Having just launched his first spring collection at Shanghai fashion week, only one year after graduating in 2020, Louis Shengtao Chen represents a new school of fashion design. The soft lustre of his new womenswear collection aims to encapsulate both a love for the world and the beauty in chaos, exploring the complexities of femininity at the same time. Today, Shengtao Chen shares his experiences with us on graduating during the pandemic, starting a brand straight out of fashion school and launching his most recent collection into the public eye.
Let’s start all the way back at the beginning, what made you choose to study fashion? After you finished your degree, why did you decide to start a brand?
I study fashion because I want to be a fashion designer. Back in 2008 when all the fashion resources were so limited in China, I was always inspired by my mum, her experience as a stylish woman, together with my own fascination with the world of fashion pushes me to chase this dream. After graduating from high school in Beijing, I started to learn about this school in London called Central Saint Martins which is one of the top fashion schools in the world. So I tried my best to apply and then got in. That’s basically how my professional career started.
I didn’t decide it, which means I didn’t plan it. It all happened by chance. When I was back in China due to Covid, the opportunity came to me, thanks to my great friends Zipeng and Tasha from Labelhood, they supported me along the way. We started in a rush, with a tiny fashion show in Shanghai, but we developed to become as matureish as we can. I think we are doing great in the Chinese fashion industry, but there is still a lot to discover in my brand.
Louis Shengtao Chen is a very young brand, having just recently debuted your first Spring Summer collection. What have been your main sources of inspiration so far?
There is a lot of research and inspiration that goes into my creations. Like all the designers I am inspired by, what’s happening around the world, and all the art resources we can look at, say museums, art works, books, films… inspire me. But I think what’s charming and interesting behind this brand is that for each show I have a scene in my mind. For example, the scene I wanted to create in my debut show was a group of young women dressing up and getting ready for their debutante ball on their first night out. And for the lastest one, the Spring Summer collection, I was basically building my dream scene in a physical world. Crazy, lots of weird animals, something beyond reality, while the clothes themselves stay in reality. It’s always been a juxtaposition.
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You’ve talked a lot in the past about how your work is inspired more by worldwide cultures than your own home culture, which is a pretty interesting perspective as most designers tend to stick to their own heritage. What is it in particular that draws you to these other cultures? What aspects do you choose to incorporate in your work?
To be honest, I don’t speak for any culture with my creations. It’s not about heritage or any culture. This is something I don’t bring up when it comes to the creation process. What I always want to do is to build up a world that you don’t define with [just one] culture, I try to define it simply through my own understanding and emotions. I mean I’m proud of where I from, I think China is a country with masses of culture and potential. But I think culture can be so subjective sometimes, I want to invite people into another world, a world of Louis, where culture as a traditional boundary no longer exists and new definitions can be made. I incorporate every aspect of it in my work.
At the last Shanghai fashion week, you debuted your Spring Summer 2022 collection. Could you tell us a bit about how you selected the theme? How did you bring those romantic elements to life?
I think this collection was a personal journey from the start of April up until the show last month. The past few months were quite an anxious period, there was always something bothering me and I kept having weird dreams. I had lots of dreams about those weird animals, like the rabbit with red eyes, it’s in a rabbit form but appeared differently. I think everything is coming from that anxiety which made me nervous but also inspired me to do something beyond the real world. I think that’s how this collection was created.
Looking at those animals with velvet touching, rabbit, fish, monkey, with nails, with tails, they are weird, but they show the idea of love and being loved. Love is not only about people, not only between man and woman, it’s beyond that, whether with creatures, nature, the whole world, or even more than that. It’s all existing in a beautiful chaos. That’s my attitude to Romance Anónimo from this collection.
This collection features both menswear and womenswear. You’ve mentioned that you enjoy approaching gender in your design work from a contradictory standpoint. Could you elaborate a bit on what this means to you and how it affects the design process?
I have to correct the sentence “this collection features both menswear and womenswear”. It’s always only womenswear. The difference is, I put the womenswear on men and they are just seen as human beings displaying the clothes on the runway. But only looking at the pieces, they are always just womenswear.
Instead of saying approaching gender, let’s make it easier, I enjoy approaching femininity, the female. I think that’s what I do with this brand. Womenswear is a big task for a male designer to work on because I’m always standing on the opposite side with a different point of view from how women see themselves. But I think that is the most fascinating part. The journey of discovering the complexity and diversity in women enhances the idea of myself as a male designer but also a very feminine man. It is exactly the uniqueness and androgyny within my own identity that makes the entire process interesting.
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Having graduated in 2020, you launched your brand only a year later, how have you dealt with the challenges of designing in a Covid-19 world?
It was a rapid decision. Honestly I didn’t even have a second to take a breath after my graduation year. Having done the bachelor collection, joining the MA course, doing the MA course, coming back from the UK, working on the first show in Shanghai, and building up the entire team for the brand... it all happened within a year. It has been crazy for me and my team, it’s non-stop basically. But maybe because I’m a workaholic, rest makes me more anxious. So though it was difficult but I found it easy somehow. Sorry if that's cheeky to say.
But running a business was enormously difficult, like all designers at the beginning, I’ve never run a business. It was not easy. There was no team at the beginning, there was only me and the other two other girls who were my assistants. We lacked resources.
Of course Covid was a big thing that no one expected. I was in my final year of my Bachelor's degree in 2020. It was difficult to finish my graduation collection. We couldn’t go out, we weren’t provided with any equipment or any technical help from school, we were pretty much by ourselves and independent. It was a big mission. But I had tons of ideas of what I wanted to present in the show, of what I wanted to bring in to the industry. I think it was that passion I was holding at the beginning that gave me that confidence and energy to do my debut show. And I always have belief in myself. That was the main motivator.
Although you work elements of luxury into your collections, you’ve described your garments as being more ready-to-wear. What has influenced this decision? What type of clothing do you prefer to work with and why?
I prefer to work as a ready-to-wear designer as I find there’s so much more going on and much more we can work on in the ready-to-wear world. As you know, it's not just this industry, but the entire world that is chasing a faster and faster pace. In this industry everyone wants to be fast, creating collections one after another…I mean still I keep a fast pace, but I want to make sure every collection is well-considered, well-made and can always bring the public a fresh, new and break-through feeling. I said myself that I always keep a couture-esque mind because I want to bring what I learned from those couture houses and their craftsmanship to ready-to-wear. I see it as my mission and I think that’s something we don’t have in China. So I want to do something different as a ready-to-wear designer.
You’ve spoken now a bit about your thematic influences, but could you tell us a bit about any individual designers or fashion houses that inspire you? Do any of your contemporaries come to mind?
I always know what’s going on in the fashion world. I’m not a designer who never looks at fashion, I care about fashion, I care about functional fashion as well. I don’t miss any shows, either physically or just online. I think it’s important to know what’s happening now and also what happened in the past. There’s always something to learn, just make sure you learn it smart and don’t become plagiaristic. There’s so many talents in this world, either in the past like my fashion hero Karl Lagerfeld, Pierre Cardin or more contemporary ones like Nicolas Ghesquière and Raf Simons they all work in different ways, some work in an old fashion way, they hand draw, they draw amazing illustrations, like Karl Lagerfeld. Or like Raf Simons, he works in a very logical way. I watched a lot of documentaries about him. He develops his fashion collection as if it was maths test, he's very logical. It’s always fascinating to learn how diversely all these people work.
I think there’s so much going on in China right now. There’s so many upcoming designers bumping into everyone’s sight. And what I learned from Saint Martins is to always learn from your peers, instead of only paying attention to lectures or tutorials. You can learn so much from the people next to you. My technicians, my pattern-cutters, even my interns, I learn so much from my interns, the energy they bring in is so diverse and I think that makes this fashion world so exciting.
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Recently, Blackpink’s Lisa wore a piece from your Fall Winter 2021 collection for Vogue Hong Kong. As your brand grows, is there anyone in particular that you’d like to collaborate with or dress?
There’s always been one muse in my imagination when I create every collection—Faye Wong. She’s my biggest muse, my biggest inspiration, my biggest image when I think about the brand and the woman who wears Louis Shengtao Chen. I love her energy as a singer, a mum, she has a great influence across generations. Her character is somehow so quiet, so peaceful and at the same time so picky, so selfish, but elegant as well. Like I say all the time, sophisticated women, those are my dream women I want to dress for. I also encourage diversity. These days there are so many men who are androgynous, beautiful, I also find them so charming wearing womenswear, wearing my clothes. I think we should not set up a boundary for what type of person should wear Louis Shengtao Chen, because that’s not my choice, it’s the customer’s choice.
As your brand is so young, it would be difficult to ask you to reflect on what you’ve achieved so far without covering familiar territory. So, with that in mind, I thought I’d ask about what your future plans are. Are there any particular goals that you have, or are you focused more on the here-and-now?
For sure I’m focusing on who I am so far, making high-quality products, and having connection with customers, stockists, and the industry. I definitely want to take my creation to the wider world in the near future. I want the entire world to see how charming this brand is, not only the guests attending the shows, but stockists, malls, like Lafayette and Harrods. I want them to touch the physical clothes, to see the actual creation, to feel the energy in this brand. I want people to understand, this is a young brand but it has big potential and energy. I want to get the yes from the entire industry, I want those old fashion stockists to understand the diversity that young designers like me can bring.
To round up, I wanted to ask what the day-to-day looks like for Louis Shengtao Chen right now. Is there a more chilled approach at the moment following your recent collection launch, or is it business as usual?
My original plan was having some trips after the show. But due to the covid restrictions in the city we can’t really travel, so it’s more relaxing at the moment. But we are working on some exciting projects and I love working so close to my team in the atelier, and lots of research is going around, I love researching. Business wise, luckily we have a very good and well-constructed business team now, even though we are only a brand that is less than one year old. Everything is under management, everything is going well, I just can’t wait to show the world our next creation.
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