Oprah Winfrey, Sarah Jessica Parker and Helen Mirren are just some of the famous Hollywood stars that Beijing-born couturier Grace Chen created red carpet looks for while she was working in the US. Chen, who was the first mainland Chinese graduate of New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology, returned to Shanghai in 2009 to start her own eponymous label of couture dresses. Sitting down with us in her gorgeous villa-showroom, Chen tells us about the philosophy behind her brand, the differences between her Chinese and American customers, and why she’d like to create a dress for the new First Lady of France, Brigitte Macron.
You worked as a fashion designer in the US before returning to Shanghai to start your own couture label, Grace Chen. Why did you decide to do that?
Just like many others, I’d always wanted to have my own label ever since I became a designer. The reason why I started it in Shanghai is because I wanted to build a brand that’s from China – it’s more meaningful for me.
What does your brand stand for?
There are two important purposes that I’d like to achieve with my brand and design. One is to make the world understand more about Chinese culture, arts and our sense of style and fashion. Secondly, I think Chinese women are very beautiful and intelligent, but for many reasons, many people don’t think we’re very fashionable. Sometimes what these women are wearing doesn’t bring out their character. I want my dresses to show how great they really are.
How would you describe your style of dresses?
My style is timeless; I don’t follow any trends. It’s fundamentally artistic, and very universal. My inspirations come from anything that moves me: a book, a movie, things like that. The concepts of my collections all stem from an abstract idea. I don’t usually start off with a color, a texture or a fabric in mind.
What’s the most difficult part about establishing your own brand in China?
The most difficult part is figuring out how to build up a healthy business and customer base. You must have a sustainable, steady [revenue stream] to survive. I’ve been in the business in the US for a long time, not just as a designer, but I was also the general manager of the brand I used to work for. Oftentimes, the media and other players in the industry just focus on how many awards a brand has won, how many times they’ve been featured or whatever, but they don’t really care about how healthy the business is.
How different is the process for designing ready-to-wear evening gowns versus couture?
Very different. For couture, you know who the customer is and you work with them directly to create the dress. You know how it looks on her and what she thinks about it. In a way, it’s actually easier because of this, but of course, it requires much higher precision and is more technically demanding. Ready-to-wear dresses are displayed and sold at a store. When you’re designing, you’re imagining who your customers are, but you don’t really know them.
Are there differences in what Chinese and American women prefer in terms of style?
You’d think they’re very different, but it’s actually not. Besides physical traits like body types and skin color, their concerns are the same. They all want their bodies to look better – smaller waist, longer legs, etc. Most importantly, all of my customers are going for an understated style. It’s all about the subtlety and elegance; they all want to be beautiful, attractive and respected.
Is it easier to work with Chinese or American customers?
I think women in general are difficult customers [to win over], especially for fashion items. Clothing is so personal; it’s like an extension of the person and it’s attached to your spirit. But once you’re able to win their hearts, it gets easier and easier.
Is there someone that you haven’t worked with but would love to?
There are so many… I’d love to make something for Brigitte Macron, the new First Lady of France. I like her a lot. In general, I’m more drawn to women with a sense of elegance and their own style, instead of the conventional pretty face.
How high is the level of appreciation for couture dresses in China?
Chinese people are used to having very fine, nicely made objects in our lives. We have a long history of craftsmanship, and it’s the best in the world. In our blood, we appreciate these types of luxury… I think China is the true market for luxury and couture.