Fashion in Hong Kong and China

Grace Chen, fashion designer to Chinese high-fliers, spreads her wings

Chinese couturier fulfils a dream with opening of Shanghai headquarters and moves to raise global awareness of her brand as she works with Chinese government on fashion diplomacy

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 July, 2016, 5:02pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 05 July, 2016, 4:48pm

Grace Chen, the low-profile couturier to members of China’s business and political elites, is speaking with a louder voice these days.

“From now on, we’re becoming a proper brand and not just a couture studio and label,” says Chen as she walks me through her new Shanghai headquarters. We first met in early 2015 and, 18 months on, it’s not hard to see how much has happened.

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Her clients have included Cheng Hong, the wife of Chinese premier Li Keqiang , Fu Ying, formerly Chinese ambassador to the UK and, when she worked at Tadashi Shoji in Los Angeles years ago, the likes of Helen Mirren and Oprah Winfrey. Chen has also made headway with the growing ranks of wealthy Chinese living overseas and looking for something other than Chanel, Prada and Armani. Since 2014 she has been growing the brand aggressively.

“Sales have doubled year upon year,” she says, “and this Shanghai house has been a dream for me since I started my label in 2009. Almost seven years on, we finally did it.”

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The House of Grace Chen, the plush headquarters built around a 1924 art deco mansion on tree-lined Huaihai Road in Shanghai’s former French Concession, is hidden from public view behind high walls.

Step inside and you find a melding of old and new architecture and interior design by Italian firm Kokai, which specialises in restoring and revamping Shanghai’s grand properties. There’s a gallery, courtyard garden and at the top a library where Chen wants to hold events and gatherings of “Shanghai’s most interesting people”.

“The whole style of the interior really reflects the style of the brand,” Chen says. “There’s a definite classic touch, but it’s also unfussy and modern; it’s elegant and feminine, yet has a lot of characteristic strength.”

In addition to the new headquarters, Chen has a couture salon and studio in Shanghai, a studio and store at the Yintai Centre in Beijing, and a partnership presence in Hangzhou.

She’s also become something of a fashion diplomat, doing international trunk shows and other events in collaboration with China’s ministries of culture and foreign affairs, such as La Vie en Grace at the Chinese embassy in Paris in March 2016.

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An event she held in June is a prime example of her fashion diplomacy – something no other Chinese designer is doing at the same level. Involving the governments and elites of Russia, Britain and China and staged at London’s palatial Lancaster House, it was Chen’s first full branding show on the scale she aspires to in coming years. (There have been smaller shows in the past in China and elsewhere.)

Members of British high society, London-based Asian VIPs and several clients flown in from China watched a catwalk show, which was followed by the 21st Russian Summer Ball.

Among those modelling Chen’s creations were Princess Olga Andreevna Romanoff of Russia and Ella Mountbatten (great-great-great-granddaughter of Britain’s Queen Victoria and a direct descendant of Russia’s Catherine the Great). In terms of their age, body type and ethnicity, the models chosen were as diverse a group as I’ve seen anywhere – a reflection of the broad audience at which Chen’s couture creations are aimed. She has long embraced styles for more mature women, most of her clients being in their 40s or older – a clientele largely neglected by the high fashion industry.

Chen says: “I didn’t want the edgy, trendy models but ones that conveyed real beauty, grace and looked regal.”

The collection shown at Lancaster House was a mix of Chinese elegance, Hollywood glamour and old-world aristocratic looks. There were fragile lace gowns, the occasional power dress and sexy red-carpet gowns.

“I thought of a muse living a life full of fairytales and romantic stories, wearing outfits that had lightness, freshness and romance. It was delicate, yet very grand.” Chen says. “I used a lot of delicate, fine details and transparent, light fabrics to create an aura around the figure.”

Chen is known more for drapes and fitted silhouettes, but this time loose silhouettes with long trains, sleeves, and fringing were abundant, creating a sense of majesty befitting the regal surroundings.

“Lancaster House was of course a great opportunity with a status that a normal venue won’t have. Our strategy to go into Europe is to engage with the most significant aspect of its luxury cultures – and for Brits, its royalty and high society… From the audience response, I think we really made an impact.”

London was a strategic choice, since Chen aims to open a couture studio soon there or in Paris; she is looking at opening a store in Hong Kong too. Chen, who has a keen sense of history, is personally influenced by British culture, especially the Victorian era which had such an influence on modern design and aesthetics. The emergence of the art deco and art nouveau movements intrigues her, with their exploration of “the traditional and the modern, the West and the East”.

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Born in the 1970s, Chen graduated from the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, and lived there and in Los Angeles for 15 years before returning home to woo China’s elite women with her elegant designs that married Western bespoke tailoring with Chinese craft and inspiration.

She counts among her clients actresses Liu Xiaoqing and Qin Hailu, Lenovo senior vice-president Gina Qiao Jian, Qu Bing, vice-president at internet security company Qihoo 360 Technology, Zhang Qiyue, the Chinese consul general in New York, and Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying.

But if Chen is to expand, she has to raise her profile.

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“We haven’t done a good job in the past few years in brand awareness,” she concedes, “but we’ll go to work on it harder from now on.”

As a fashion designer, though, Chen’s ambitions extend far beyond mere commercial success. “I want to promote a modern Chinese view of beauty. I think we kind of lost it in this past era.”

“For example, like how [Christian] Dior and Chanel defined a certain look for France, [Giorgio] Armani or Dolce & Gabbana for Italy, Ralph Lauren for the US or Alexander McQueen for the UK… But what is it for China? We don’t know yet.”