Who needs "Project Runway"?
UCLA physician Roderick Tung is a custom dress-shirt designer in his spare time. Here, he models a shirt from one of his own collections.
Certainly not Dr. Roderick Tung, assistant professor of medicine in UCLA’s Cardiac Arrhythmia Center, who has made his own way into the world of high fashion. His designer line, TUNG — featuring beautiful, custom dress shirts made of two-ply Egyptian cotton and mother-of-pearl buttons, oversized French cuffs and super-spread collars — is being sold at nationwide boutique Scoop NYC and also recently launched at Neiman Marcus in Beverly Hills.
Retailing at $295, the shirts appeal to men who are "particular about aesthetics and are a little bit tired of what’s available in men’s ready-to-wear," Tung explained. "They’ve seen all the basic blue and basic pink shirts, and they’re looking for something that will distinguish them from others. Something that gives them pride when they wear them."
The TUNG brand, he said, brings together Italian luxury with a British, classical elegance, "and then my own personal take of what I think is an intelligent functionality in styling," he added. The line received a huge boost just last week, when Tung was a featured designer at the Sept. 8 "Fashion’s Night Out"event: He had the entire fourth floor of Neiman Marcus Beverly Hills to showcase his collections.
A Chicago native who was raised in Cleveland, Tung admitted he’d always had a penchant for clothes, having been influenced by his older sister’s taste for fashion. As he got older, Tung became dissatisfied with what was on the market.
"I liked a lot of different brands, but I wanted to borrow some of the best elements of each of them and blend them into my own," he said. "So I started doing some custom shirts with shirt-makers in downtown Los Angeles."
Tung would go in for measurements and would choose different cuffs and collars to make the shirts more distinctive and functional. But he was bothered by the collars, he said, which just didn’t sit right.
"Because we’re in California, we can go with the tie-less look with a suit or a blazer. So I started making a collar that was a little bit stiffer and about a half-inch taller. And it had a two-button closure, which you don’t usually find on ready-to-wear, off-the-rack items," Tung said. "And then the collar started working really well. Once you start doing things that are so particular, you won’t settle for anything else."
Unfortunately, Tung’s pickiness was starting to frustrate the shirt designers in downtown L.A. Whenever he would receive his custom shirts from them, he would find things that were wrong. "They told me I was too particular, so they fired me [as a customer]," he said, laughing. "They said, ‘You’re trying to design a shirt, and that’s not really what we do.’ And that was my moment of epiphany."
Tung decided that he wanted something made in Italy, where many of the high-end, couture brands are created. He started doing Internet research, looking up Italian shirt factories and textile mills, and finally found some people in Italy who were willing to make samples for him. He flew out to Italy and collaborated on the first sample line of TUNG shirts, which was delivered in 2007.
Back in the U.S., Tung took the shirts to some of his favorite stores. "Because I was such a good customer, I would tell them, ‘You know, I’m working on my own shirt line. I wonder if you wouldn’t mind taking a look at it,’ " Tung said. "And they would always say, ‘Sure, bring it by,’ not expecting for it to be any good."
Instead, Tung got a very positive response and also some constructive criticism from the stores. He took those comments to heart when he created his first true collection in 2009; shortly afterward, his shirts were being sold at several Los Angeles boutiques — Lisa Kline, Traffic, Douglas Fir, Avedon and T Pettersson — and TUNG was on its way.
Shirts from the TUNG spring/summer line.
As a cardiac electrophysiologist at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, Tung and his colleagues specialize in cardiac ablation and device implantation. When he was young, Tung himself suffered from a very fast heart rhythm and, at 24, he had an ablation — a curative procedure in which the area of the heart where the "short circuits" are taking place is cauterized.
The experience, coupled with the fact that his father is a cancer survivor, prompted Tung to pursue a career in medicine. Calling himself a product of the Midwest, Tung received his undergraduate and medical degrees at Northwestern University and completed his residency at Massachusetts General Hospital. His first exposure to Los Angeles occurred when he arrived at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center for his cardiology fellowship; this was followed by a year of electrophysiology training at Beth-Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.
Tung had every intention of returning to Los Angeles, however — not only for the perfect weather, but also for the chance to work with Dr. Kalyanam Shivkumar, director of the UCLA Cardiac Arrhythmia Center and an expert in ventricular tachycardia. "I had the same interest, so I knew he would be a great mentor and potential boss for me," Tung said.
Despite his fashion success, Tung is adamant when he says he will never leave his UCLA medical career. "I absolutely love medicine and have no intention of ever, ever not being a full-time physician," he said. "I’m so fortunate to be in the field of medicine. It’s not just a job for me, because I love coming to work every day.
"To be able to interact and develop relationships like the kind we have with our patients, and to be in an academic environment like UCLA where we can publish and be on the leading edge of our niche field, it really is everything I’d hoped for when I knew I wanted to be a doctor."