For designers Melissa Choi and Pia Panaligan, Senpai + Kohai is more than their brand name, it’s their brand philosophy.
When the women were creating the clothing brand in 2003, Panaligan’s sister brought the Japanese term meaning ‘mentor and apprentice’ to the forefront. For the two designers who had spent their careers learning from college professors and fashion industry higher-ups, the two found the ‘apprentice’ half of the saying incredibly relatable.
“We feel like in the design process we’re always taking from the past or inspired by art and craftsman and the textiles that we use,” Choi said. “[We’re] incorporating that into something more modern or our own interpretation. So we always feel like it’s a learning process.”
Panaligan said it’s about finding that balance— learning from the past and applying it to the now.
The designers said Senpai + Kohai applies this through its heavy textile influence.
When the pair began their first collection, Choi was working in India for Urban Outfitters. Panaligan said the two kept in touch and Choi couldn’t stop raving about the quality and craftsmanship of the fabrics so was working with. The two decided it would be a good idea to bring some home and use them in their first garments.
“We were very inspired by textiles,” Panaligan said. “I think that is our heart and soul of our inspiration.”
Along with the textiles from India, Choi and Panaligan have collaborated with a Burmese textile weaver in South Philadelphia for some of their newest designs.
Senpai + Kohai’s designs are very detail-heavy with intricate fabrics and other elements like beading and dyeing. The garments also include stand-out silhouettes — keeping from the typical shift dress or pencil skirt.
The brand’s items range from dresses to kimonos to silk scarves and refurbished denim jackets. Senpai + Kohai’s clientele is as diverse as its garment selection with young and older shoppers, but Choi and Panaligan said they like to think, no matter the age, their customer-base consists of free spirits who love the arts.
“I would say in our heads she’s an independent working woman who might own her own business and has appreciation for the quality of her clothing and handwork of the clothing,” Panaligan said. While the designers now have the aura of professionals, the pair said they credit a lot of their confidence to past job experiences.
Choi said she learned a lot about the design perspective from working with the URBN brands like Free People.
She got the opportunity to master working with fabrics, contacting fabric vendors and searching for trends. The designer said making things interesting with the small details is something she took with her when deciding to focus the majority of her energy on Senpai + Kohai.
As for Panaligan, she gravitated toward the stylist route of the industry.
First, she worked for a designer in New York City where she did a lot with costume design along with the designer’s personal collection. Then she came back to Philadelphia when she got a styling job with Anthropologie.
After working as Anthropologie’s head stylist for three and a half years, she began freelancing for the URBN brands and other outside companies. She said she’s learned a lot about scheduling a photoshoot and styling a look to be appealing in photographs.
“It’s kind of nice because we both went into different routes,” Panaligan said. “Then when we got back together doing [Senpai + Kohai] we had knowledge in different parts of the industry, but still stemmed from design.”
While the women do the designing together, they use these different strengths when divvying the rest of the responsibilities out. Choi said she handles more of the garment production involving the sewing, construction and quality. Meanwhile, Panaligan schedules photoshoots and organizes hair and makeup teams.
“I feel like working together and designing together, we think about what inspires us as individuals and then we come together and marry those two ideas,” Panaligan said.
By: Meg Ryan