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Q&A: Designer Grace Chen on luxury fashion in modern China

Having worked as a designer in New York City and Los Angeles for 15 years, Chinese-American fashion designer Grace Chen made a name for herself by dressing notable celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey and Helen Mirren before returning to Shanghai in 2009 to establish her own namesake couture brand. Today, Chen is regarded as one of only a handful of go-to luxury bespoke designers for women in the top echelons of China’s business and politics sectors. We spoke to the designer about the secret to her success and her concept of luxury fashion in modern China.

Grace Chen
Grace Chen

Have you always wanted to be a designer?
Yes, I have. I was very fascinated by Hollywood movies since the age of 8, and as I was reading all these stories and watching movies, I got really into all these beautiful women such as Elizabeth Taylor and Vivien Leigh. That was when I started having this idea of elegance deeply locked in my mind. And nowadays when I hold fashion shows in Europe, people always tell me that they see the Hollywood glamour in my work. I guess that is true as I have always had that kind of attitude of elegance and glamour in me.

Which designers first inspired you in your career? Who inspires you now?
They are all very different. There was Romeo Gigli and Christian Dior, then when I was in college I really liked Yuji Yamamoto. Alexander Wang is always my favourite, so is Alexander McQueen, but Oscar de la Renta would be the most important to me as a designer, as he combined America and Europe so nicely. I have always admired designers who can translate and merge different cultures together, as it is a real challenge for me, too, to combine China’s tradition with modern fashion in the rest of the world. How do I give my clothing an international appeal that is suitable for everyone? That is my challenge.

Grace Chen is one of the top go-to luxury bespoke designer for top society women in powerful roles in China.
Grace Chen is the go-to bespoke designer for women of powerful in China.

You were a former general manager and design director at Tadashi Shoji in New York City. What brought you back to China?
As a designer I was doing very well in New York, but I’ve always wanted to design for the Chinese and to have a brand that represents China. I understand the Chinese culture, and as the only powerhouse in luxury up until 500 years ago, we have the mentality, the technique, the appreciation and the artistry to produce very fine luxury items. I wanted to revive that. Luxury is in Chinese people’s DNA, it never goes away.

Parisian haute couture is considered the best in the industry. How is your work different? What do you think has been the key to your success?
As a young brand, we have quickly become the number one brand in the couture field in China, in terms of commercial success and recognition. The customers we have are at the top of society. They know what true luxury is: instead of blindly chasing brands, they want something special that speaks for them, so as a designer of Chinese heritage, I am able to connect with them and know what they want. Technically, we also have the best team that knows how to transform a Chinese woman’s body into a fashionable form. I think no one is doing that right now, not the international brands. They don’t understand the Chinese body type, and this is our huge advantage.

'My style is timeless, modern and international with just a hint of Chinese culture.'
‘My style is timeless, modern and international with just a hint of Chinese culture.’ – Grace Chen

What is your signature style?
East-meets-West. My style is timeless, modern and international with just a hint of Chinese culture. I intentionally exclude any trendy designs, and I don’t think anyone should be too fashion-forward. To me, it’s a symbol of a lack of confidence.

Is there a particular type of woman you design for? What characteristics does the Grace Chen woman embody?
I do not start from there — there is not a particular woman I am designing for. I truly believe that anyone can wear my designs: even if you randomly pick a person from the street, I have a dress for her. However, our brand does represent an image of woman who is feminine yet very strong; for example, former Chinese Olympian Lang Ping, whom we have recently dressed. It became such a hugely viral topic in China, as everyone was amazed how a sports personality can look so elegant, and she is in her mid-50s.

Royal guests walked the runway amongst professional models at the fashion show at Lancaster House, London.
Royal guests walked the runway amongst professional models at the Grace Chen fashion show at Lancaster House in London.

You’ve put on fashion shows around the world for royals and elites, including the one at London’s Lancaster House as part of Queen Elizabeth’s 90th birthday celebration. Do you consider yourself as an ambassador of Chinese fashion?
Yes, I do think so. The Foreign Ministry and the Ministry of Culture have been inviting us to hold fashion show for formal national events, such as the occasion that celebrated the 40th anniversary of the relationship between China and the European Union, which was very successful. We were also invited by the Chinese Embassy in Moscow, where 40 members in their congress all turned up to our show, which, as I was told, was something that never happened at any other events before.

Fashion is a great language to communicate in, and it works for everyone, whether you are men or women, and from whatever background. Our brand has a very international aesthetic, so people are able to understand it very well. If we keep presenting our traditions, no one would ever know what modern China is like. Therefore, our fashion show is in a way telling the world what Chinese people actually are these days, and they really appreciate that.

Showroom space inside the couture house of Grace Chen.
The showroom space inside the couture house of Grace Chen.

You have a beautiful couture house in Shanghai complete with a courtyard garden, gallery, library — not a typical designer showroom. How does it reflect the brand’s aesthetic?
It took me years to find the perfect place and it definitely reflects what I have in mind. It is a representation of how I look at a person’s life — not only as women but also men — and what an elegant person should have: style, a circle of friends, simply great taste. He or she should be involved in fashion, culture, music and art, and these are all reflected in the house. I feel that the media and everyone else emphasize too much on being fashion-forward and what is on-trend. Fashion should be about style instead of trends. A person of true elegance will not be afraid of being out of touch or worry about getting the latest items. Once you come into my Maison, you will understand.

What do your clients normally ask for when they want something made?
A lot of them come to me and ask for a qipao, but these people do not have a fashion background, so they have no understanding towards fashion. To them, a qipao is couture and the only formal garment they know. When this happens, I explain to them what formal is about and, most of the time, end up telling them they should not be wearing a qipao. We are here to present the modernised Chinese culture, and we need to work together with our clients to achieve that.

Grace Chen
Pieces from Grace Chen’s new collection on display for customers to choose from.

Can you walk us through the process of having a custom dress made?
We work a little differently than many couture designers, apart from perhaps Armani or Chanel. I create a collection that I renew all the time, and use it as my communication tool. When customers come in I will prepare 20 to 30 pieces for them to try on and settle on the particular style they like. Then I will take measurements and mark 30 to 40 different points for a mannequin to be made and to work on, so the next time they come in is when the dresses are ready to be taken home.

How long does it usually take from start to finish?
It takes about a month, we try not to spend more than that, unless when there are a lot of handcrafted details.

What is the approximate price range?
HK$20,000 to HK$40,000.

Backstage at one of Grace Chen's fashion show.
Backstage at one of Grace Chen’s fashion shows.

Are there any plans to expand your business to Hong Kong?
Yes, my plan is to have three stores, one each in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong. We will start our preparation for Hong Kong next year, and will probably open in 2018. Hong Kong is a great location for us to cater to customers across southern China and Southeast Asia, including Singapore and Indonesia. Our design holds a great balance between aesthetics of the East and West, so it can translate easily for Southeast Asian women.

Why are you interested in Hong Kong?
I think our design will work great for an international city like Hong Kong, as in my opinion, Hong Kong does not have a distinct style. It keeps changing and there is no cornerstone. I think we can provide that for them.

Cindie Chan
Style Editor
Fashion blogger turned editor, Cindie has spent over seven years covering all things stylish in the digital world. When she’s not busy poring over the latest covetable releases or attending the most talked-about fashion events in town, you’ll find her enjoying some precious downtime with her newborn son and sweet dog Rosy.