this project materialize?
Mi: Mi (pronounced like my) started because I was questioning my significance as a designer. I was looking at the bigger picture and it was difficult to see the relevance, how this was relative to the world. I was reading a lot of philosophy books, specifically about attachment theory - how people are attached to brands and labels, and buying into community, and how the label makes the person. With Mi, I wanted to remove all of that; Mi standing for the idea that someone could be asked “that’s a nice shirt, whose shirt is that?” and the person could respond simply with “it’s my shirt”. You're not buying into anything, because tomorrow you’ll be looking for something else to create the identity as it is easy to get bored with the “it” label.
V: So the name works on several levels. Yes you can say the name of the brand, but essentially you are also replying with the philosophy behind the brand. That this shirt belongs to you; it’s yours to put your stamp on rather then telling someone the name of a label and having them judge you and your choices by the identity of the brand you are wearing.
Mi: That became my relevance. I can be a fashion designer but I can also make people stop and think about who they are, why they purchase things. What’s wrong with our lives that we have to create an identity around a label? I want someone to love it for something other then the name, more just because it's good design. For the philosophy behind the label or design, you want to support what they believe in. It’s a yoda quality that’s important right now. For me it was my opportunity to have that voice. If it can affect someone - great!
V: Who or what influenced you in the beginning?
Mi: In the late ‘70s/early ‘80s I was at university studying to be an architect, and I was a huge believer in the women’s movement at that time - seeing the injustice to the woman's place in society and their relevance. There were no women in any power structures. Women didn’t present themselves in a way equal to a male dominated world, and I thought I could help women in their presentation - enabling them to gain access to those structures, and show a level of equality. It’s all about what you put out of yourself. I didn’t want to make anyone believe the clothes make you powerful; it was more that it was already there, it was in you, and the clothes just helped to show that. All of the pieces of the puzzle are perfect right now, as they are. If I can help someone make what’s inside a realization on the outside, then great.
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V: What are some of your inspirations when designing now?
Mi: There is no one particular person or thing. Although, there have been over time women that acted as muses, with whom I have adored their style. It’s more a universal feeling of what I want to create. I'm just not too fussed (what people think), and I don’t mean that in a bad way, I just do what I do, not follow any one trend, I simply create what I want to create. It comes more from the philosophical thing that I’m reading. If I’m reading about Buddhists, it may have a more Asian feel. All that really matters is what the design is to you, to the people wearing it.
V: “Do you think that’s why you do minimalistic colors like black, white, grey and navy, so that it can be a canvas for people?”
Mi: Yes, exactly. That’s exactly right.
V: Do you have anyone in mind when you’re designing your collection?
Mi: Not anymore. Maybe once in a while I'll think of someone that I think it might look great on. I did have a friend who was the coolest lady I'd ever met; she pushed me, and she would come back from Paris with magazines and pictures and tell me what was taking place there. So she was really cool, a big influence at one time.
And I do have clients that will come in and I'll design something for them, but it has to stay within my design aesthetic. I had two ladies come in and they were fond of one of the coats, but they wanted it done in red, to which I said absolutely not, it just isn’t me; it’s too far from the original concept.
V: How do you edit your collection?
Mi: Ha-ha, not well. It’s hard, it's something I really need to do more of. I want to get it down to the basics of what I think every wardrobe needs - like here’s a great coat, here’s a great blouse, pants, etc.
V: It’s probably because you love everything so much!
Mi: I do, I really do! It’s almost like someone needs to come in and say, STOP! You’ve got a great coat; alright now you need this, stop making great coats, you know?!
V: Are you based just in SF?
Mi: There is a store here and then in Toronto (Canada), where our studio space is located and where everything is made. And it’s cool because people can come in and see the racks of clothes and buy off that, but then also see us working away in the back.
V: Why did you choose this neighborhood to have the space?
Mi: To me it reflected real life. It has everything. It has an art gallery and sneaker shop, a nice restaurant across the street, art students; but it also has homeless people and prostitution. And to me if one of my clients from the Presidio or Nob Hill can come here and it opens their eyes a little bit to something other then what their world normally looks like, and they can do something or make a change, then I’ve done my job. Also, from a business perspective, there is something about the hunt and find. Like when people say, “I was walking about and I found this little place and I went in, and I wasn’t expecting to find something so great off the beaten path.” It’s like when you hear about people in Europe walking down an alley and finding a cool little club or place to eat. I love that, and I think that’s really special right now. People want something different and unique to spend their money on. Something special. The story now is as important as what you find at the end of it. The three stores - Huf, Mi, and Silverman art gallery - we stand out, which is really nice and it makes us look individual.
V: What is the most rewarding part of what you do?
Mi: Idealistically, if I can affect someone. I was told that if I make choices in my life that truly make me happy, they will make everyone around me happy. Obviously, it's about people feeling good in the product and feeling good about themselves, because beauty is a feeling, not a look.
V: What’s the most difficult thing about your job?
Mi: Honestly, it’s helping women see that in themselves. It’s unbelievable, and it's not that I’ve given up, but I’ve realized with women it doesn’t matter what I say, they need to get there in their own time. I could have the most beautiful woman in front of me and she could not see that. And true, good clothes can help, but it’s also socializing women differently - it’s about putting a level of confidence in woman through the clothes and the feel.
V: Do you feel like you design more for women? You do have pieces for men.
Mi: It’s actually the first time I’ve done a men’s collection. Its different, I do love it, they are much easier, and it’s mostly things I would want to wear. Recently I displayed the collection without dividing it by gender, because I wanted to blur the lines. I wanted people to basically come in and look at it as a great piece. And if a woman saw a coat and it was a man's, I could make it for a woman’s figure.
V: Is there anything you could say to other artists or designers working or trying to work right now?
Mi: I think it’s really important to have a clear message, be true to it. Be it, don’t say it. I think in this crazy time, if you’re not really clear about what you’re saying out there, then it gets lost.

Photography by Ashley B. Holmes
Ashley B. Holmes is an editorial and personal stylist out of San Francisco, CA. Her recent inspirations include the history and pulse of her beautiful city, French films circa 1960s, The Velvet Underground, Wes Anderson movies, and Roald Dahl books. Her recommendations for daily blog checking include: The Sartorialist, Garance Doré, FashionToast, Jak and Jil, and StyleState.