No Dragons, Please
By Alex Joseph
Portrait by Nick Parisse '09, other images courtesy Grace Chen
East meets West in the designs of couturiere Grace Chen, Fashion Design ’96, and in her hands that encounter is dynamic and transformative. Her namesake house is based in Shanghai, but you won’t find traditional garments like cheongsams, or images of dragons or pagodas in her line. She has a deep knowledge of Chinese history and craft, but she’s equally at home with references to the Bauhaus and the golden age of Hollywood. If global identity is the future, Chen’s ingeniously blended aesthetic illustrates how that might look.
During a visit to FIT last year, Chen sat down with Hue for a conversation about her experience at the college, her business, and contemporary Chinese style. As the country forges its identity in the global economy, its fashion is also changing. The days of clothing “made in China” (but designed elsewhere) may be ending. According to The Economist, an estimated two-thirds of the richest self-made women in the world today are Chinese, and as Chen points out, most Western fashion suits them awkwardly. Newly ascendant, Chinese couture is stepping in to fill the void. Her clients include actor Qin Hailu; Gina Qiao, senior vice president of the tech firm Lenovo; and, allegedly, China’s first lady Peng Liyuan. Prices range from $3,000 to $12,000 per dress, or more. Chen already had a fashion design degree from Beijing University when she arrived at FIT in the mid-90s, and she took to the American industry avidly. After graduation, she worked for Halston in New York, then for Japanese designer Tadashi Shoji in L.A. Of the celebrities she outfitted—Oprah Winfrey, Helen Mirren—Chen says, “For me, they are just women. They all worry about their legs, waists, and face. My job is to make them more beautiful than they are.” In 2009, she founded her company in Shanghai; an early collection, “Little Red Dress,” caused a sensation. In 2016, the designer opened a new space in an Art Deco mansion in Shanghai’s French Concession district. The prestigious architecture firm Kokaistudios renovated the space to encompass a showroom, gallery, fitting rooms, offices, dining room, and a library, as well as a VIP suite for a full lifestyle experience. With that bold stroke, Grace Chen Couture had arrived.