With her designs worn by top Chinese and international elites such as Yue-Sai Kan, Oprah Winfrey, Yang Lan, Liu Xiaoqing, and Helen Mirren, it’s hard to believe that couture designer Grace Chen opened her first boutique only four years ago.
Now known as the “power dresser” of the Chinese (and increasingly global) elite, her newly opened space in a 1924 Shanghai Art Deco villa shows just how swift her brand’s ascent has been. Called The House of Grace Chen, her second China property opened on July 16 with a private fashion show and grand opening party attended by illustrious guests such as Trends Media Group CEO and President Su Mang. The three-story French Concession mansion is part boutique, part cultural salon with not only her pieces on display and private fitting rooms, but also an art gallery, library, dining room, garden, luxe private suite for out-of-town guests, and elegant lounge where clients can enjoy afternoon tea with the designer. Chen enlisted the design firm behind Bund 11 and K11 Art Mall, Kokaistudios, to oversee its design and restoration.
“In Shanghai, either you have the best, or you don’t have anything,” Chen explains when describing why she spent a total of seven years selecting and renovating the historic property, which follows her 2012 opening in Beijing’s Yintai Center.
“For me, this space is not only for the service for the customers, not only for the fashion,” says Chen. “It’s also for my point of view on what elegance is—what kind of lifestyle a perfect woman should have.” In addition to fittings, Chen will also use the space to host events for “like-minded people,” such as talks on topics including art, fashion, and well-being.
A former general manager and design director at Tadashi Shoji with 15 years of fashion design experience in New York, Chen’s influence spreads far beyond China. Her new Shanghai house’s exhibition space currently displays a collection of lavish gowns from her June 2016 fashion show at London’s Lancaster House, which was held as part of the celebration of Queen Elizabeth’s 90th birthday and attended by aristocrats such as Russian princess Olga Romanoff and Ella Mountbatten, a descendent of Queen Victoria. She also recently presented in France at a Paris Fashion Week show at the invitation of the Chinese Embassy in Paris, as well as a 2015 Brussels show held in celebration of the 40th anniversary of China-European Union relations.
Her international shows have been just as much about business as style diplomacy, says Chen, who plans to open a space in Paris or London soon. “We’re not doing any shows only for promotion. That’s my bottom line,” she says. “We’re very commercially concerned.” In addition to elite customers, she’s also attracted the investment of Chinese equity firm Chengwei Capital.
The Lancaster House presentation tied in with her strategy to “capture the tip of the pyramid of every market,” she says. “We have to go for the top. For British people, it’s royalty. That’s why we had the show in the palace with all the audience coming from that circle.”
Her cross-cultural presentations have also earned her the support of Chinese and European members of the diplomatic community such as New York’s China consul-general and a former Chinese ambassador to the UK. While Chen remains demure on the names of any current clients related to the government—a sensitive topic in China—a South China Morning Post article reported that Li Keqiang’s wife is a fan, while an old press release noted that even Chinese First Lady Peng Liyuan herself has worn her designs.
With a focus on high society in both China and abroad, Chen merges Chinese and Western elements into her designs. “The advantage of our style is that everybody can wear it—no matter where you’re coming from,” she says. In her recent collection shown in London influenced by the British royal court, she also incorporates a traditional Song dynasty silk called Songjing, Chinese knots, and motifs from Chinese legends such as the peacock.
But her use of Chinese motifs and materials isn’t the main draw for her Chinese customers. “I don’t think Chinese people are looking for any Chinese elements, honestly,” she admits, saying that her powerful clients are mainly looking out for wearability in their busy lives.
In fact, she believes many big luxury brands are failing when it comes to reaching ultra-elite Chinese luxury consumers, especially when it comes to the incorporation of Chinese elements. This is most apparent in luxury brands’ special-edition Chinese New Year collections emblazoned with zodiac animals, which she argues represent a “big misunderstanding” of what Chinese consumers want.
She also believes the 2015 China-themed Met Gala was an example of China-influenced fashion gone wrong. “I feel like the Western world has a huge misunderstanding of Chinese culture, and they don’t even realize it.” On Anna Wintour’s choice of theme, she says, “I’m so disappointed in her—I thought she could do better.” According to her, “They didn’t get the best of the oriental culture. They got some of the motifs which they think are Chinese, but they’re not.”
But the bigger problem for the European fashion brands, she says, is that they’re not making items that are practical for Chinese clients in terms of fitting or style. “Many of my clients will take the Chanel suit; Armani suit and come to me to alter it for them because it doesn’t fit,” she says. “It happens all the time.” In addition, styles are becoming too “avant-garde,” but “the true luxury customers—they don’t look for that. They look for timeless; they look for elegance, comfort. Those are the things that a lot of the big brands are not offering.”
“If Dior or Chanel were offering really perfect clothing for these people, they would buy it,” she says. “Even now, they always choose to go to the big brand store first to look for it, but most of the time they can’t find it, so they’re kind of losing interest in it.”
For her next steps, Chen is planning on expanding her product offerings while keeping up personalized service to clients. She said she’s considering adding menswear and lingerie in the future, while also adding bespoke items at a lower price point. But beyond Europe, store expansion will be minimal except for a possible addition in Hong Kong or Macau, since “you cannot have too many customers if you’re a custom-made couture brand,” she says.
Her main future goal for attracting the world’s elite is to keep her items wearable. “It’s not going to be a trendy brand. That is my philosophy about dressing and personal style: I believe everybody should have at least 60 to 70 percent of their wardrobe in classic style.”