Mexican born, New York City bred, Stefan Riera is a man you’d pass in the streets and turn to look twice at.
At 6’3 (tall in comparison to my short, stumpy nature) he may be the most photogenic person I know, oozing poise and pazaz. Stefan has those Mexican genes, matched with his NYC coolness, a big heart and a sprinkle of Ralph Lauren - he belongs on the cover of a magazine and we chatted about life in HK, the fashion industry and growing up in between New York and Mexico.
Name: Stefan Riera
Occupation: Creative Presentation at Ralph Lauren.
Home Town: Born in Mexico, grew up in Queens, New York.
Current Residence: Hong Kong for 3.5 years.
Your Style Icons: Frida Kahlo and my Mom.
Living in Hong Kong for the last 3 years, working in the Creative Presentation department at Ralph Lauren, I caught up with Stefan on a rainy Sunday afternoon to chat about growing up in Queens, fashion school, meetings with Mr. Lauren and what's inspiring Stefan right now.
You’re were born in Mexico and grew up in New York City. What was your childhood like?
Yeah I was born in Mexico and moved to New York when I was about 4, just before school started. My father was already there [in New York] and my mother and I then moved over. She’d been before illegally (prior to me being in the picture) and then she had me in Mexico but my dad was in New York so she had to cross the border again illegally to move there as they weren’t married then. My father was legal because he managed to get this special working visa, then permanent visa during the mid 80’s. So when my mum and I moved over, her second time there, then they got married and that’s how my mum got to stay. I actually flew over to New York with one of my aunts because my mum had to go illegally and cross the border. Something I will forever admire her for and be thankful for.
We lived in Corona, Queens. Queens is up and coming, it’s the new convenient place to move because it’s closer to Manhattan and quite a lot cheaper - you can get a big place there and still be in Manhattan in 20-30 minutes. Back in the day where we lived was a lot of Hispanic and cultural communities. Each of the pockets in Queens is different, like you’ve got Flushing which is where I went to High School and is where the majority of Asian people live in - foreshadowing my future I guess. Where we lived there was a mix of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Colombian, Ecuadorian, Dominican, Salvadorian – lots of South American. There was always good food, festivals and events on.
What was schooling like? Was it focused on grades, social stuff or extracurricular stuff.
I think throughout the three schools I went to, it was all very much the same. From elementary to middle school and high school, three different schools, it was similar in terms of people. You can, but you usually don’t, choose your school as it’s all assigned based on the zone you live in. In America it is very to the curriculum as well as a social setting too. A lot of parents will work late and long hours so the schools really turn it into a school with a lot of after-school programs, keeping kids busy throughout the day. It was good and that was certainly my case. My mum was working two jobs at one point so I’d go to school and then I had track team at night or volleyball or tennis… [Tennis was all about the uniform – navy and white piping!]
It was a very eclectic mix, so many different countries represented and I learnt so much about the world just through my friends and other school kids. I had a very strict mum who was very much about ”you have to go to college and get a career, be a doctor, earn money and have everything that I didn’t”. I was lucky I always had that state of mind where I wanted to do well; I wanted to be able to support and make something of myself. I also surrounded myself with friends that had the same state of mind which helped motivate and push me to get to the finish line.
Do you have strong roots back in Mexico? Did you visit much from New York?
Yeah growing up my mum would send me back to Mexico every year. I would spend half the year in Mexico and half the time in New York. My grandparents have a farm down there and I’d go work on the farm which I hated. It taught me work ethic and appreciation for what I have. I used to work on the farm, raise goats, had my Donkey and I’d help my grandfather who had cows, bulls, turkeys and chickens and after the season we’d sell them. The whole place would become a smoke house, drying the meat. I would do that every year in the summer then go back to New York for school, leave a little early then head back to Mexico and kept that work flow up until I was about 14 when I started to say no, I don’t want to. I rebelled and wanted to stay with friends in NY and hang out over the summer and my mum eventually caved in and said fine.
There were a lot of kids there though that I grew up with in the summers. I would teach them English and they would always ask be about New York and what it was like. It was a very small town. But yeah there is that whole Spanish culture there where it’s expected you are married by the time you are 18, the father goes off to America to work and send money home. I saw a lot of that, kids my age who were all married and with kids really young and they would leave and go to The States, they would go and never see their kids or their wives or husbands, and you can’t go back and forth legally, unless it was with a visa which is expensive and difficult to get. It was a very different way of growing up and looking back from an adult view I realise how real it all was.
I think a lot of my Mexican heritage stuck with me, still to this day. I am very fortunate in what I do and where I do it and how I live my life and I always think back to the people who do that for a living day in day out, like my grandparents. I saw it; I was a part of it and appreciate it. Did I love it? Not necessarily. But it was one of those aspects of my upbringing that made me who I am today.
What did you think you wanted to do when you were finishing school? Did you have much of a plan or a vision for where you wanted to head?
When I was in school I applied and got into college to become and RN, a registered nurse, because that’s what I thought was the right thing to do. I went to college to study RN for a semester, mainly to please my mum. During high school some my friends were doing the same and then I guess it’s that same old story - I started to realise it wasn’t for me. I was always interested in fashion, magazines, fashion shows etc., but I never really knew much about it. I guess because that’s not what we were taught at school, there was no fashion option, no outlet in clubs or after-school programs. None of that was in our immediate environment so I never really knew much about it. I knew I liked it but didn’t know what you could do with it.
Growing up I would watch my mum get ready and it was a whole process. It took so much time and there was passion and detail put into it. To this day she presents herself as best she can and I definitely embodied that and learnt that from her and I moved from that to dressing myself and then I was dressing girlfriends at school. I remember I went prom dress shopping with girlfriends, all of them, the earrings and shoes and all that, even my prom date (how they didn’t know I was gay I have no idea). I drew out her prom dress with cleavage and diamonds - the whole thing!
So yeah fashion was always in me and when I did my first semester at college for nursing I saw there was a program for beginners in fashion and I guess that opened my eyes to opportunities in fashion.
Where did you end up studying fashion?
During Fall/Winter, my first semester, I applied for Spring/Summer semester at FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology) in Manhattan and got in. At the time I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into. I stayed in Queens and commuted every day and I remember once I got to uni, I didn’t know anyone there because everyone I knew from school was off to become a cop, a nurse, a teacher and I got to FIT and it was a whole new world to me. I was a Mexican boy from Corona who knew about 'fashion' a bit, but not that much, and once I got there was so many likeminded people and professors who had worked in the industry and worked for big brands and then people from all different countries, Brazil, Italy, Korea - I was just blown away. I had a great group of friends and they taught me so much about the world and I guess I became intrigued as to what was out there. It opened my eyes and sense of curiosity through that.
What exactly did you study?
I studied fashion merchandising management as my associate and as my bachelors I did product development which is more about creating the garment rather than designing.
Working in New York in the fashion industry I assume it would be hard to get into somewhere without connections to the industry. Does college help that process at all? Did you do internships before graduating and how did you find your job after graduating?
FIT is a really good university because a lot of the professors come from the industry or are still working and they teach part time, or in off hours, and they are really good. As you get to graduation time, at that point we already make decisions about what we want to do, and they help with interviews and internships and connections. At FIT it’s also mandatory in your last year to have an internship and get work experience in order to graduate. I did more than what I had to I guess as soon as I could I put my hand up for stuff like “I’ll go iron it”, “I’ll go steam that" whatever it was, just to be in it. And it definitely helped me out in the end.
That led me to Ralph Lauren. I went on a school trip with a professor who used to work for Ralph. One of his colleagues was still there so as a whole class we went to visit the creative service department which is the term they use for window displays, interior, working with fashion shows, the background stuff, working with stores, creating the spaces and so on. This was the first time that got me really thinking, wow, there is more to fashion than just design, merchandising and creating garments, there is whole brand behind it that is needed as much as the clothes. I was amazed by it, I think it was my junior year, so my third year in, and after the class trip I went back to the VP who was doing the talk, I ran back to his office and just introduced myself. I said “Hi I’m Stefan, if you ever need any help or an intern or something I’m here”. Looking back it was pretty ballsy just to do that but he was like sure, let me give you my card and send your resume through, and I did. I remember the first time I didn’t get it and I got a call saying “sorry, internships have been filled” and then a week later I suddenly got another call back saying they wanted me for an interview. Because I was getting credits for school, it was unpaid but I did it longer than most school kids do. I interned for a year and a half, a year of which went to my credits but I just genuinely loved it. I was also working at Urban Outfitters and so splitting time between school, internship and working nights and weekend at UO. Then after I graduated Ralph hired me in Creative Services.
How long were you in New York at Ralph before you moved here and what prompted the move here? Was it the job, needing a change of scenery or both?
I’d been in the New York office about 3 years, a year and a half intern and then a year and a half of paid work, and then they reached out to me, asking if I’d be interested in working in Asia. At first it was China and I was like oh to the no! Then they came back and said actually its Hong Kong and I didn’t know then. My first thought was, Stefan you just have to go and see it. It was a case of; we want to move you there for as long as you want to be there. There was no timeline really.
It took about 8 months, I came twice to visit, one to interview and then one for the opening of the store in Prince’s Building so I helped open that shop. I guess I came to bring that New York flavour, knowledge and branding to Hong Kong because New York is the head office, that’s where Mr. Lauren is, and I had some years of experience there to bring that knowledge over here.
Have you met him [Ralph Lauren] yourself?
I have actually a few times. He is very involved, and he likes to keep a part of it. He’ll pop into the store and surprise you. I’d be doing something and he would be right behind me and ask what I was doing then I’d turn around like *gasp - deep breath in*. He is very charming and always well dressed.
What do you think some of the challenges of moving here were and what were some other things you found really easy that maybe you didn’t think would be?
Before even coming I knew I was going to do it but of course there were hesitations you know, family, and friends. I knew nobody. It’s one thing moving from New York to California but moving overseas to a country I knew nothing about, that was a big move. I was 22 turning 23 at the time but honestly it was a pretty easy move, a somewhat easy transition.
On a work level, professional level, Hong Kong not being a fashion city was hard. It’s not like New York where fashion is EVERYWHERE, it’s part of the city, that’s part of what makes New York so romantic and why people love it so much, its engrained. But here, it’s more commercial, more luxury and very in your face. That was a big struggle for me because a lot of my drive, motivation and inspiration in what I do in my day to day is a lot about watching the streets, watching what people are doing and wearing, the colours, everything. And Hong Kong is slightly missing that, as much as you can try inserting it into the country you just can’t. I give props to Hong Kong for trying to give an outlet, especially for the younger generations to get involved and have somewhere to go. That’s not to say there aren’t other great parts; there are other things here that make up for it in a way.
In terms of things I thought would be difficult like finding friends, making a life - that was all quite easy. I found good friends quickly, put myself out there. It’s definitely one of those cities where you just have to get out of your comfort zone and put your hand up and try stuff and then everything will fall into place.
What do you love about what you do?
I love that no two days are alike. I’m not the type to be tapping away at a desk all day; I love how every day my job is so different. One day I’ll have to go to a store and change the furniture in a store, do the floral arrangements, redo windows, down to the carpet and the artwork. The next day I might have to go to the warehouse to paint props then the next I might be at fittings with models. Constantly on my toes, always a challenge. I do a lot of event styling and I get to meet all different people from the fashion industry from PR companies, magazines and other labels. We partner with all different companies from bakeries to restaurants and liquor brands. It’s quite cool and I get to meet all these people and see how it all connects. That’s something I never really did in New York so I have definitely been able to stick my fingers in a lot more here. That’s how I’ve met a lot of friends too, throughout these things, the social part of the industry.
Where do you see yourself career wise in the next few years? Do you have a dream job, company or person you would want to work for?
I don’t know. I can’t see myself going back to America any time soon. Being away has really opened my eyes to the world and what it has to offer. Luckily New York is its own country in a way but I don’t think I want to go back at the moment. I just want to learn more in the world of Ralph Lauren and if working for a different company happens, I just want to work for someone or something inspiring. I stress about not doing something productive in a day or a week, but that’s what we in our 20s are meant to be doing. We don’t know. We’re still finding ourselves. That’s part of life you know. Same thing about talking about uni and school, that pressure to figure out what I want to do with my life. Looking back you think oh, that’s just part of the process and story - a chapter. And now it’s starting again like I’m trying to graduate again in a way. I’m taking my time.
What inspires you at the moment in your work and life?
At the moment, I’d say social media -I think it’s very now, it’s where I get a lot of inspiration in terms of shopping or style or culture, whether it’s bloggers, designers or models.
I’d say music is another big inspiration, huge – I’m talking HUGE - the person, the music, the artist, the music videos, the vision, everything. Even just the way a certain song will make me feel. I’ll get inspired and be able to relate it to a theme, a vision, an outfit or a story. My go-to would be Selina, the original Mexican one. There is something about her essence, and her music to me was beautiful. I love Rhianna, I think she is someone that is fresh and modern and she still manages to captivate her audience and always surprise them and it’s difficult to do that. Other artists…hmmmm. I love me some Beyoncé but maybe that’s just because I’m gay, it’s part of the contract! That’s all at this moment in time though until someone else comes along that changes it up you know. I love more 90s stuff than I do now through. It was such an era; Aliyah, TLC, The Spice Girls, Missy Elliot, Nelly, JLO, NAS & JAY-Z. It was a movement and I look back and they really changed it. You see an outfit and you know what it is, who it was from. Like Aliyah and Tommy Hilfiger in the 90s - that was huge and there is all this follow on from that. That nostalgic stuff to me is more inspiring than what’s happening now, I appreciate the now and I’d be lying if I said the now doesn’t inspire me on some level but I always go back to that time. I loved it and I still do.
As someone always out and about at all the latest bars, restaurants and events and constantly entertaining friends in town, what is your foolproof out of towner day to show off Hong Kong?
If I was to pick a whole day, I’d wake up and get some breakfast and straight to Sai Kung to take the speedboat to Tai Long Wan beach. I love it over there, it’s beautiful, so relaxing, you know I would love to just live at the beach. There is a restaurant there, we’d have some lunch, lie down, swim, kick a ball, play around. I’ve spent entire days there just doing nothing. The boat ride is beautiful. You see all the little islands and then taking it back during sunset, ohhhhh, it’s just beautiful because it’s not your average beach in Hong Kong. So yeah I’d do that, tire my guests out and take them to bed… just kidding. But that takes up your whole day and it’s a good way to see Hong Kong outside the Central area. Coming home for dinner would either be Dim Sum Square, Cha Cha Wan (depending on what they feel), followed by drinks at Aqua or Seeva in Prince’s Building is always good to go to or, Lily and Bloom I like. Rooftop could do Ce La Vi or China Club and if they want to go dancing maybe Play, Volar or Linq.