[INTERVIEW] Spotlight on Little Asian Sweatshop
There’s little I love more than a cute hair accessory so when I discovered Little Asian Sweatshop, I was super excited! I can’t recall whether I first saw her table at a convention or if I saw her on Etsy but either way, I was definitely hell bent on getting one of her hair flowers. Last weekend at Baltimore Comic Con, I was able to sit down with Fennie, the lovely lady behind Little Asian Sweatshop, and chat with her about her shop, geeky things, and the joys of conventions. It was such a fantastically enjoyable time that we just kept chatting and I’ve had to edit this interview a little bit for length.
Bria (WHR): How did you get involved with fandom?
Fennie (Little Asian Sweatshop): I’ve always been a baby geek since my early days. The way I got into fandom was actually at the first and only sleepover my mother ever let me go to when I was a kid. I’m Chinese so growing up, you’re not allowed to go to sleepovers. You’re at home, you do violin, you practice your math. I mean, not to do the stereotypes but my life was a stereotype. My best friend at the time in the 7th grade was this girl who was also Chinese, our parents knew each other, and for her birthday, she wanted a sleepover. This was such a big deal in my circle of friends because we’re all Chinese and we’ve never been to a sleepover together even though we’ve always heard about it. We go to the sleepover and there was this big drama—our parents kept calling each other every 5 minutes to make sure we weren’t doing anything bad. The fact that we had a second cupcake set off a parent conference.
So we’re just sitting there and we’re playing the dumbest slumber party games. Her big brother was a comic book fan and he had around one of the X-men graphic novels. It was the collection of the first run with Xavier and Jean Grey. I was so bored by these games because this was not the slumber party that they showed on TV and this was not cool. So I’m sitting there in the corner reading this comic book and I’m like… “I don’t know what this is but this is my life. This is amazing. There’s a whole world that doesn’t involve math, violin, studying, or Chinese school!” From there, I started talking to the brother and he told me that they sell comic books at 7-11 and I had to walk by a 7-11 to get home from school every day so I would illicitly buy comic books. And that’s how I got into the dark, deep underbelly of comic books.
So your mother not letting you go to sleepovers turned out well.
You found comics. How did you get into accessory making?
Actually, my best friend and I used to cosplay all the time so I was really good at sewing. I could make the outfits but I was really bad about accessorizing and making the little pieces and she used to make all of them. The accessories really make a costume. It’s the make up, the hair, the everything. From there, I became kind of obsessed and it all became (gestures at table) this.
And then you decided to open your shop?
What happened was that I started off my shop making cosplay stuff like skirts and dresses and hairbands and so forth. My best friend was getting married in Vegas and I had this crazy— I don’t even know what I was on… too much caffeine and on life or something. She was getting married in Vegas and I had this crazy idea that I was going to make a dress out of poker cards for the wedding. I can even hear her cringe now. I was convinced that this was what I was going to do so I bought all of these poker cards. By the way, if you’ve never sewn cards, just don’t do it. It will end in tears and rage. So I was all pissed off and I came back two days later and I open the door to my work room and all of the cuttings looked like flower petals on the floor. I thought that I had to be able to do something with this and that’s what ended up starting all of my hair accessories which then became my most popular item because no one else makes them. It was completely unique and completely different.
You also do accessories for men, right?
I do have bowties and lapel pins and cufflinks and that is because… so here’s my thing. We girls spend a lot of time getting dressed up and looking really really cute and that’s wonderful but you know what? Guys can step it up a little too. We spend like three hours getting our face done, we’re strapping ourselves into cute little dresses, wearing high heels. The least a guy can do is pull up his pants, wear a dress shirt, and slap on a tie for me. That’s all I’m saying. Every time my husband asks “Should I dress up?” the answer is yes. We’re going to Chipotle? Put on a tuxedo jacket.
Please tell me you’ve actually gone to Chipotle with him in a tuxedo jacket.
Not in a tuxedo jacket but he has gone to Chipotle with a full suit on because it’s my birthday. I love fancy food, I love going to high end restaurants but my deepest passion… I’m obsessed with Chipotle and my husband hates it. So one day a year, on my birthday, we go to Chipotle. I make him dress up like he’s taking me out to a fancy candlelit dinner. I dress up in a poofy dress and he wears a suit and yes, I have two ****ing burritos. Sometimes three! (Around here, Bria loses herself to hysterical laughter.) That’s how I roll: three burritos on my birthday.
I thought Lin and I were the Queens of Burritos. We may have to give you our crown. (There was a lot more hilarious burrito talk that went on here that we must tragically edit for space.) So what is the process like for making one of your designs?
It’s really simple. For most of the designs, my best friend Paige does the art. I then cut it out, put backing on it, and curl it. I usually use a heat gun to curl it. I used to curl it with just using a pen or whatever which you can totally do but after a couple of days, it totally collapses. Using a heat gun works so much better. It holds the shape better but with the heat gun, you have to be really careful because if you’re not, you’ll end up burning the hell out of your fingers and you get the scorched flesh smell which is delightful. My dog just loves me… which is kind of gross. Or you’ll burn the petal so it’s kind of a trial and error thing but once you do all of that, I glue everything together and then I put a sealant on top of everything.
I do three layers of sealant so that way— let’s say you make bad decisions like I do on Friday nights and you have a hair flower in and you have one too many martinis and you end up climbing on top of a bar with a martini in hand that you spill everywhere… you just wipe it off with a napkin and it’s a-okay. It gets a little sticky if you do it multiple times but all of this has been field-tested. You can wipe off a martini and it’ll survive.
This is a very good selling point.
It is and usually when I tell the story, unfortunately there’s always a small kid around with really big eyes and I’m like, sorry Mom—I just ruined your kid’s life.
I feel like I could sell these to my sorority sisters. They will survive a beer to the head! It’ll be fine!
Some of your designs have lights in the center. Does that make it more complicated?
The light ones are actually really cool. My best friend came up with the idea. We love sparkly things and so I used to rhinestone a lot of the flowers but if you’re in a dark room, no amount of rhinestones will flash so we came up with the idea of having our own spotlight on our heads. The way we do it is that it’s all magnets. We have a non-lighted center that you can just put on so if you’re going to the movies, you’d obviously use this. But let’s say you’re going to a party. Especially a party where that girl who stole your boyfriend is at and it’s not that you want the guy back and it’s not the girl’s fault because let’s face it: he made the choice to leave you for her but at the same time, you know what? You want to show her that let’s face it: she may have the guy but you are more awesome so you put on the light and boom! You bring your own spotlight to the party. Suck it! …I’m working through a lot of issues with my art. And yes, I’m very happily married but I’m still working through some stuff from ex-boyfriends.
Art is therapy.
That’s what I say!
Is it more fun for you to do a fandom inspired design like your really cool Doctor Who ones or to do something more… not fandom like the Maryland ones?
I love the Maryland ones because Maryland has the prettiest flag ever. Maryland constantly wins flag awards and who knew that there were actually flag awards but there you go! (Whenever nerds are feeling like they’re too geeky, just know that there are people out there who love flags.) But honestly when people ask “What are you in to?” I say take a look at my site. I only make stuff I love. If I’m not into it, I will not make it. Which sounds kinda snobbish but making these take a lot of time and a lot of energy so if it’s something I don’t love, doing it just feels like work. If it’s something that I love, it’s like “Five hours passed by? How did that just happen?”
How long does it take to make these?
It takes about 15 minutes to make one but when I make them, I usually block off a set of time so I can make multiples because if you’re just doing one at a time, it actually ends up taking an hour. If you’re doing multiples, it averages out to 15 minutes. You know how if you’re doing things all in a row, you just kind of—
—assembly line it.
Assembly line it and it makes it more efficient. I usually block off 3 or 4 hours of my evening or weekend to make stuff. But if it’s something that I don’t love? I get requests where I’d be more than happy to do it but then there are times where I’m cutting stuff out and making it and it’s not a fandom that I’m really in to and it just seems like it takes longer to make. Versus Sailor Moon (which is my latest flower!) which I spent almost 5 weekends in a row making these and I have to say, no regrets about the five weekends! I just kept making them and singing the song in my head and watching the videos and it was the best.
My next question was going to be what inspires you to make a new design but clearly it has to be something that you love.
Yes and sometimes it’s stuff that’s really popular and that I’m not really into yet like Spider-Gwen. Spider-Gwen flowers are something new that I have and I haven’t yet read the issues but so many people have been telling me wonderful things about them that I just got so excited. When people are excited, I’m excited!
On that note, we’re doing this interview at a con so what is the appeal of doing conventions for you?
I love doing conventions! Back in the day, I was a con-goer. I’ve been going to conventions since my early 20s before smartphones, thank god because there are pictures of me that were thankfully only on film and I have the negatives. I love going to conventions but the thing is that conventions are incredibly expensive and plus, as conventions are getting bigger and bigger, it is so hard to meet up with your friends even with cell phones. What I love about having a table is I’m surrounded by stuff I love and all of my friends can come and find me. I have the one place where I can see everyone, I can do everything I want to do, make a little bit of extra money because let’s face it: our fandom is an expensive fandom. It’s actually just so much fun. Mostly, I just love the energy. I love seeing awesome people dressed up in great costumes and totally rocking it and just being excited.
Welcome to Night Vale is one of my new things. I found about it because people came up to me and would talk to me about it. I would be like “What is this podcast thing? It sounds stupid!” so I downloaded it and am now “I LOVE YOU CECIL!” I became like a 12 year old girl on tumblr but that’s the great thing about conventions! This is how you discover new things. It’s not just about making new friends. It’s about discovering new amazing things otherwise, you’re just reading the same old thing again and again.
Yeah, exactly! Any new designs we might be seeing soon?
We’ve actually got a couple of new ones. One is Deadpool. And we’re going to do some Star Wars ones. (There was a very excited gasp from Bria at this.) And yeah, I know!
Please tell me you’re doing a BB-8.
Yes and Boba Fett and others. And a lot of the designs that we’re doing are stuff that only three people on the planet will ever get but again, it’s something that I love so I just don’t care. One of my flowers is Twin Peaks. There are only four people on the planet that still remember Twin Peaks.
I don’t know; it’s coming back.
It’s coming back and it’s cool and all but I ****ing love Twin Peaks. It was weird. It was something I watched where people out there were as weird as I am in my head but on TV. For Twin Peaks, I make the flower and everyone’s like “Oh, it’s a donut. Oh, it’s chevon.” No, it’s the black lodge with the donut and only three people so far have ever gotten the joke. I don’t care. I never sell any of these. It’s for me. I’m going to laugh and that’s the important thing.
It’s the same way I approach cosplay sometimes.
Exactly! You just have to do what you love.
Very true. So what’s your dream goal for Little Asian Sweatshop?
My dream goal is… Honestly? My dream goal? I’m hitting my dream goal right now which is doing conventions, being surrounded by people who appreciate it, and it doesn’t even matter if people buy my stuff. I know that as a small business owner, you really want people to buy your stuff but I just love people remember me and that people find me from convention to convention and they just sit around and they just talk to me. That’s just honestly my goal. My original goal was to make extra money so I could cosplay more, I could travel more, I could go to more shows but then it’s like… I achieved that and now my goal is just hanging around with cool people. This is what’s happening. It’s kinda neat.
That is super awesome! And thank you so much for doing this interview!