The founder of a young brand that brings glamorous fashion that’s ready-to-wear with a hint of couture at an affordable price, Louis Shengtao Chen shares about his humble beginnings as a designer and growing into an established fashion line after being shortlisted at the Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy (LVMH) Prize event in 2023. Balancing the resources of approaching sustainability as a creator in China and incorporating Western culture influences from his time at university, Chen is a well-rounded artist with a keen, developing eye for fashion.
His focus on expressing present society makes him stand out from other designers of the previous generation and his own generation. He implements trends and styles of his young audience that both highlight his own strengths and push his limit to cater to those who are ready to wear his pieces. I see nothing but longevity and success as Chen continues to “challenge the traditional notion of glamour” and grow his already wide audience.
Congratulations on making the LVMH Prize Shortlist this year! How did it feel to showcase your work alongside other young, up-and-coming artists like yourself? What was the best part of your experience?
In terms of attending the awards event, it was a truly overwhelming journey because we had only been established for just under three years, so I think regarding very new brands like ourselves, it was a huge honour to be shortlisted. Even though we didn’t make it to the end, I still think we got enough of a spotlight and tension - letting the world see the brands and see what we’re doing and what we’re creating.
So yes, it was very overwhelming, but everybody is hard at work and are amazing designers. There are some established designers and some newcomers, like us. The work is all quite exquisite and original, but in general, I think we deserved to get on this pathway because of our hard work, just like everybody else. Just being nominated and shortlisted is an honour. It was a lot, but I still feel like we deserved it; I didn’t feel out of place because of the fact that our brand is so young.
I understand that you hoped to invoke a sense of self-discovery through your most recent collection. How did the photos of the book Raised by Wolves by Jim Goldberg, movies like Girl, Interrupted, and your own experiences influence your designs? What other things inspired you?
I think for each collection, there will always be some spotlight or points that catch my eye. In general, it’s a long journey about self-reflection. For my first ever collection, I had the vision of attending a ball, like a débutante, and dressing yourself up for an event like that. It’s always about looking at your wardrobe and looking back at your habits of how you dress yourself to feel confident. For the latest collection, it’s about the new generations and the chaos during and after the pandemic. The idea came from that movie-like chaos and how at the end, people found their own pathway to peace and to calm down and rediscover themselves.
Yes, I was inspired by the book by Jim Goldberg and Girl, Interrupted, but at the end of the day, for every collection, it’s always about telling my story and what I feel is the present. I like to reflect on the present. Many people say that fashion design is about the past, present, and future. I have to say that looking at the past and the future is not quite my sense of creation. My whole creativity journey is about looking at the present.
Before the pandemic, I was a student. My six to seven years of living abroad gave me a perspective on Western culture. In 2021, I established my brand, and it was during the pandemic. I would play with words in my titles that reflected the times and continued that vibe after the pandemic - things about healing yourself and recovery. It’s always about the present and my present feeling of self. You can say it’s a quite selfish level of designing the brand and the collections, but I respect how each designer approaches it, and this is just how I do it.
You spoke about how you like taking “roughness [and turning it] into something that is quite high-fashion or feminine”. I’m curious to know. Why do you associate roughness with masculinity and glamour and high-fashion with femininity?
The most honest and frank answer is because I’m a male designer, if I can say that. I’m a male designer who designs womenswear. I can never be a woman. I am standing in somewhat of the male gaze. Today, there is a different male gaze than 100 years ago, but the male gaze remains. If you know me in person, I’m quite a genderfluid person, as people have described me, in terms of my appearance. I think because of my personality and my identity, there’s already a mix and merge of this roughness, glamour, beauty, and fragility.
My womenswear is based on literally a female version of myself, so there’s that roughness and that glamour present at the same time just like my own personality. It’s quite personal. I think different designers present different sides of themselves. I like what Ricardo Tisci has done with Givenchy. I really admire how he uses that kind of scariness and sharpness in a very ready-to-wear manner for womenswear. I think I’m very parallel on that front.
Louis Shengtao Chen Metalmagazine 13.jpg
You describe your style as “challenging the traditional notion of glamour”. How do you do this? And what do you consider the traditional notion of glamour?
I think the traditional notion of glamour is very surface level. For example, you see a pretty, lace dress. You think it’s very sexy, though it already exists; it’s standard. When I started my career and my label, I wanted to do something that encouraged people to take more effort to observe the beauty underneath reality. We do a lot of lace dresses and use lace materials, but we incorporate it into patchwork and combine it into the silhouettes. Many designs are inspired by marble or some kind of decoration that I really like. What people don’t know is how much hard work is behind those designs.
I don’t say I’m a couture designer because I am not. I am a ready-to-wear designer. I have the edge to make my ready-to-wear a bit more couture-ish. It doesn’t mean that the customer has to pay couture prices to receive ready-to-wear clothing. Our retail ranges from 200 euros to 2,500 euros, which is quite reasonable. Because of that, I let my customers and girls have more of a glamorous design under a more affordable ready-to-wear pieces.
This is after three years and finding what speaks more to me. I love doing shows and getting validation from people in the industry, but what really makes me feel good is seeing people I don’t know wear my creations and hearing them tell me they feel different and confident wearing my pieces. I think this is how I challenge the traditional notion of glamour.
I was looking at some of your older work, and I noticed that before, you seemed to have bolder colours and more accessories to your designs. Your newest collection features more well-kept, minimalistic, and glamorous pieces that carry more of an elegance rather than your previous risqué approach to fashion. I’m wondering. What was that transition like? And what made you evolve your style?
I think evolving my style was a step towards merchandising. Yes, it was bolder colours in the beginning. I don’t think it was a good or bad progress; it was just what I had to do in the present. We had more people interested in our brand and more people watching our creations. At the start, there were only people in the industry looking at our shows, but now it’s a broader audience watching our campaigns. I like how it changed the beauty and aesthetic standards for me, which ended up reflecting more of the community.
Yes, the change between this year and last year was a smaller selection of colours because at the beginning I didn’t have that kind of colour palette in my mind. There’s no logic; I don’t think I have any more logic than before, but I’m more conscious of show pieces, of merchandising, and the balance of appearances. I think it’s a bit more subtle than the very beginning.
My runway images are very different from the sketches in my notebook. Every collection is quite big, quite huge, but we kind of cut it down to what had to be presented on stage - it doesn’t necessarily have to be every strong piece; there had to be a balance. We worked very close with artistic teams that helped with direction and set design. I think we’re becoming more established, and we’re more considerate of all the details now.
Disregarding the merchandising and thinking about show material, just in general based on appearance and you being the creator and designer, which style of yours do you prefer – the risqué or elegant approach? And how do you see it evolving in the future?
There’s no specific style that I prefer. I’m not much of a minimalistic designer. I don’t think I’ve concluded my style, though. I did have a dream woman who would wear my clothes; I dreamt of designing for a sophisticated, quite mature-ish woman. It wasn’t based on their age; it was their style - internal desire and external sophistication and being well-dressed daily.
That’s something I had in mind in the beginning, but reality speaks differently. It’s younger generations who are my biggest audience, so now, I completely go against that. I think that happens to many designers. I’m 26-years-old, so I don’t have that knowledge or experience designing for people like my mum’s age. I’m also not a woman. I don’t dress in womenswear. It’s all my imagination, though there’s something really charming because I have that DNA of the thinking and design approach of the younger generation. Nowadays, I really admire these trends and expand with them, instead of retreating back to what I wanted to do. It’s not just about what I’m good at; it’s about expanding and adapting to the times.
Denim is notoriously known for being one of the most environmentally-harmful materials to manufacture and work with. You called denim your “idea of new luxury”, though you never mentioned its negative side effects. Are you doing anything to be conscious of sustainability in your art? If so, what steps are you taking?
Our denim is from recycled jeans from China. I don’t use denim on every collection - denim isn’t my thing; it’s not my signature. For this season, I used denim in the fringes technique - to give a more glamorous tone through the denim.
Just to clarify again, denim is not my thing; it’s more for embellishments on the clothing. It’s quite interesting because when I thought about doing denim, I didn’t want to go far off our mission. Denim is very easily viewed as casual streetwear, which we are not. We are more of occasionally-inspired-by-streetwear glamorous wear. When I watched Girl, Interrupted and saw Angelina Jolie wear a beautiful shearling coat, I really loved her character, so I asked my team to see how we could use denim to get that appearance - the golden hair, the volume, and the aesthetic.
In terms of sustainability, I don’t deny that denim is a very polluted material, so we don’t use it very often. I can’t lie and say we are doing 100% sustainable fashion because I don’t think anybody in China can do that. I used to work at Louis Vuitton. We had a small campaign on sustainability, and we did research on manufacturing denim. There are only a few manufacturers in Japan who can produce denim in a relatively sustainable way with very low pollutants, but it’s not 100% guaranteed, and it was very expensive. I don’t think any emerging designer could afford it. Thus, we don’t do it that much. There’s only about two or three pieces in the collection that use denim.
Louis Shengtao Chen Metalmagazine 21.jpg
On your social media platforms, you tend to choose to display your designs on mannequins instead of real life models, which is something I don’t see very often. How do you think this highlights your work, but at the same time, do you feel like it takes away from the humanity of the art?
It happened for the last collection’s campaign. I thought it was fun. I remember speaking to the director and saying, “Why don’t we shoot everything on the mannequins - quite stylish, aesthetic mannequins?”, and he said “Yes!”. We all made compromises, but this is the way we felt we had to deliver that collection.
In each collection, we find a different way of showcasing it. I like to find some untraditional way each time. I like the idea of shooting on mannequins because it doesn’t lose its mystery or sexiness in those images. It remains. It’s even beyond. I think it’s fun to do.
You studied at Central Saint Martens, a very prestigious art school in London. What were some of the most formative experiences you had at CSM that confirmed your passion and pursuit of fashion? Do you have any specific professors or colleagues from CSM that come to mind?
I had a tutor named Elisa Palomino who was also my Fashion Print course instructor when I was getting my Bachelor’s. She was Spanish and a genius. Elisa was a very harsh and hard-working woman. I think she really made me who I am today. She strongly influenced how I design. On top of teaching the course which was very intense, she was also getting her PhD.
Elisa used to be the right-hand woman of John Charles Galliano (the creative director) at Dior for over ten years. The way she taught me at school pushed me to the limit - finding my own solutions, instead of waiting for someone to tell me. It’s always about options. I remember in class, I would submit a page with one design, and Elisa would toss it in the bin. She wanted to see lots of sketches - tens, hundreds - and we would find the right design. This is why I’m not minimalistic because for each collection, we do so many trials of experimenting and researching. I love it, and sometimes, it’s even more important than the result. This is something she really taught me in the course.
My peers and classmates also influenced me. People came to St. Martens from everywhere, and they arrived with such style and confidence. I remember students in womenswear would dress in all black and designed like so with very little colours, but I would be creating pieces that were so colourful - even bleaching the models’ hair. That’s how my work became so bold. At CSM, you meet and observe so many diverse people and different styles. My seven years at CSM was a very marvellous and humbling experience. I appreciate how much this school taught me.
What’s next for you? Are there projects and or exhibitions that you are currently working on?
We’re working on exhibitions - some for competitions, award events, retail, and commercial. I like to create adjacent to my current collections. We only have two a year. I don’t think we’re ready to do four per year; it’s already a lot going on.
For the next year, I think my top priority is on the finishings of well-made clothes. I’ve done a lot of research. We’re on the path of newcomer to more established designer. I’m looking at high-end brands. Their pieces look finished, and I’m spending time on finding out what makes them look that way and improving my own finishes. I like this study. It’s not plagiarism; it’s not that I’m copying their style. I’m no longer a student in school; I’m a student in the industry.
Louis Shengtao Chen Metalmagazine 17.jpg
Louis Shengtao Chen Metalmagazine 18.jpg
Louis Shengtao Chen Metalmagazine 9.jpg
Louis Shengtao Chen Metalmagazine 12.jpg
Louis Shengtao Chen Metalmagazine 10.jpg
Louis Shengtao Chen Metalmagazine 11.jpg
Louis Shengtao Chen Metalmagazine 14.jpg
Louis Shengtao Chen Metalmagazine 15.jpg
Louis Shengtao Chen Metalmagazine 6.jpg
Louis Shengtao Chen Metalmagazine 7.jpg
Louis Shengtao Chen Metalmagazine 20.jpg
Louis Shengtao Chen Metalmagazine 8.jpg
Louis Shengtao Chen Metalmagazine 3.jpg
Louis Shengtao Chen Metalmagazine 4.jpg
Louis Shengtao Chen Metalmagazine 16.jpg
Louis Shengtao Chen Metalmagazine 19.jpg
Louis Shengtao Chen Metalmagazine 5.jpg
Louis Shengtao Chen Metalmagazine 22.jpg