Grace Chen, Couture Designer, On True Luxury

Walking the line between tradition and modernity, Grace Chen creates East-meets-West dresses for a host of well-known clients including Helen Mirren, Oprah, and Chinese foreign minister spokeswoman Hua Chungying. But Chen is not just a fashion designer—she is a couturier. We sit down with Chen to talk true luxury and her design inspirations in today’s saturated world of fashion.

Where do you find inspiration as a designer?
For me, a woman or their life is my ultimate inspiration. Everyone has their own beauty, and I can discover the best quality in everyone—that’s why I design.

How do you start creating a collection?
I always start a collection with a feeling. How I feel about somebody or something, or maybe what I think you should feel about something—and then I will create a story around it. There’s a story behind each dress.

Grace Chen Couture
The Beautiful World collection show at the House of Grace Chen in Shanghai (Photo courtesy of Grace Chen Couture)

What is your latest collection about?
We call it “The Beautiful World”. It comes from the song Creep by Radiohead, which goes, You are an angel, your skin makes me cry, you float like a feather, in a beautiful world.

I feel like this is about a person who falls in love, and then they see the world very differently. Maybe the colours are more beautiful, or whatever they see holds a different meaning. I wanted to remind people that we need to be more sensitive to our surroundings—when you live with  intention, your everyday life can be much more beautiful.

How have your designs been received by Western audiences?
They all love it because our clothing—the way we portray Oriental or Chinese culture—is very universal. I was trained in the US for a long time, so I understand the international language of fashion. It’s very important, because that’s how the new luxury customers are—they’re all very internationalized.

How do you draw upon your Eastern background?
Any luxury brand or fashion creation needs a source of culture, because that’s where everything comes from—the inspiration, and so on. It can’t be floating without a root. We are lucky, as Chinese, because China has a huge wealth of history and culture. There are so many things you can draw from.

For example, the black lace trimming [on one of the dresses from The Beautiful World collection] uses a Chinese minority embroidery technique that has a 600-year history. Less than 100 people still have that skill today. This is true luxury.

Grace Chen Couture
The Beautiful World collection show at the House of Grace Chen in Shanghai (Photo courtesy of Grace Chen Couture)

Hong Kong is a city where the East and the West intertwine. Given your mixed cultural influences, how do you see your work fitting in with the city?  
It’s the perfect match for me! (laughs) I’ve had my eye on Hong Kong for a long time. Hong Kong is a reflection of the world, because here you can find people from all over the globe.

I think we can bring so much to Hong Kong—the true sense of Chinese culture and tradition, while being very modern. The West and the East are knitted together so tightly for me, I can’t even separate them. We can demonstrate a way to mix and blend cultures, but still be weighted in the roots of a core identity.

What is your favourite dress you’ve ever created?
Oh no, I have so many of them. I’m not very good at monogamy. (laughs) You know what, instead of loving the dress or the creation, I think I love my customers more. I always say to them: in the end, you are my creation, not just the dress. Because without you, the dress is just a dress. But with you, wearing it, it becomes complete.

Grace Chen Couture
Grace Chen (left) poses with clients wearing her creations (Photo courtesy of Grace Chen Couture)

Finally, what are your thoughts on fashion  and couture today?
Fashion is not really about design. It’s about a person’s life. It’s more of a human thing. Fashion has had a major role in the whole of human history. It’s part of a lifestyle and we actually get to know our customers quite well.

That’s the difference between designing couture and ready-to-wear. With ready-to-wear, you never know who bought your dress, because it just goes into the store. I know who my customers are, and that’s really a true blessing.

Interview has been edited for length and clarity.

(This story originally appeared on HongKongTatler.com)

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