A light that never goes out
As the saying goes, behind every great man is a great woman. In fashion, however, it's the high-powered stylist that makes or breaks the woman. Lady Gaga claims she would be a fashion mess without best pal and style guru Nicola Formichetti, and Rachel Zoe transformed Lindsay Lohan and Nicole Richie from spoilt brats into style stars.
While the West has seen its fair share of celebrity stylists, no one in Asia comes close to Hong Kong's Titi Kwan. While his name may not ring many bells, people will definitely recognise his most famous client, pop diva Faye Wong. For more than 15 years, the pair have collaborated on show-stopping and edgy looks that have earned Wong the moniker of 'Madonna of the East'.
Kwan, Wong's official 'image director', has stayed in the background, preferring to let his work - and muse - do the talking. He keeps to himself, shuttling between Hong Kong and his second home in Paris, rarely granting interviews and avoiding public appearances.
Last October, during Paris Fashion Week, Kwan broke his silence at the unveiling of a fashion line which he was launching after a three-year hiatus. In true Kwan style, the presentation was at a quiet gallery near Rue Saint Honore and attended by a few select invitees.
It's early afternoon, but Kwan has just woken up from a nap and is dressed in an old T-shirt, pink jeans and a banged up leather jacket. He is nervous and speaks slowly. He starts to loosen up when we broach the subject of his new line and latest project, a fashion boutique that will open this month in Chai Wan.
'It will be based on the concept of my apartment,' he says. 'When friends come to visit me in Paris, they love going through my wardrobe. I've collected so many things over the years and don't know what to do with them, so why not open a store? I'll sell pencils, rubbers, silk blankets - whatever I want that's part of my lifestyle. I will also bring in some designer friends and special pieces.
'I'm opening it in Chai Wan because I like the area; most of the studios and industry people are there. For me Chai Wan is Hong Kong. I don't know Central that well. When I hear Central, all I think about is the bank.'
Perhaps industrial Chai Wan reminds Kwan of his upbringing: he grew up in a public housing estate in Kwun Tong with nine family members in a 200 sq ft flat. As a young boy, he would watch and copy his father, a tailor who worked at home.
'I don't know if he was an influence exactly, but the fabric inspired me,' Kwan says. 'I am a curious person, so I observed him and tried many things myself. I made clothes from fabric that was left over and discovered the bias cut this way.'
Kwan also has a rebellious streak. During his teens, he frequently got into trouble for dying his hair red or stapling together his school uniform. While these may seem like typical adolescent pranks, his mother got fed up and shipped him off to Paris at 15 to stay with his older sister.
'I was uncomfortable with my surroundings in Hong Kong. I was lost and felt uncomfortable. Really, I just wanted to be different,' says Kwan, 43.
'It was a shock when I moved to Paris. But then I went to the Centre Pompidou and admired the punks in the streets. It was during the boom of the new wave, and I loved the fashion, the safety pins, everything. Everyone was accepted. Finally, I didn't feel that different.'
Kwan's exposure to fashion continued in high school, where he observed the chic style of young French girls in high heels and miniskirts. At 18, he enrolled in Paris' famed fashion school Studio Bercot. To pay his tuition, he took a part-time job as a waiter in the evenings and studied during the day.
'Studio Bercot opened my mind. That being said, I didn't have time to do the work and was always rushed, although my teacher always complimented my work. I believe compliments kill your creative spirit, which is why I hate them,' he says.
'Eventually, I quit because I was so busy with other styling work. I knew I had to learn in the field, and I needed the money. Styling was new at the time, and people were hungry for stylists. I was really lucky since I was one of the first Chinese faces.'
Fate intervened when he met Wong during a trip home after an eight-year absence. It was the mid-1990s, and Kwan was looking for an artist to feature in a new fashion magazine, so he made an appointment with Wong's management team. While locals were wearing late '80s bling, Wong and Kwan bonded over young and edgy names such as Dries Van Noten, Helmut Lang and Martin Margiela, who were just starting out.
'The first outfit was a Versace dress mixed with flip flops - plastic ones that were very Chinese looking,' Kwan says. 'It was a shock to most people, but she was happy with it. The vibe between us was right. She was such a nice person and the opposite of what I expected. She wasn't an ice queen; she was a warm person.'
Since then, Kwan has worked almost exclusively for Wong. It wasn't until the singer decided to take a four-year break from show business in 2004 that Kwan was free to revisit his first passion - design.
'I always wanted to be a designer, but I took a different path,' he says. 'A few years ago, Faye decided to take a rest, which was perfect for me. I took this time to clean my mind. I saw so many collections that when I designed clothes, I lost my own personality. It was easy to be influenced by others, and I knew what was sellable and what was strong. I wanted to try something new and different, so I stopped looking at fashion for three years,' he says.
He launched his first collection in 2008, which caught the attention of French fashion icon and retailer Maria Luisa. Although it was shortlisted at the prestigious Hyeres Fashion Festival, he didn't feel confident and put designing on the back burner until late last year. This time, he has a much bigger support network for sales and distribution.
Under the name Alibellus, the 70- to 80-piece collection is divided into three lines: luxury casual, which is a collection of separates; dresses featuring handmade pieces; and limited edition, one-of-a-kind styles made from vintage fabrics from Kwan's personal collection. The line will be stocked at retailers around Asia including Liger and Shine in Hong Kong.
'I like classic pieces, but I twist them. I keep telling myself I must get bored of myself before people get bored of me. I need to keep reinventing things. Faye is perfect for me in this way,' says Kwan.
'My customers are women I know. They want something functional and have a different point of view on how to dress. They want something simple, but they want to stand out. I put a lot of effort into the proportions, so the look is slimming. I don't like things that are tight.'
The starting point for the collection was a photograph Kwan took of the sky while on a flight. The silhouettes are clean yet soft as seen on the jumpsuit with frayed edges and long draped white dress that pays homage to Madeleine Vionnet, one of his favourite designers. A white dress made from lace resembles clouds, and a zip-up dress is covered in fabric petals.
Highlights from the collection include dresses made from layers of plastic, muslin with exposed seams, gold brocade and lame.
Of course, Wong has already been photographed in several of the pieces, almost guaranteeing the line's success before it lands in stores on February 1.
'I now have three branches to grow which gives me lots of choice. Meanwhile, I have professionals to make decisions on where the brand is going. I don't need to think about that side of things. I don't want to make big money, I just want to make things right in fashion, things that I like. People may love it for the fact that I am well known, or they may hate it for the same reason,' he says, smiling. 'We'll see.'
Three Titi Kwan created for Faye Wong's 2011 world tour.
1. This structured white mini dress was made for the winter section of the show's four seasons theme. The headpiece is by Paris-based designer Erik Halley. Kwan also crafted the chandelier microphone stand, which contains more than 10,000 crystals
2. Cut from a single piece of fabric, this shoulderless gown was inspired by the Chinese idiom that 'a goddess' robe is seamless'
3. Kwan used almost 100 metres of chiffon for this multilayered masterpiece, which moved and 'flew' on stage with dramatic effect