Peering from the doorway, dressed in colorful patterns, I met with Isabel Tong. A neon light flashes ISATISSE against a crinkled silver drape, and on display is a quirky collection featuring off-the-wall patterns on fabrics, canvases, and a range of home decor items.
Hong Kong illustrator and fashion designer Isabel Tong channels her alter-ego in the big-haired characters she draws. We met up to discuss illustration, tattoos and from where she draws inspiration.
Hong Kong is home for Tong, after a stint at school in Canada. Growing up she loved drawing from a young age. Encouraged by her mother, Tong attended painting lessons, drawing, and watercolor classes. She felt immersed in art, as her mother paints Chinese paintings and ink drawings.
However, pursuing a career in art wasn’t Tong’s initial path. She first took up her major in Economics. It was after subsequent years enrolling in fashion design workshops and illustration courses that she eventually switched towards something more creative, and founded the Isatisse brand four years ago.
Tong’s first design-focused job was for a sportswear company. Her experience feeds into her focus for leisurewear fabrics and a laid-back style.
When you’re designing an illustration are you already thinking about what the fabric will be for?
Yes. When I draw I have to think how it will look when it’s printed on fabric. This is something I have to consider each and every time I do something in my collection. I also do some drawings for myself, something that’s not just on fabric.
Aside from fashion, her home decor items include cushions, covers and a bean bag, as well as stickers and canvases for decorating around the home.
Isatisse: What’s in a name?
The name Isatisse is a portmanteau of Isabel’s first name and that of her favorite artist, Matisse. His lively paintings and colorful decoupage pieces have been huge influences over Tong’s style.
Your characters in your illustrations have big colorful hair. Do any of them have a name?
Yes. They’re actually reflecting me and my friends. The girl with big red hair is Abel. Because I’m Isabel and in Chinese people usually call me Ah-Bell or something like that. So it’s just a short form of my name.
So Abel has red hair. There’s also one with pink hair. Is she a different character?
No it’s the same character. I’m twisting it to a different color tone, but actually they’re the same person.
Would you say Abel’s your alter ego?
Yeah actually she is my alter ego. I always like to have different hair colors, and I always wanted to have dreadlocks but I don’t dare to do it in real life. So I just draw it in my illustrations. She will do weird things that I don’t dare to do.
What else does she do that you don’t dare to do?
Well she likes to eat a lot of things, and she likes to have a lot of tattoos on her skin. But I’m afraid of the pain that you have from doing a tattoo! So I’ve never got one.
Not even a tattoo of Abel?
I wish I could but I’m still thinking about it.
Who is your audience?
I don’t think people in Hong Kong will like this sort of style because sometimes they’ll think it’s too quirky, or the designs are too crazy or too colorful. People in Hong Kong like black and white styles, those that are more quiet. Usually [the people that like my work] are more crazy, I think, they like more happy stuff or something that is more colorful. And some people that are more carefree. So if you talk about demographically, I think most people who like my things are from Korea.
I also asked Tong about the message of her art. She believes in live music in Hong Kong.
What does that mean, to believe in live music?
I love to go to bands and shows, especially shows held by indie bands. I get inspiration [from them]. I have some drawings about bands and the shows, because they are a lot of fun.
Her home is mostly in a Chinese style, designed by her mother, albeit with a messy room because it’s where she works the most.
If I had my own home I’d like to have it like a Caribbean style. Or like the Japanese small home style, do you know what I’m talking about? And vintage furniture. Like the 50s and that kind of stuff.
Quiet and introverted, Isabel Tong channels her energy and wild side with Abel, the big haired ever-hungry character in her illustrations.
Tong took part in an illustration show this month, and looks ahead to her next trip to Seoul. Be sure to check out her Instagram to see her latest designs, illustrative adventures, and wacky collection of home decor items.
This interview has been edited for format, clarity and length.
Curious to get to know more artists and designers?
Flick through our artist archives to find a conversation with Australian designer Trent Jansen who explores Ozzy mythology while creating unique furniture pieces. Or find out more about Korean artist WooJai Lee, who developed a novel way to make furniture from blocks of paper.