Category Archives: Kat & Vali

THE ART OF FREQUENT HAPPINESS

After an extended period of silence, the A Little Bit Apparel (ALBA) blog is finally back! This time the blog is in the able hands of our cartoonist Vali!

ALBA is in the middle of a crowd funding campaign!

crowdfunding title pic

Any other reference just wouldn’t be epic enough.

While our crowd funding platform is hosted in China, foreigners outside of China can still donate through our website at www.alittlebitapparel.com.

Shameless plugs out of the way; what I really want to talk about in this post is character creation. Since the creation of Mort about a year and a half ago, his story has slowly begun to unfold. He’s a workaholic Grim Reaper that gets assigned to China in order to figure out where the efficiency gaps are and get the China branch running properly. That was comic book one. In preparation for drawing comic book two, I’ve had to come up with a litany of supporting characters for Mort to interact with. Most of them came without effort. I knew what aspects of Chinese society I needed to represent and what characters from traditional folklore would be best suited to the task.

There’s the self-centered lazy boss Yan Wang:

Yan Wang Character Bio Chinese lossy

Then there’s Hei Bai Wuchang (just call them Black and White); two lazy, mean-spirited, and mildly sycophantic Reapers that serve as Mort’s primary antagonists:

Heibei Character Bio Chinese lossy

Zao, a slovenly Kitchen God and Mort’s flat-mate, serves as a foil to Mort’s obsession with order and cleanliness.

Zaoshen character sheet lossy

Bella is a vibrant Fox Fairy that embraces life, learning, and all things fun. Very few people in China are like this so I wanted to create a character that I thought could serve as a positive (female) role model:

Bella Character Bio Chinese lossy

The script for the second comic book calls for Mort to have a love interest. Her name is Chang Lele(常乐乐), which roughly translates to “Frequent Happiness”. Most of the other character designs came quite readily, but the design for Lele had been vexing me for almost half a year. The problem being that Lele is deliberately a boring character. Like many young Chinese her life has been controlled by the whims of her parents. In the case of Lele this control has been complete.

the asian way of life

Chinese life goes a little bit like this.

As a result Lele isn’t “lele” at all. That will change in the course of the book, but for the time I was faced with the challenge of drawing a somewhat pretty, but otherwise boring and defeated character that looks like she belongs in Mort’s world. This is not as easy as it sounds. So how does one go about it?

First thing I had to do was consider the design elements:

-Boring

-Defeated

-Somewhat pretty

-Typical Chinese

-Looks natural next to the other characters

My first attempts didn’t go all that well. They were either too pretty, too vibrant, or looked unnatural when placed next to Mort. Here’s my first attempt:

changlele concept 1

This one was wrong on so many levels. I modeled on a friend of mine and she came out too pretty, too smart, and too vibrant. Our little guy is cute, but this girl is just out of Mort’s league. For the next attempt, I tried to make a more typically Chinese woman:

changlele concept 2

A little better this time, but too mature, and still to vibrant by far. I tried to mirror Mort a little bit in her colour scheme, but it still didn’t feel right. After a few months of grueling preparations for our crowd funding campaign, (www.alittlebitapparel.com *ahem*) I finally got to sit back down and really think about Miss Chang. I went out to a busy mall coffee shop and began to observe the female patrons. In a professional manner, mind you. I paid attention to hair styles, facial structures, eyebrows, and expressions. You can see my sketch sheet below:

changlele concept sketches

You can see in the top right that once again I’ve listed my design points. The first few on the top row were done with a similar approach that Disney uses to design their female leads. It became readily apparent that these characters wouldn’t work, the use of a circle as the base design makes them potential once again to be too vibrant.   I began to play with the geometry of the head in the second row, keeping to rounded shapes. You can see that I got very excited with the second character from the left on the bottom row. The design notes beside her will clue you in to where this is going. She’s still too intelligent looking, but now she looks jaded and she’s not too pretty. Instead of relying on colour to connect her to Mort, I went ahead and added a few minor shapes that allude to our bony little protagonist. The peak in her hair part isn’t too dissimilar to the peak at the front part of Mort’s hood. I also stumbled upon a great little design element with this sketch: straight lines. As a cartoonist I love dynamic characters. Reciprocal curves are eye candy that I distribute liberally. Obvious as it may seem, this sketch reminded me that straight lines are boring. I would employ this idea into the final sketch:

changlele design

You might notice that I’ve added a couple more of Mort’s design characteristics in this sketch. Her trousers bunch up over her feet, much like Mort’s robe does. The extremities of her clothing flare out into angular shapes, which is also reminiscent of Mort. These elements become more obvious when you add a splash of paint and put the two together.

Changlele with Mort

Just look at the happy couple.

With Chang Lele finally out of the way, I can now set to work on Mort Comic Book 2!

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Timi the Bao’an

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For most countries, the responsibility of street-level law enforcement is relegated to single organization; China however is rife with them. Among these enforcers are the Bao’an, an unarmed branch of Chinese law enforcement. Unlike police, Bao’an have little means by which to enforce anything. By western standards, they are under-trained and generally have a disheveled look about them. As such they often broker little respect from others. Not long ago however, our activities with ALBA caught the interest of one of these individuals, as we have gotten to know him we have consummately impressed by his dynamism and depth of personality.

Wang Yuehou, we often refer to him as “Timi”, was born in Hubei province in the late 80s. He grew up in a broken home, which in China is a very uncommon occurrence. Disappointment and sadness were heavy in his voice as he explained how his home situation isolated him and was the cause for many of the taunts he endured from his classmates during primary school.

The taunts didn’t last long however. At age 11 Timi left school and began working in a restaurant. After a time there he began work with his brothers making furniture. From furniture making, he moved on to painting walls. Always eager to learn more and advance himself, Timi views his previous jobs as failures for their lack of such opportunities. It was after his tenure as a painter in Tianjin that Timi finally came to Beijing and took a position with the Bao’an, a job he has only held for the past 3 months.

When asked about why he took the position, he states that he had hoped he would be able to advance himself and his knowledge by working with the Bao’an. While he states that his expectations in this respect haven’t been met, he is fortunate enough to be charged with monitoring the very busy Nanluo Guxiang shopping street, a street littered with unique boutique stores that sell a wide range of interesting goods. It is also a place we frequently go to draw on the street and spread the word about our brand ALBA. It was there that we first met.

Bao’an have a rough job. Wages are meager, hours are long, days off are almost non-existent. Frustration is further compounded by the lack of respect that many of them have to endure while trying to maintain some semblance of order. The job does have its perks however. While the hours are long, down time is spaced in such a way that motivated individuals can still find time to study other things. Bao’an are also often used to run security for concerts and other events, which means that they occasionally get to take in a free show. As an additional perk, the area that Timi works in has given him opportunity to expose himself to many of the products that are sold in the area, which plays into his other interest: e-commerce.

Over the course of our discussions we have come to find that Timi is fascinated by e-commerce. He is resolved to learn how to use Taobao, China’s top e-commerce platform, and start his own shop. His interests extend well beyond that though. He is keen to learn everything from language, to music, to art, and beyond. His ultimate goal however, is to get the opportunity to travel abroad.

Timi told us that his involvement with ALBA and our fan-club/creative circle has encouraged him to pursue his interests further, especially when it comes to design, e-commerce, and marketing. In turn he has been very kind and helpful by letting us know what to expect each time we go out to his area to spread the word about ALBA.

Timi really is a diamond in the rough. He is a dynamic individual with a voracious appetite for learning and being creative. His drive to learn more and improve himself is inspiring. We are very happy to have him as a member of our group, and hope that he will be able to use the community we are building to reach his goals.

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Changing Values

Six years as an English teacher in China have provided me with the opportunity to meet people from different generations and industries. I have gained a clear insight into how different generations exhibit different values towards society. I have come to the fascinating realization, that the Millennials of China are radically different from any generations prior to them.

In the west, there are certain differences between generations, but they’re not as pronounced they are between generations in China. There are a few reasons for this. In traditional Chinese thought the Confucian concept of filial piety dictates that the first born son is responsible for the well-being of the older generation. The introduction of the one child policy in China has forced this burden upon the first and only child of a family, and has made parents put “all their eggs into one basket”.

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As a result, the parents (and grandparents) focus completely on a single child’s wants and needs, which in turn has led to the creation of “little emperors”- children used to getting everything they want.

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Some are not so little.

 

As China’s economic situation has rapidly improved over the past 40 years, so has the standard of living. Parents now have a wider range of options of things to provide their children with that they themselves never had a chance for. This has instilled in this generation a level of confidence and self worth that is impossible for the previous generations to match. Furthermore, with China’s rapid technological advancement the Millennials have reaped a bulk of the benefits as China finally catches up to the Western world. This includes unprecedented global connectivity which has given them opportunities to connect with people around the world, and to have immediate access to information through micro blogging. With all these competencies, the Millennials are in for something different.

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i.e.- Not this.

Perhaps the last generation to enjoy the benefits of the “iron rice bowl”, China’s Generation X and generations prior developed their self worth through hard work and loyalty to their employer. They took pride in working for a famous employer. Their personal values are often a reflection of the employer’s values. In comparison, pampered and doted upon since they were born, the Millennials grew up assured of their own self worth, which has made them feel confident if not entitled. Their search for values began within themselves. For them the focus of self-worth has shifted from outside (e.g. companies, society) to inside (i.e. self). They don’t share the dreams of their employers, they are more inclined to pursue their own dreams. Even if they don’t know what they want, when they start their first jobs, they usually have an insatiable, voracious thirst for knowledge and experience which will help them to realize their potential and show others that they can make a difference.

Everything said, when these children get a foot in the door of their first employer, and are faced with a traditional system which solely reflects the values of the older generations, these young people are often able to confidently reply with a “ No thank you, I am individual, not a drone. I deserve to be treated as such. ”

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Kids these days.

 

Realizing this trend, It is now very clear to me that China is slowly breaking away from the tradition, and it is exactly this generation that will make a difference in the future.

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A Difference in What Drives Us

As we’ve touched upon before, the thought processes of a business professional and an artist are radically different. 

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This man obviously cared a great deal about his investment portfolio.

Typically speaking the business person aims to explore and research market and consumer demand, these are the marks by which they navigate their path to success.  Great business people can anticipate market demand and offer products to the consumer before they even realize they want it.  They are shepherds to the masses, earning their living by cultivating the flock to desire the goods and services that they are offering.

Artists are motivated by a different force entirely.  The artist explores the self and the mind.  There is no compass to guide, only aimless wandering in a quest for greater expression.  Unlike the business person the artist produces for the sake of creation.  There is often little concern for the market, because the artist generally presumes that no matter what, there will always be someone out there somewhere that is willing to buy.

There are many industries where these two mindsets meet and clash.  Ours is certainly one of them.  This difference was probably no better pronounced than in one particular situation we experienced at our company…

 

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There’s a reason our business cards look like this.

 

At one point we decided it might be in our best interest to draw upon some Chinese influences for our designs.  In order to research this and draw inspiration Vali read through a collection of Chinese horror stories by Pu Songlin entitled Tales from a Chinese Studio.  Many of the stories in the book focused on Fox Spirits.  These cunning creatures were known for taking the form of a woman, seducing a man, and then slowly draining the life force out of him.

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Vali: “In other words, a woman.”

Given this was a common theme and had potential, our cartoonist quickly jumped on the concept and produced this design:

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As a westerner closely involved in the project I’m very fond of this design, but as a business person I felt that it was time to poll the audience.  I kindly asked him to get some feedback from some of our contacts.  Some of you recall however that saying the word “feedback” to an artist is often like saying “bath” to a dog.  Though I’ve come to find it’s not really that, it’s that artists have a different feedback system.  They want artists’ feedback, not consumers’ feedback.  I digress, after few days he came back and told me he had asked some 6 people, and they all told him that they liked it a lot, and that they couldn’t hide the expression on their faces just how much they liked it! The seventh person however, who happened to be a very good friend of ours disagreed, she told him that Chinese typically don’t envision fox spirits in this way.

He rode off the comment, citing this particular friend’s frequent negativity.

So we disregarded the one negative review out of seven, and almost went on to place the first sample order.  The night before, I got a gut feeling that maybe I should run the design by some of my other Chinese friends.  I showed it to two people, both of which said the same thing, “This is not something that Chinese people will understand.  It’s a cultural difference in perception, to us the fox is a bit scary, the colors are wrong.”  In other words, they won’t wear it. My artist was trying so hard to explain to me that this is art: some will see and not understand, while some will see and love it.  The most important thing is that is okay with the design.  As a business person I was struggling to explain that this is not art, this is business.  If we were to make any money from anything, our designs need to be appealing to our customers, and the best way to find that out is to poll the audience.

It doesn’t help that Vali is a life-long skate punk, or that he may well be an eccentric genius.  He’s an iconoclast by nature, show him something done a certain way only for the sake of tradition and he’s prone to fly at it like an Angry Bird gunning for a green pig. 

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You could say he flies in the face of tradition

 

Naturally he also questioned the relevancy of my people’s comments. Frustrated I suggested that we put the design on Weibo (the Chinese version of Twitter) and see what the people out there thought about it. These were random people, so if their comments tipped in my favor he said he would consider changing the fox spirit design.  Naturally I won, and naturally he has yet to revisit the concept.

 

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It’s a Pyrrhic victory.

 

I was hoping that he would learn a lesson from what happened. If we want to become a brand, then we have to stop being only product focused and listen to what our target customers like.  People are very willing to give us their opinion, we just have to listen carefully.  My artist however is still an obnoxious little nuisance, but at least I learned a lesson.  I realized that I didn’t need to search for some mysterious arcane business knowledge, or ask seasoned business gurus what to do to succeed.  I realized that I only needed to listen to my customers and do what they told me.  Very soon, we saw the benefits from it.

 

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Crisis Schmises, we’re starting a company!

The Management & the Artist

Crisis Schmises, we’re starting a company!

Welcome to the official “A Little Bit Apparel” Blog! We can prove its official because we live in China, and just like everything else here we had to go through a lot of paperwork to make it official.
We are Kat and Vali; a young couple that met and fell in love in Beijing, China: a city known around the world for pollution, food scares, swine flu, and romance! Katerina is Macedonian, and Vali is English-American (it’s complicated). Half a year ago we began work on our own T-shirt brand called “A Little Bit Apparel” or ALBA for short. Any die-hard Monty Python fan will get the reference. We decided to write this blog in order to share our experiences, and perhaps maybe, just to get a few people interested in our product along the way. Keep following this blog and you’ll get to read all about the nuances of starting a business abroad, the China expat experience, and helpful tips on how not to strangle your spouse when your business and personal lives are so closely intertwined.
Kat is sure to regale you with numerous upbeat messages about creating opportunities, fostering confidence, setting life goals, and generally telling you what you should be doing.
Vali is a cartoonist; he’s also cartoonish. Kat will try her best over the course of the blog to filter his nonsense into cogent sentences. In turn, Vali will try his best to make sure that Kat doesn’t lose herself in too many inspirational tangents.

Keep following, its sure to be interesting!

For any positive feedback, inquiries, or if you aren’t a Nigerian Prince and want to send us money, please contact us at:

alittlebitapparel@gmail.com

Please direct all complaints and hate email to your senator or district representative.

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