The fields of medicine and fashion knit together perfectly for Dr. Roderick Tung. Photo: Mark Berndt
By Kim Kowsky
If UCLA's physicians are looking nattier than usual, it may be because they have received a fashion prescription from colleague Roderick Tung, M.D., a cardiologist who, in his off hours, designs a boutique line of men's shirts. The director of UCLA's ventricular tachycardia program has outfitted several fellow physicians with his impeccably tailored shirts and handpicked coordinating ties.
"Many doctors tend not to be that fashion-forward, but some of my best customers are doctors," says Dr. Tung, whose eponymous Tung shirts sell for $295 at such high-end retailers as Scoop NYC and Neiman Marcus.
Nicknamed by colleagues "The Fashion Doctor," Dr. Tung joined UCLA's Cardiac Arrhythmia Center five years ago, and he launched his Tung line in 2009. Since then, he has designed three Fall-Winter and three Spring-Summer collections, which have been so well-received that he was asked to be the men's featured designer for last year's "Fashion's Night Out" at Neiman Marcus in Beverly Hills. His shirts have attracted flattering notice in several publications, including Los Angeles Confidential and inTouch magazines, and he is currently collaborating with celebrity stylists for TV talk-show host Piers Morgan, actor Brad Pitt and soccer star David Beckham.
Although medicine and fashion may seem unrelated, the two fields knit together for Dr. Tung as elegantly as his mother-of-pearl-buttoned, two-ply Egyptian-cotton shirts. He attributes his twin passions to the same attribute: a sharp eye for detail.
"As a cardiac electrophysiologist, I am trained to look at measurements of electrical activity on a live screen to the nearest one-hundredth of a second to differentiate cardiac arrhythmias," Dr. Tung says. "I really believe I use that exact same eye for fashion because I can see if a button is half-an-inch too high or if a collar is semispread."
Born in Chicago, Dr. Tung, 36, is the son of Chinese immigrants who came to the United States for graduate school. When he was a child, the family moved to Cleveland, where his father became chief economist and senior vice president of a bank. The young Tung's interest in medicine was piqued when his father underwent successful cancer treatment in the early '80s.
"I remember going to the Cleveland Clinic when I was a kid and seeing all the white coats walking around, and thinking, 'Wow, they have access to all this privileged knowledge that can save my dad,'" Dr. Tung recalls. "I had this sense of awe and respect for them, and I realized I wanted to go into medicine."
Dr. Tung credits his older sister, an internist in Las Vegas, and his mother, who authored two Chinese cookbooks and started her own restaurant, cooking school and line of stir-fry sauces, for honing his interest in fashion and design.
While his mother is proud of his work as a cardiologist, a specialty Dr. Tung gravitated toward after he underwent an ablation procedure in his early 20s to correct a cardiac arrhythmia, she takes particular delight in his business success, "probably because a lot of what I do is the same thing she had to do for her business," he says.
A polymath who speaks fluent English, Mandarin and Spanish and pursued a minor in voice at Northwestern University, Dr. Tung enjoys the challenge of trying to excel in more than one field. Although he had "a little complex" that he wouldn't be taken seriously as a physician when he started designing shirts, he has been pleased by the response of his colleagues. "My boss and mentor here, Dr. Kalyanam Shivkumar, has been fully supportive of my entrepreneurial and creative spirit," Dr. Tung says.
While some of his patients are surprised when they learn about his business, "once they interact with me a few minutes, they understand it's just a dual passion," he says. "One doesn't detract from the other."
And he believes that patients like to see their doctors dress well, says Dr. Tung, who typically wears one of his wide-collared shirts and a silk tie under a custom-tailored suit. "An uncompromising attention to detail promotes a sense of confidence in patients," he says.
There are some 300 shirts in Dr. Tung's closet, and he typically spends 10-to-20 hours a week working on his Tung line, serving as chief designer, chief operating officer, chief financial officer and publicist. Although he's considered taking on a partner to help the company grow, he doesn't want to give up creative control.
"Basically, I've grown it to a point where it's at the limit of where I can manage it comfortably and keep it as a hobby," says Dr. Tung. "That's not to say there isn't room for growth, but it would have to be with the right partner."
Even if he does fulfill his dream to build Tung into a complete line of fine menswear, Dr. Tung says he wouldn't give up medicine if "you offered me the equivalent of the nation's deficit as a salary."
"I will always be a doctor because I love what I do," Dr. Tung says. "It's the most fulfilling calling I could ever have."
One that fits him as beautifully as one of his shirts.
Kim Kowsky is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.