Since launching her eponymous couture brand in 2009, designer Grace Chen has paved the way for what a modern Chinese luxury brand can be. At the House of Grace Chen, her villa and atelier located in Shanghai’s leafy French Concession district, she’s created a space not only for showcasing her latest collections, but also for fashion and art crowds to meet and socialise, with a roster of events from film screenings and salons with international guests to mindfulness and meditation workshops.
“It’s meant to be a melting pot for everyone to share their thoughts about fashion, music and art,” Chen says on the eve of the house’s second anniversary. She’s sitting on a chaise longue in one of her fitting rooms, couture gowns in deep purple and vibrant red popping against the room’s hushed, neutral decor. “We want to it to be representative of the spirit in Shanghai.”
The renovated 1920s villa on Huashan Road houses a showroom, VIP fitting rooms, a library, kitchen and dining room. Just across the courtyard from the main house there’s also a gallery, which is currently showcasing Around the World in 80 Dresses, a photo exhibition chronicling the designer’s trips around the world with VIP clients during the past couple of years. With stunning clothes, and backdrops ranging from Kenya and Japan to London and New York, the purpose of these journeys, Chen says, “is to place my customers – all very successful women in their own right – in surreal contexts that can allow them to see themselves in a new way”.
Chen’s three-storey villa was refurbished by Filippo Gabbiani, co-founder of Italian-run, Shanghai-based Kokaistudios, which specialises in sympathetic restoration projects around China. “We just shared the same view, so it was so easy for us work together,” Chen says of the collaboration, which took six months before she threw open the maison’s doors. “We both had a common view on beauty, on women and on lifestyle. [Filippo] said to me, ‘When I see your designs, I feel that your clothing is truly for someone to wear. And my design is truly a place for someone to live.’”
Although Chen’s collections include plenty of extravagant gowns meant for red-carpet occasions, she also creates day-to-day business wear. As a couturier, Chen embraces traditional practices; all of her pieces are handmade and intended to be timeless. “It’s not just fashion or clothing,” she says. “It’s an art form.”
She adds that between both physical and cultural fit, the Grace Chen brand fills a space for VIP clients that other luxury brands may not be able to. Her clientele consists mostly of top businesswomen who “already have a closet full of Chanel suits. They – and their daughters – are probably the first generation of luxury customers in China, so they’re already educated by these brands and have very fine tastes,” she says, but the fact that these are 100 percent foreign brands isn’t lost on them.
Garments that are designed, handmade and tailored specifically for Chinese female body types in the heart of Shanghai may be the brand’s speciality, but its core message is much more universal. “We have a very unique understanding of women – not only Chinese women but everyone,” Chen says. “When I’m working with women from all over the world … I see that there’s no difference. All women want to be both feminine and powerful at the same time.”
So until now, why has it been so hard for a Chinese brand, fashion or otherwise, to become truly global? The question was posed to a room full of guests at a recent salon at the House of Grace Chen, moderated by Simon Collins, founder of WeDesign, a firm that helps link students to leading arts and design education institutions around the world.
The answer, Chen says, lies in soft power. “It’s not just about fashion. For me, because I do couture, I work with my customers very closely. I always say I’m not creating clothing, I’m creating a person.” According to Chen, only when more Chinese brands can say this will domestic fashion become truly influential.
Chen’s ambition is to become a bridge between China and the rest of the world – a lofty goal but one she’s been working towards achieving with events at her atelier and abroad, including a showcase at New York’s China Fashion Gala earlier this year, or a recent trip to Monaco where her clients used the city-state’s Mediterranean backdrop and her latest collection to create another stunning fashion-photography series.
Besides continuing to inspire clients to capture the best images of themselves, Chen is making waves and carving out a niche in Shanghai and beyond. “We want to be a brand that represents a Chinese voice in the group of big luxury designers,” she says. “Simply, in the future we want to be the Chanel of China.”