Return: Sandra Chau Design
Sandra was having a bad day- she had been practicing law for about seven years now, but this day was too much and she decided to throw in the towel. She was unhappy. She was miserable. It really wasn't where she wanted to be. It wasn't that easy, though. Sandra came from a traditional Chinese family, which meant she was discouraged from doing art in school. She wrestled with wondering if she was really allowed to do something creative. It wasn't until she planned her wedding that she thought, “Oh, you know what, maybe there is something more creative that I can do.” She had always wanted to. It wasn't your typical, get started and see how it goes before quitting your job, but she was so fed up. She created a wedding blog while in Hong Kong focusing on personalizing weddings. From there, a German florist saw something in her that she hadn't realized or considered. That florist reached out to Sandra and hired her to be a stylist. It was exciting for her to be in a field that felt more like her element, but something wasn't quite right.
How did you know you needed to return?
I was pregnant with my daughter and took time off when she was born. During this time, we moved back to Sydney. I was still working on weddings, but there was always something that didn't seem quite right to me. I couldn't quite put my finger on what it was. It was about three years ago when I realized, “I really don't think I want to do weddings.” It was strange. I don't know what it was. You know when something just doesn't fit quite well with you, but you can't put your finger on what it was? Especially when you spend so long doing it, you feel like you're not quite ready to let go of it. Because of the creative network I gathered around me, I had many opportunities to create shoots that told stories and I was able to play with movement and light. That's when I knew I wanted to tell stories in a different way- for other artists. When I started doing that, it put me on the map in a different way. It was more for my aesthetic and my style. It became so much easier to hone in on my aesthetic and my brand, which was to tell a story, other's stories, in a visual way.
What did the process back to yourself look like?
It came down to the fact that I only have so much time. I'm juggling kids, so I can only take on so much. It was difficult to let go. It’s almost like a safety blanket. I recognized, though, that eventually I would just have to tell people. I remember the moment I told them, I clicked send on an email that explained it all, and I remember feeling so much relief. It was really weird, but it was so good. It was so good. I knew I had much more to offer- I wanted to meet with people and brands and tap into creativity in my own ways.
What stands out to you when you look back?
When I look back at when I made that conscious choice to stop taking on weddings, that I remember even when I was leaving my job- I knew I wanted to quit for a long time. I was nervous that I wouldn't know what to do myself after I quit. At the same time, it was really obvious to me and I wasn't sure why it took me that long to do it. Even when talking with other artists, they know they need to step away from their full time job, but all feel like they don't understand why it's taking that long to make that first step.
I felt like once I was on the right path and doing what I really was passionate about, I was able to rest in it more. One, I felt guilty to go to work, but the time away from them was more worth it. I felt more at ease with it. I used to struggle, even before my boys, leaving my daughter, to go off and do a wedding inspiration shoot or to write a blog post. It never sat well with me because I didn't feel like I was contributing. I needed to justify it more, and I feel like I've been able to more now. That's more of a personal thing more than anything. I work around the kids, and I work around them at night. I work quite late when they go to sleep and I don't feel like I struggle with it. When I was working as a lawyer working late hours, I kept wondering, “Why am I doing this?” It was a little less so with weddings because I was still able to do something creative and be flexible and work on my own terms. But the type of work was similar in that sense of why am I working so late on something like this? So now, I'm working late, but I know it's going to make a difference because I'm helping someone.
How did you find your voice?
I always wonder, “If I actually went into this when I was in my 20's rather than my 30's. What would it be like?” I wish I started in this line of work a lot earlier on. I definitely took a longer road to this rather than people that are younger. It just took me so long to figure out what I wanted to do, who I was, and what I was passionate about.
For me it was, I've always been able to style. Even when I started, I was able to style shoots. They never really did much for my brand or business. And I never understood what it was about it, until I figured out a way to make my images a bit more relatable and style in a way that was more authentic with my voice. I believe this started a change in my business. I think a lot of the times you're seeing all of this stuff, so you try to do that in your own way, but you actually end up replicating a lot. That's why it didn't really resonate with me. Once I stepped away having to do weddings the way everyone does and branching out to tapping into different areas of a wedding- it changed my views on designing for clients. It was after I did Ginny Au's Process Driven Design courses along with a 1:1 with her, that it made a huge impact on me and how I approach things. I wanted to create a tea ceremony and tried to implement what I learned in the course. I then created this shoot that I felt really represented my voice. If I look at my Instagram now and go back a bit, I can see the turning point in my voice and it's evolved ever since.
How did this impact you?
It's a different way to open up your eyes to look at things uniquely- to looking at your art and interpret your own style, then how to translate that to imagery. I've moved away from weddings, but I still use the tips to help tap into the creative's stories and all the different ways I can tell the story. Every project is so different and I feel like I have so much room for creativity. I used to stress about not knowing what to do on a shoot. I would prepare a lot, do mock-ups, and constantly think about what I was going to do. Ever since working in these shoots, a lot of times I don't know what creatives are going to bring. Because it's not about my work, it's about their work and their story. Now, I get on a shoot with things I've never seen before, and it forces me to create things up on the spot with them staring at me. I remember feeling really stressed, but it pushed me out of my comfort zone and I have to say, it's actually helped me grow. Working with a lot of different creatives with their art and their processes- being invited into their world- has actually really helped me understand who I am better. Which is really interesting, but it wouldn't have happened if I was pushed out of my comfort zone. It makes you come to terms with who you are.
How would you encourage those who need to return to themselves?
It took me years to get to my voice. It's hard, don't get me wrong. But, when you do find it, things change. I do hope people jump on the bandwagon because it makes it so much easier. I also hope people don't take as long as me to get to where they need to be. When you start on the journey, it's fun and great, but when things get hard or you hit obstacles, you kind of forget why you started what you did in the first place. That's why I ask them questions to come back to their why. It helps you regroup when you sit down to reflect on why you started out and then a lot of times you realize you just deviated form that path and you've forgotten who you are. With me, that's what happened. It wasn't until I sat down and remembered why I quit my job, was I able to really step back from weddings. It gets really clouded, so you need to come back and release it all. You can then focus on the vision and values of what your business really is and has.
Having mentors, for me personally, has been really helpful. Having someone guide me who has been through it and has that type of clarity. When you're in the midst of it all and you have things showing you that people have started out around the same time as you but they have gained traction while you haven't- you're wondering why. You end up sitting there feeling discouraged thinking you've been left behind when you haven't. You don't know what has gone into it and what's happening behind the scenes. So having a mentor and that guide that can tell you they've been there before telling you, “No, you can do this.” They can nudge you in the right direction and help you find clarity. I have had mentors that I admire for their business mind, their aesthetic and style, and while it's a huge investment, it's so important. It's really shaped the kind of creative that I am and business owner that I am.
Stay inspired- I stay inspired by talking to people or being on shoot. They feel like holidays to me, you know. Going for a walk inspires me too. I think a lot of people take those things for granted because we just feel stuck- our heads are down and we're always trying to do more. You lose sight of the fact that you can take 10 minutes out for a walk or to talk to one of your friends!
Styling, Creative Direction, & Styling Surface by Sandra Chau Design | Photographs by We Are Origami Photo | Florals by Lime Tree Bower | HAMU by Niki Simpson Hair and Makeup | Gown by Jennifer Gifford Designs | Stationery by Small Brown Writes | Ribbons & Styling Cloth by Frou Frou Chic | Model Paris Miller