To be invited to show during Paris Fashion Week is an acknowledgement every designer—in every country—dreams of.
To be invited by the Chinese Embassy in Paris to stage a show during this key week is an accolade that has only been accorded to one designer: Grace Chen.
Chen is royalty in fashion-obsessed China. Her clothes are worn by Peng Liyuan, the wife of President Xi Jinping, and by the award-winning actresses Liu Xiaoqing and Qin Hailu. She counts among her clients businesswomen, entrepreneurs, and politicians in Paris, London, and New York—where Zhang Qiyue, the Chinese consul-general is a fan.
Chen was fêted during Paris Fashion Week, on one occasion sitting beside the guest of honor, actress Sophie Marceau, at a lunch for 250 held by the influential Chinese Business Club in Paris.
But Chen takes an unorthodox view of how Chinese designers, who feel it is necessary to leave China to reach the international market, should consider design and their marketing strategies.
Her intimate show in Paris was the quintessential Chen philosophy at work. Her 80-plus guests were predominantly French women, with a smattering of Chinese attendees.
“I have a goal and that is to establish a Chinese aesthetic as mainstream,” said Chen. She was vibrant, despite an interview that took place on her arrival from an overnight flight from China. “I left at the last moment; I wanted to be at Yue Sai Kan’s party for the Shanghai Film Festival, so I delayed my flight,” she explained.
The designer believes the Chinese fashion philosophy is not fully understood outside China. “The West still sees it as a novelty, but it is not. It’s not about the traditional qipao, which of course is beautiful, and like our embroidery, is a part of China’s rich history. My style is a comprehensive blend of East-meets-West and all Chinese designers must consider structure and the aesthetic, versus customs as the ruling philosophy.
“China’s creativity is not a reflection on anyone, not any culture; it’s our own. Although I’m a modernist and don’t care so much about tradition, we can lead, and not follow. China has a DNA; it has meta luxury in its history.”
Chen says her goal is to constantly ask and provoke Chinese designers to question “What is the point of my brand, if I am to establish myself as mainstream in the West?”
Hence Chen’s eagerness to show to a French clientele in Paris, in a diplomatic setting, using predominantly European models.
“Embassies want to find a way for cultural exchange and fashion is a richer experience. It’s the obvious connection. It works. Why show it to Chinese in Paris? It’s more important to enjoy a wider reach.”
This was not Chen’s first foray into the diplomatic world. She was invited to show in Brussels in 2015, on the 40th anniversary of China-European Union relations. In 2016, she showed a second collection of 40 dresses and it bought her a raft of European clients. “From European royalty, to business elites—it was the best response.”
Which dovetails to Chen’s marketing strategy.
“I meet my customers. Two or three times each month we invite 30-50 guests to see our work in an intimate setting. I invite women who I feel represent modern China. That’s how I get to know my customers. We’re not in stores; it’s private.
“China’s fashion industry is a completely different system. If you want to do retail, you have to open a shop by yourself. If you want to reach the high end, it has to be 100 percent perfect, which you can’t achieve with a ready-to-wear boutique. Since I set up my business in China in 2009, I have only focused on couture.”
This has bought her the clients any young designer dreams of.
“Five to 10 years ago, women in this arena were happy to wear Chanel or Dior, but they have tired of that. They want to be individual and not wear brands that are ubiquitous. It’s not good enough for women who are CEOs and business leaders.
“Of course women around the world, who are closely associated to the diplomatic world, have to wear local; it’s normal. I walk the diplomatic path with my collections. I satisfy on the East-meets-West philosophy. But serious women don’t want to be stereotyped, they want to be different, singled out…that’s me, I am like my clients.”
Chen is now a poster girl for high-end Chinese fashion and she’s extending her philosophy even further, when in May she will open her first boutique, calling it Grace Chen’s Garden, because it is far from a typical boutique.
In the French Concession in Shanghai, Chen has bought a 1930s property that embraces three small houses and a garden.
Her new address, at 1515 Hua Shan Road, has been restored by the award-winning architects Kokai Studios.
“This is where and how I will illustrate and share my goals, establishing a Chinese aesthetic as mainstream and establishing my point of view.”
“It’s very important for our brand to be born in Shanghai.
This city enjoys the reputation of being the fashionable city. It’s the only place fashion has quality.
“A city might have the hardware, but not the software. You can’t just add on the soul. Culture is not something you push, it grows from the heart.
“The Grace Chen Garden will be an example of the modern Chinese women and how she lives her life—not only in fashion.
“There will be a gallery, a library, movies. There will be many different events. It will become a fashion destination for women of Shanghai. And an international fashion destination.”
And back to the question of East-meets-West, Chen is opinionated on European designers wanting to reach China’s millennials.
“The Western system for Chinese does not always work. Designers need to consider cut, proportions, and fabrics,” she says, giving an example of a “warm brown” shade consistently used by label Max Mara that she believes doesn’t work with Chinese skin tones. “Most European designers use it,” she adds. “I could write a book on the nuances of that.”
Susan Owens is the founder and editor of Paris Chérie, a Paris-based fashion website dedicated to bringing French style news to Chinese readers.