I first met Jenny Ton during CAAMFest, the Asian American film festival in San Francisco, where she debuted her fashion installment with Retrofit Republic at the festival gala. Her collection mixed traditional Asian garments with contemporary pieces to display a mixture of generations and an expression of Asian American identity. I was totally in love with Jenny’s styling so much that I can even remember her outfit that night: a shift dress with black and white panels, and a white collar with a bright red skinny tie. She knows what’s up.
Her work has left a big impression with me, and her passion is truly inspiring. She has gone through a number of tribulations, but has always remained true to her mission to empower women. Since I last saw her, she has now become the co-founder of an online clothing company that is appropriately called ACMIST.
Audrey Magazine: What was it like growing up? What sparked your interest in fashion?
Jenny Ton: I grew up in a predominately immigrant and low-income community. We didn’t have very much growing up, which I believe was a catalyst of rich imagination and creativity for my family and me. From a necessity to survive, creativity and resourcefulness are byproducts of scarcity. I’ve seen some of the most creative individuals and ideas from the most underresourced people in developing countries, which is where I believe my parents’ creativity and resourcefulness stems.
My mother, born and raised in Vietnam, is incredibly resourceful. She can and will repurpose almost anything. My father, also born and raised in Vietnam, is a talented construction worker. He is a self taught architect and structural engineer, but without the formal education and fancy titles. He couldn’t afford them. He can build pretty much anything from scratch and retrofit old throwaways of any kind into something beautifully utilitarian.
Mama Chinh & Jenny Ton. Photography by Lauren Crew for Retrofit Republic’s Immigrant Dreams Lookbook
As for me, we had no choice but to thrift shop. My mother was a stay-at-home garment worker, receiving five cents per garment she sewed. I learned my basic sewing skills from her. I was also a voracious fashion magazine reader. I would literally read every word in a magazine from cover to cover, admiring and critiquing a world that was vastly beyond the financial means of my family.
Although I couldn’t have what I saw in magazines, I had second-hand clothing with rich history and stories. I saw endless and exciting possibilities in styling and wearing these clothes but, shamefully, I also wanted to creatively conceal my poverty too. This was a time when thrifting wasn’t in fashion. It felt like everyone saw thrift clothes through an unsightly brown lens, yet I saw them through an ever-changing kaleidoscope of color. Via my style, I wanted to cultivate this kaleidoscope lens for others too. It wasn’t until college (when thrifting became fashionable) did I proudly share where I got my clothes. Post college, I started a vintage fashion company and styling firm called Retrofit Republic.
AM: Who inspired you the most?
JT: My Mom. She’s had an extremely turbulent life. I’ve thought about writing a book inspired by her life. Yet despite it all, her resilience and hero-like strength has been utterly inspiring.
Photography by Lauren Crew for Retrofit Republic’s Immigrant Dreams Lookbook
AM: Before ACMIST, what projects did you take part in?
JT: This is a hard one. There are so many! Before ACMIST, my life was pretty much Retrofit Republic and supporting nonprofits and causes I believe in. Retrofit Republic is my heart, my passion, and it provided me with the most gratifying experiences thus far. Heartbreakingly, it has been illegally and maliciously halted. Despite the heartache, I believe when things fall apart, they are falling into place.
Retrofit Republic’s 1st feature in SF Chronicle’s Sunday Style Section
AM: What is ACMIST? And how did ACMIST come about?
JT: ACMIST is an empowering online women’s clothing retailer focused on validating and cultivating your inner Boss self. ACMIST is inspired by our love for social good and fashion, the strength and celebration of womanhood, and the transformative nature of fashion on one’s inner self. We hope you’ll feel your best, like the Boss Lady that you are, in our clothes.
Shop these looks and more at ACMIST.com. Photography by Abraham Espiritu. Design layout by Christine Joy Ferrer.
With the Retrofit Republic situation, I had no choice but to continue my passion for fashion and community into something new. During this most arduous time, the stars serendipitously aligned into the birth of ACMIST [ak-mest], co-founded with my college buddy and serial entrepreneur, Angela Suh, and extraordinary fashion maven and renaissance Boss Lady, Eileen Yu. Angela had started her own e-commerce fashion site while I had co-founded Retrofit Republic.
With the timeliness of our business transitions, an undeniable voice told us we needed to join forces. It was the ideal time to put into practice our lessons learned from our first fashion companies into a new venture with a ton of purpose and promise.
Eileen Yu & Jenny Ton at Kearny Street Workshop x ACMIST’s Celebrate Your Body 2015. Both are wearing ACMIST