12 Minutes With Dee Tang, Founder of Kawaiian Lion

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Take me to the beach, she said.

Dee Tang of Kawaiian Lion

If indigo crushed linen and cushions emblazoned with beachy slogans make you swoon, dive head-first into Kawaiian Lion‘s homewares STAT. The business, now in its fourth year, is run by Dee Tang (pictured with her children, Kawa and baby Rafa), and we’ve been quietly admiring her aesthetic via Instagram for some time now.

We scored some of Dee’s time to discuss fumbling through business, milking her creative whims, and the thing that most settles her heart.

What does one hour of “Dee” time look like?
I have a rather fragmented way of doing things that’s never really sequential. I struggle to complete one task at a time, so I usually have about five different things I’m doing all at the same time. I’ll be sending an email, sneakily looking at shoes online, checking out new sample fabrics, and packing an order. I’m attempting to complete one task at a time, but my brain does not seem to enjoy a step order. But, generally, when I get a moment to myself, there is nothing I love more than trawling through Etsy to find vintage goodies when my babies have gone to sleep.

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What did you know of running a business when you launched Kawaiian Lion?
Nothing. I was in total denial of actually running a business for the first few seasons. Then peeps kept asking me, “Hey, how’s the business going?” and I would screw up my nose and get all shirty, “What bloody business!?! Pffft. I design cushions, dammit!”. I have been bumbling through it for almost four years now and am continuing to stumble my way through this world of business. I recall reading a blog post from Garance Doré and how she thought she abhorred business until she realised how amazing it was that it was business that allowed her the freedom to do what she loved and to involve others into an ever-expanding creative circle.

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Is “artist” a label you’re comfortable with and proud to wear?
I don’t see myself as an ‘artist’. A ‘creative’, yes. And even ‘designer’ – I’ve started writing that on my departure card at immigration, so I must be comfortable with the ‘designer’ tag now! Admittedly, it has taken a long time to accept this label and to learn that, rather than seeing it as being not “good enough”, it’s more a case of: am I being creatively truthful to myself and being authentic in my design practice? I am fortunate now that I understand that I am one of the lucky souls who can tap right into the creative source and ideas come to me sometimes in whole packages or other times in fragments, which I can translate into homewares and lifestyle products.

“I recall a blog post from Garance Doré and how she thought she abhorred business until she realised how amazing it was that it was business that allowed her the freedom to do what she loved and to involve others into an ever-expanding creative circle.”

Do you believe in the saying, “you are who you surround yourself with?” Are you someone with a wealth of creatively minded friends?
Oh, for sure. I don’t have, like, a gang of friends where we all grew up together and married each other’s siblings. All of my friends are like random semi-precious stones I have picked up along the way. I don’t get out much, so I have very close relationships with my creative friends through Instagram, Pinterest, email, and messaging. This handful of friends, I can send an inspiration pic or an old piece of cloth and they will answer through some form of media and be as excited as I am about a filthy vintage rag with amazing crochet. It is very handy as a number of my friends have their own label and are in the same independent boat, so we share a lot of information through group emails.

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Your wares have a distinctly relaxed, beachy vibe. Has this always been your aesthetic or did it grow over time?
I didn’t grow up going to the beach. My Asian folks abhor the sun and the sand, and would flip out when I would come home all tanned. But as soon as I could find my way there, I became a total beach bum. I had a surfer boyfriend who shaped boards, so we travelled around the world chasing beaches and barrels for a while. In my early 20s, in Japan, was when I really got into the artwork on ’70s airbrushed surfboards and the underground surf-folk aesthetic.

I’m eternally fascinated by the world of design and visually stimulated by texture, colour and other artist’s creations.

Is there an app, a genre of music, a friend, or an activity that centres you and settles your heart? Could you tell us about it?
Spotify is my friend. I listen to music constantly. My husband is constantly having to put up with my Indian chimes and bells at the moment. While I am designing or heavy into work which requires (what I have left of) brain power, I like to listen to instrumental or classical – nothing with words to mess with the flow. While I’m in the Love Shack, folk and old school ’60s and ’70s vibes set the tone for a laid-back and welcoming vibe.

I stretch. I sincerely love stretching. If I don’t stretch, I get all short and the eyeball-rolling is constant. Or a swim in the ocean. That always settles the heart and ebbs away the cobwebs of daily life.

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What drives you to get up and “Kawaiian Lion” every day? As in, what motivates you to create?
I find creating very much like telling a story. Each collection or range is a story in itself or a chapter in a novel, even. So once that story has been told, the next chapter unfolds. Usually, when I’m finishing a design collection, I will have story snippets of what’s to come told to me in textures or shapes and pictures. So there is always a willingness to continue the journey to see where the Kawaiian Lion takes me. It’s almost obsessive to find new sources of inspiration. It’s ridiculously satisfying to develop new samples, find out new techniques to make pieces, and to discover how washing, dyeing or an age-old technique can transform an item. I’m eternally fascinated by the world of design and visually stimulated by texture, colour and other artist’s creations.

Read More: A Lack of Closet Space Led to This NYC Shoe Startup

Photography by Luisa Brimble

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