by Emily Kovach
When Melissa Choi and Pia Panaligan met in a fashion illustration class in 2004 at Philadelphia University, their creative chemistry was immediate. They spent hours in the studio sewing side by side, sharing what inspired them.
“I always wanted to find someone to design with,” Choi says. “I felt like Pia was the only person who could be that for me.”
They reconnected in 2012 after separate post-college adventures in the fashion industry—Panaligan pursued internships in Manhattan and worked her way to head stylist at Anthropologie, while Choi designed for Free People and then lived and worked in Thailand and India. The pair now share a home in South Philadelphia that is also their studio for Senpai + Kohai, a Japanese term that refers to the relationship between apprentice and mentor.
When Choi returned from India, she brought back beautiful handmade fabric, trim and carved wooden blocks that became the basis for their debut collection of one-of-a-kind garments. Classes at the Fashion Incubator helped them realize that creating unique pieces wasn’t particularly sustainable. In the winter of 2013, they switched gears and designed a wholesale collection, but they quickly realized that they’d swung too far in the opposite direction.
“We love the slow fashion feel of things, and making things really special, as opposed to the fast pace of wholesale,” Choi says. “It’s not what we’re passionate about—it doesn’t tell the story we want.”
Choi and Panaligan have now found a middle ground that speaks to their vision. Their pieces still have that distinctive feel—they feature hand-embroidery, dyeing and printing—but the silhouettes are consistent, and garments are available in multiple sizes.
Some of their fabric is made especially for them by a Burmese weaver in South Philly, and their most recent collection features hand-dyed silk tunics in marbled indigos and muted neutrals, knee-length quilted vests and gorgeous silk scarves.
“My experience with Melissa opened my eyes to a more colorful palette,” says Panaligan. “I tend toward neutral hues, but that’s what makes the balances—the bold and the classic neutral colors.”
Choi agrees, adding, “Working together, we grow in our design aesthetics.”
For more information, visit senpaikohai.com