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CREATING "UNDERGROUND" FASHION MEDIA: A CONVERSATION WITH VIV CHEN

February 13, 2024

Elina Choi

A prolific fashion writer and content creator, Viv Chen is best known to her audience by her vibrant, approachable substack, “The Molehill,” and her Instagram moniker, “Viv the Mole.” Browsing through vintage racks the way one may linger at a museum, Chen carefully curates her outfits with a deep appreciation for history and old-school quality. In our conversation, we discuss associations of Chinese-American espionage, the most exciting winter cashmere, Reddit fashion threads, and who gets to write fashion’s true narratives. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. 

Elina Choi: In your own words, could you introduce yourself in a few sentences? 

 

Viv Chen: My name is Viv Chen and I'm a fashion writer/content creator based in the Bay Area in California. I’m very interested in all things critical and thoughtful within the fashion space. In terms of how long I've been doing this… I have always been very interested in fashion.

 

After graduating college, I wrote zines about fashion and clothes with my friends, but I did not earnestly start pursuing it as a freelance career until around the pandemic. At the time, a lot of people were reflecting on how they wanted to spend their time and what felt meaningful. Fashion was always what I was most excited about.

 

That said, fashion is a notoriously difficult industry to break into, so I started creating my own space through social media, blogging, and getting to know people through virtual communities. That’s how I've grown my blog and my content creation. Now, I spend most of my time focusing on fashion writing and full-time freelance. 

 

EC: You mentioned that you were always very interested in fashion. In what ways was fashion a big part of your life growing up? 

 

VC: Yes, it was a big part of my childhood in the sense that I really liked clothes. I feel that now as an adult, when you say fashion, or when you're in fashion spaces, there's this idea that it means that you follow the fashion shows or you follow Vogue collections. I didn't know anything about that as a kid, but I loved putting together outfits. As a teenager, you start to become very aware of these things especially when you really want to start dressing yourself and care about what you look like. I always put a lot of thought into my outfits.

 

And of course, as a teenager in the early 2010s, I was going to Urban Outfitters; it was nothing groundbreaking, but I had a lot of fun with it. I loved Lookbook, which was very popular at the time. The Tumblr-indie-500 Days of Summer-look was definitely a huge reference point for me. But I loved playing around with different accessories and I didn't feel afraid to dress a little bit differently or have fun with how I was dressing.

 

And from there, throughout my life, to college and post-grad, I've always been extremely interested in my relationship with shopping and how I dress because it's something that I put a lot of thought into. While it's not something I'm doing for the validation of others, I think people do pick up that you're dressing a little differently or dressing differently than maybe what's common in the Bay Area.

 

And I think because of that, people naturally strike up conversations or we start having conversations about fashion through compliments. I feel like that's a really common way of connecting. If I notice someone, I'll be like, “I really love your boots.” And when they see me, there's this recognition that we both really love clothes.

 

I think that was another way of building community with fashion and creating really organic connections. But yes, it's been, it's been something I really love, regardless of being on a student income to working full time, whatever it is, I'll always be browsing, researching, noticing, and trying to talk to people on the street about their clothes. 

 

EC: I know that your substack has a lot to do with vintage second-hand shopping and I wanted to ask, when did that kind of passion emerge? Were you always really interested in vintage shopping clothing? 

 

VC: I got really sick of mall brands after a while in high school. But growing up in the Bay Area, there are several vintage/second-hand stores around here. On the weekends, I would often go and look through the racks. That really helped me develop an eye for recognizing what I liked beyond mall brands—without tags, you need to pay attention to the fabric composition. Over time, touching and feeling pieces really gave me an education on fabrics and a piece’s potential. When it comes to vintage, I’ve developed a lot more appreciation for the history of things as I’ve gotten older. 

 

At the time, I was also learning about my own different preferences of retro fashion and loving 60s mod or 70s bohemian aesthetics from movies and TV shows. I got obsessed with learning about vintage decade categories and understanding why shop owners would categorize things the way they did. 

 

I found a lot of joy in treating vintage stores like a museum. 

 

I spent a lot of time learning and researching—I think it was a source of joy and pride for me, a healthy way to develop interest and figure out who you are as a teenager. 

 

EC: I think what you said about treating a vintage store as a museum is very interesting. And now transitioning into talking about your substack. Why did you decide to name your Instagram Viv the Mole? 

 

VC: My Instagram handle is Viv the Mole, which has a few meanings. As you know, moles can be both facial markings or underground animals. It’s also like a spy, a mole that is planted to gather information and report back. And I relate to all those definitions in some way. 

 

I've always had a facial mole on my face. It's not something I highlight too much, but I think moles are very cute. Still, it's not something I explain or publicize too much because I feel like there's a mystery in not over-explaining it. That's why I don't really lead with it very much. 

 

Also, as a Chinese American, there's a long history of stereotypes in the US with Chinese Americans being linked to espionage or as outsiders, and people thinking, can we really trust them? or are they stealing company secrets? Growing up with the knowledge of that sort of narrative, I liked the cheeky satire of calling myself “Viv the Mole,” because a mole is an infiltrator, an outsider taking notes. As a Chinese American, the name approaches and plays on that history with satire and humor.

 

The “outsider” part also draws back to how I didn't study fashion or go to fashion journalism school. The industry is very difficult to get into and is pretty renowned for being nepotistic and very relationship-based. So it's a little nod to the fact that fashion is a hard place to infiltrate, especially if you don't have that background, or you don't have those existing connections. In my philosophy of how I blog, write, or relate to fashion, I never want to be someone just talking to seem like I'm “in the know.” I want to make it feel very open and interesting even if you’re new to fashion. 

 

I think most people are looking for communities and fashion spaces that feel accessible, inclusive, and not snobby. I think snobby is a fair word to describe a lot of fashion media–it often feels very exclusive. And obviously, fashion is a notoriously white-dominated industry. I hope that my blog can be a space where there’s something for everyone, even if you’re new to fashion. 

 

As to close the loop, the last reference to mole is about the subterranean creature. I think there's a subtle reference to more underground platforms of fashion communication. Growing up on Tumblr blogs, I see blogs to be the more accessible, underground layer of fashion media–it's not Vogue or Harper's Bazaar.

 

The molehill terminology comes from seeing the Internet as a more underground, under-the-surface space where people can connect. My blog is an homage to blog culture and its place within the fashion world; it celebrates genuine connection and community outside of the fashion media industry.

 

We're seeing a huge shift in fashion–a lot of readers are not reading big fashion publications anymore. There’s been a shift back to individual blogs and people connecting with other people, as opposed to seeing Vogue as a beacon of expertise and thinking, we have to listen to whatever they say, or they're the only people who have anything legitimate to say about fashion. The name “Viv the Mole” has a lot of cheeky references to power structures within the fashion industry and fashion media. 

 

EC: Wow, that's amazing. Would you consider yourself a writer first or a fashion enthusiast first in your fashion writing? 

 

VC: I'd say I’m a fashion enthusiast first —writing is a medium that works for me now. Although I enjoy writing, I also love photography, styling, all spaces for fashion and creating art around fashion. I like every part of it, the shopping, the curating, or even styling someone else. I love it when friends ask me what should I wear? in group text messages because I always text, send pictures. I love the back-and-forth style coaching of helping people figure out what to wear. 

 

I love every part of fashion, but I think writing is a medium that works best for me. I like writing, I like being able to have the written text to go with the visual photos. Another part of it is, I know a lot of people in fashion do a lot of video content, but for some reason, video content has always felt a little awkward to me. I've never felt very telegenic, or someone who's naturally very suited to talk to the camera, so writing is definitely where I feel a lot more comfortable with how I express myself. So I am definitely a fashion enthusiast first. Regardless of whether writing is a medium I want to use or not, I know that I'll always have some sort of enthusiasm for fashion.

 

EC: So you mentioned that you love styling other people and helping them choose their outfits. Do you have any recent favorite secondhand finds? 

 

VC: Ooh, with winter coming—well, it's still pretty sunny here in the Bay Area—but I really want to get some nice knits.

 

I don’t know if you're on Brown's campus right now, but I've always pictured Brown as an ideal, sweater-weather type of campus. When I think of Brown, I think of very cozy aesthetics, like ceramic mugs and Dansko clogs.

 

Along the same idea, I'm really excited about winter knits. I did a lot of research into the best value and quality cashmere. Although a lot of retail brands come out with cashmere, I feel like cashmere is a big fall/winter marketing ploy. But I truly believe that for a lot of knits, there's a lot of excellent secondhand stuff that's better quality and probably better priced.

 

I learned about this brand called TSE Cashmere recently. It's spelled T-S-E and pronounced “Say.” I tried on a pair of TSE cashmere sweats that were at a secondhand store in Oakland. I remember thinking, this cashmere is amazing—you can just feel the difference. And then I looked up the brand on Reddit because Reddit honestly has some of the best fashion advice. If you don't mind combing through a lot of comments, people on Reddit really know their shit. A lot of comments were saying TSE is a great brand for secondhand cashmere. That was a really exciting find for me because I love finding good, high-quality brands to look for that most people might not know about. If you have a vision for a particular material or type of piece, you can see through the marketing. Branding makes all the difference between a $40 Poshmark sweater and an $800 sweater from The Row—the difference comes from luxury branding. Finding pieces by taking away the marketing, the markups, and the image is very helpful. You can find a lot of gems by having that mindset, just thinking, what are great fabrics, what's well made? 

 

EC: Are there any other writers or content creators who inspire you in your own creative process? 

 

VC: My best friend’s name is Ethany Lee; she is @TenderHerbs on Instagram.

 

I think we think about art and creativity in a very similar way. Although I post about fashion and she posts about food, we both love the thoughtful and nostalgic elements of creating.

 

Rather than following any one specific creator, I enjoy curating my feed with creative, mood board-esque images, even if it's a bowl of fruit or something. It doesn't have to be clothes. It's more like training my algorithm to give me interesting creative visuals, whether it's nature pics, an old car, an interior space, or a candle in a window; I’m drawn towards little things that create more of a mood together. 

 

EC: And I think this is our last question. Do you have any advice for maybe college or college-age creatives looking to pursue their passions, whether that's in writing or fashion, etc? 

 

VC: I would say that it’s okay to start small– whatever you create doesn’t have to be perfect. Creative pursuits can feel so volatile since a lot of it is dependent on your own creative process. When I was starting my substack, one of the biggest mental blocks was the pressure to write or write a lot or write something good.

 

I think starting small and making sure that your art practice is in progress is so valuable—just put something out. Sometimes I tell myself, just because a piece is longer doesn't mean it's better. Even if you don't have the energy to style a whole outfit, you can start with something small that exercises that creative muscle. 

 

As a creative, there's so much pressure on yourself to create something really cool or really great. But not everything you put out is going to be good, and that's super normal—I'm sure fashion designers probably make 100 dresses and like two of them.

You're not going to love everything you put out, and that's okay. The important thing is to build a creative practice and routine that works for you. 

 

Also, just remember that as a college student, you're really, really young. I am turning 29 this month, and I think I would have been really happy blogging in my early 20s if I had a little more emotional or creative courage to start blogging earlier. I definitely had a lot of anxiety in college about what I was going to do and that's normal. In a college environment, you're surrounded by so much pressure regarding which classes and which internships, but being out of a school environment, you realize that you're free to pursue whatever you want.

 

You have time. It's never too late to change your mind about what you want to pursue. If you start a blog, you never know what kind of life it'll take on its own.

 

EC: I personally really needed to hear that—I'm sure everyone who reads this relates to this as well. 

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