Taiwanese designer Chloe Chen was born in Taitung, on the southeast coast of the island, but she always dreamed of making waves beyond her immediate environment. The retailer/designer now has 20 stores across Asia – and is on the verge of going global. Chen talks to Asia Times about how she became one of China’s most recognizable fashion names, and about the misconceptions of this lucrative market.
You never studied fashion – so how did this all start?
I started off young, redesigning vintage clothing and selling the outfits at a store I had opened in Taipei in 2000. It was doing really well, but sometimes I would want a modern shirt that you couldn’t find in vintage stuff. I started off with a couple of simple designs to experiment; there was so big plan. I still remember that I did this really simple top early on and we sold 1,400 pieces of it that season – that was quite an impressive volume for a small store. Starting from there, I just designed more and more and we were selling quite well. I went into shoes and studied in New York to gain more technical knowledge before coming back to Asia to keep developing the stores.
You’re as much of a retailer as a designer with your stores and fashion line. Do these two roles help each other?
I started my first boutique about 16 years ago when I was just 23 or 24 – with the help of my dad. Then, after a while, I expanded to Shanghai and China, and now have a few franchises around the country. I’ve been very careful in the design of my stores, as I learned early on that it’s not just the design of the clothes or shoes that make your brand, it’s the whole store experience and service. I’ve actually never worked for anyone else.
You’ve been doing fashion retail in China for many years. What have you learnt so far?
Firstly, that you really need to be physically here, you need to understand the culture. Even if you don’t want to entirely fit into Chinese culture like me – I want to do something different – you need to know when to slow down, when to stop and start, when to open and which part of the business you need to spend money on. If you are not here to know the trends first-hand and just listen to other people’s second-hand information, you’ll end up wasting a lot of time. A lot of people say ‘E-commerce is so easy in China, you’ll make so much money so quickly,’ but nowadays it’s changed. You actually need to spend a lot of money investing in things like partnerships with local key opinion leaders (KOLs).
There’s so much noise about China’s celebrities and social media influencers. How much do they really affect fashion?
Celebrities and KOLs are still very important here. Personally I like Chen Ran – a celebrity in Beijing, and [Chinese actress and singer] Zhu Zhu. I quite like their styles. Beijing girls are a bit more arty and effortless; they look like they don’t care as much. The way they wear clothes is quite cool. For example, the way they wear Chanel will be quite edgy instead of being too proper. I don’t feel like I want to put my clothes on too many wang hong – those very local internet celebrities who have a lot of mass followers. I want to keep the brand small, and grow slower. I need to maintain the right market and brand image, so that people to know this is Chloe Chen.
How do you design each season?
Each season I always have one woman in a city in my mind. I create my own muse starting from there. I like my design to be an art piece, inside and out. We can’t have ugly details inside. For this latest season, I imagined this New York girl in the Upper East Side or Meatpacking district. There’s some artsy street style mixed with something very elegant. I’m often quite inspired by New York and that period of my life.