DRESSED in a black Mandarin collared, lace trimmed blouse paired with blue jeans, fashion designer Wang-Chen Tsai-Hsia looked poised for this interview at the penthouse in Ritz Residences. She had just arrived in Kuala Lumpur after a five-hour flight from Taiwan. Smiling, the elegant 61-year-old apologised for being late.
Chen comes from Changhua and together with her husband of 37 years, Wang Yuanhong, founded fashion house Shiatzy Chen. Her husband was a fabric merchant. Chen was in town for the opening of her flagship boutique in Starhill Gallery. Shiatzy Chen is a celebrated brand not only in Taiwan but also in Europe and Asia. But, according to Chen, success didn’t come easy.
“My family was poor and they had no money to give me proper education. If one was living in such a situation, it would be good to develop a skill,” she says. “At the beginning, I wasn’t sure if I had an interest in designing. But I had always preferred working on my own in a quiet environment — I like to analyse and study — so I thought making clothes would be a good choice. I became a small-town dressmaker,” says Chen, through a Mandarin interpreter.
BORN IN TAIWAN
The couple launched the fashion label in Taipei in 1978, producing women’s apparel which combined traditional Chinese elements with Western craftsmanship. The result: Contemporary designs with a timeless look. By 1991, they had expanded, with a design studio in Paris.
“We hired a French stylist to guide us on dress-making techniques, which helped us to enter the international market. The studio still serves as a training centre for our staff,” says Chen. The fashion house opened a boutique on Paris’ rue Saint Honore, one of the main streets for luxury goods, in 2001, selling apparel for men and women. It has been growing steadily ever since. After a tedious application process, the fashion house became a member of the Paris Fashion Federation in 2010. It has just completed its seventh season in the Paris Fashion Week. To have got this far over the last three decades, Chen says it’s all about being persistent and staying focused.
EASTERN INFLUENCES, NATURALLY
“When East meets West... you get neo-Chinese chic,” says Chen proudly, elaborating on the label’s brand spirit and concept. She has infused into the brand Western approaches and traditional Chinese culture. The name Shiatzy, which means “the new look of China”, hints of her approach. The clothes have simple, clean Western lines while maintaining distinctive Chinese features such as Mandarin collars, knotted buttons and other Chinese cultural elements. Chen applies the five major embroidery techniques — plain stitch, seed stitch, frame line, ribbon and cross-stitch — to meet her high standard of fine detailing.
Her range includes women’s and men’s apparel and accessories. For every collection, Chen tries to incorporate different elements of Chinese culture into her designs. For example, the 2011/12 Autumn/Winter collection was inspired by the Chinese “treasure kit”, a small purse that can be traced back to the Warring States Period. From the exquisite embroidery and ornate embellishments on the purses, the historical background and geographic varieties across China are revealed.
“Our Spring/Summer 2011 collection, themed Shadow Play, was inspired by the traditional Chinese art of shadow puppetry and Western Art Deco. Chinese shadow puppetry instils elements of light and shadow through theatrical emotions and opulent imagination, while artistic expression from the Art Deco period conveys a sense of freedom and liberation,” explains Chen. In terms of fabric, the brand often uses silk, satin and jacquard, decorated with various elements or prints. “The key colours are often vibrant but controlled, adapting to the season, while the cut complements the wearer’s silhouette,” says Chen.
CHANEL OF ASIA
In Asia, Chen is often referred to as the Chanel Of Asia. Asked about this, she says with a smile: “I was given the nickname by La Monde, the biggest newspaper in Paris about two seasons ago during the Paris Fashion Week. The similarities are mainly our strong brand name and the quality of our collections.
“Another similarity is that Coco Chanel represents the Western culture, while Shiatzy Chen is known for its Asian culture. With this expansion to the Southeast Asian market, we hope to make more people understand the image of the Chinese culture.”
SHIATZY Chen’s 2012 Spring/Summer collection is called Snuff Bottle. By the end of the 17th Century, snuff bottles became fashionable. It was an object of beauty and a way to represent status. The highest recognition went to those who had the rarest and finest snuff bottle. The exquisite and ornate snuff bottles combined traditional, skilful Chinese craftsmanship, using burnishing, sculpting, painting and calligraphy.