Designer Grace Chen on Western Fashion with Chinese Elements: ‘All They See Are Cheap Goods Made in China’

When it comes to East meets West in fashion, couture designer Grace Chen knows a thing or two. After all, Chen’s creations have appealed to a range of international stars, from Oprah Winfrey and Helen Mirren to Chinese mega-celebrity Fan Bingbing. But as the role model for global appeal released her Spring/Summer 2017 collection last week, other brands have come under fire for their East meets West attempts.

After criticism enveloped the recent Victoria’s Secret show featuring models wearing elaborate dragons, phoenixes, and other “Chinese” motifs wrapped around their bodies, China’s state-run tabloid Global Times expressed discontent with Western brands’ attempts to make their products appeal to Chinese shoppers, one of the most recent being Piaget’s rooster watch for Chinese New Year. Chen, whose latest designs incorporated influences from southwest China’s minority groups, has a similar sentiment. “This is not my idea of Chinese art at all,” she said, referring to the Victoria’s Secret display. “I would never do that. I would feel so embarrassed if I did that.”

“All they see is cheap goods made in China, so they think that’s China,” she continued. “But for us, it’s so cheap. They don’t understand Chinese art or fashion, they don’t understand China’s history, and the luxury of the culture. They have no idea.”

The luxury Chen refers to is the elements of Chinese culture—such as jade and porcelain—that influenced the French high jewelry and perfume brands in the Art Deco era, including Cartier and Chanel. Chen said brands could benefit from studying the impact this time period had on art and fashion instead of borrowing the more cliché elements. Chen voiced similar criticism after the China-themed Met Gala in 2015.

Grace Chen hosted a salon show at the House of Grace Chen in Shanghai on Friday. (Courtesy Photo)

Grace Chen hosted a salon show at the House of Grace Chen in Shanghai on Friday. (Courtesy Photo)

One only needs to look at Chen’s own designs to better understand her take on the issue. Dragon motifs are nowhere to be found. Instead, she draws on Chinese cultural elements in subtler ways. For this collection, she visited the Miao ethnic minority group in southern China to learn about their embroidery, and applied their techniques in several dresses, and gave Miao jewelry a modern twist.

Grace Chen adopts a more modern take on the traditional Chinese knot-style embroidery for one of her newest gowns. (Courtesy Photo)

Grace Chen adopts a more modern take on the traditional Chinese knot-style embroidery for one of her newest gowns. (Courtesy Photo)

Other cross-cultural elements are slightly more obvious. In some dresses she draws upon the qipao silhouette, while in others, it’s the British-style military uniform, but in most of her looks, the inspiration is more open to interpretation. There is one thing she wants to make clear throughout: anyone could wear her dresses. Even when the dress in question is a qipao, like in her fashion video that she collaborated on with Ali Mahadavi, French photographer and artistic director of the “Undressed to Kill” show at the Crazy Horse in Paris. “You don’t see that the British woman can’t wear it because it’s too Eastern,” Chen said. “You don’t feel that at all. She is wearing a red qipao, but she looks amazing, she looks like a rock star.”

This seamless mixture of cultures Chen chalks down to her background. She studied at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York and worked for the brand Tadashi Shoji. She says she draws inspiration from global sources, from British literature to Italian films, and has 15 years of fashion design experience outside of China. “I understand people,” she said. “No matter where they’re coming from, New York, Paris, or Shanghai, for me they’re the same. They’re just women. They have different skin tones, they have different body types, but all I need to do is make them look better.”

This sentiment is showcased in her video, where a British woman and a Chinese woman each look in a mirror and sees the other’s reflection. The video was debuted at her runway show in Beijing’s Phoenix Center before heading to Shanghai for a salon show on Friday. The theme of the show was “Beautiful World,” a title inspired from a few lines of the Radiohead song, “Creep”: “You’re just like an angel / You’re skin makes me cry / You float like a feather / In a beautiful world.” (“I’ve listened to it so many times, I had to make a collection based on this song,” Chen said).

Feathers were featured in many of the looks in Grace Chen's Spring/Summer 2017 collection. (Courtesy Photo)

Feathers were featured in many of the looks in Grace Chen’s Spring/Summer 2017 collection. (Courtesy Photo)

The result was a show that is her most colorful yet, which Chen said is partly the result of her freedom to be more relaxed as a designer, now that it has been more than four years since she first opened her studio in Beijing’s Yintai Center. Earlier this year, she opened her first studio in Shanghai, The House of Grace Chen, and has plans to soon expand into Hong Kong. She said her markets differ slightly in that “in Shanghai, you don’t have to convince them, but in Beijing, you really have to talk to people and really get yourself out there to really work with them and influence them.”

But in the end, she said, it comes down to “universal beauty.” “As long as you look nice or more beautiful, that’s it,” she said. “You don’t have to represent your country all the time, right?”

“People are becoming global citizens, so I think the industry has to go to that direction as well.”

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