There are fashion houses that almost everybody has heard of; the likes of Alexander McQueen, Valentino, Céline, Versace. There are also those that appear to fly a little more under the radar, known within sartorial circles yet not as widely spoken of away from stylish quarters. It’s here that Taiwanese brand Shiatzy Chen sits.
Wang Chen Tsai-Hsia’s label represents something quite rare in the fickle fashion firmament, and that’s an Eastern label that quietly has grown to impress some of the industry’s most stylish ladies (Natalia Vodianova, Jessica Alba, Karlie Kloss and Carine Roitfeld have all been spotted at the brand’s runway shows, after all).
2018 marks 40 years since Wang and her husband Yuan-Hong founded the label. Without any formal training, she worked tirelessly to ignite local support for Shiatzy Chen as her aesthetic developed and the label set its foundations in Taiwan.
Finding global success as an Asian fashion brand is notoriously difficult. Big questions surrounding decades of Western dominance in standards of beauty and business are inevitable, and it’s right to raise them. On this, Lane Crawford Senior Buyer Jillian Xin is adamant that more needs to be done to support home-grown brands.
“Supporting and championing Asian talent is incredibly important,” says Xin, “not just because of Lane Crawford’s heritage but because I truly believe Asian talent represents the future generation of global talent.”
Wang is clear on the challenges she has faced as a non-Western designer managing her own label: “Most of the media give a high evaluation for Western brands. Although it’s a very hard process for us, we won’t give up. We work harder to prove ourselves.”
This need to push further and prove the indelible value of Asian dress and artisanship – which is so tied to culture and heritage – has been at the heart of Shiatzy Chen since its inception. It’s a testament to Wang that the spirit of the house has been preserved, even with the push for growth beyond Taiwan.
And with store openings in Kuala Lumpur and Tokyo, across China’s first cities and into Paris, Shiatzy Chen has certainly been growing. Yes, media and consumer attention is less than it is for Wang’s Western counterparts, but the touch-point of design is a unique sell, looking to a customer who appreciates subtle nods to an oriental heritage and exceptional quality in fabric and form.
Backstage at the brand’s spring/summer 2018 show, the pre-production quality of the clothes and accessories was unquestionable. Wang’s appreciably Western designs are touched with an Eastern spirit, with their colour palettes, intricate embellishments and deft cuts riffing on traditional Asian concepts.
Of particular note is the incredible embroidery that runs across specific styles. Wang describes her craftsmen as beyond valuable: “The artisans are very important. Only good craftsmen can create quality products.” Threads of perfectly placed shimmering gold, soft lilac and duck-egg blue weave across the SS18 line, conjuring scenes of tranquil gardens and orchards of flowers.
The label’s original factory was – and remains – in Taipei, while a second has since been opened in Shanghai. How important is having this base in Taiwan, I ask Wang? “It is very important to us,” she answers simply, acknowledging the immense talent that those who work with her garments must possess to maintain her exacting standards. “Traditional craftsmanship is what we must support,” Wang goes on to say. “This is our brand basis.”
Wang’s determination to support Taiwanese production and ensure it’s recognised globally is laudable. She wants her customers to understand the story behind the brand, that the items are, indeed, made in China – and are all the better for it. Her fabrics? Sourced from Italy, and with a high percentage of the label’s own design – East meets West, in practice.
And this fusion aesthetic is something of which Wang remains resolutely proud. The brand often reaches for the term “neo-Chinese chic” when it comes to describing its vision, and Wang explains that, to her, this means offering a modern vision of “the China that emphasised traditional craftsmanship – and a fusion of the East and the West to weave a fashion ‘scenescape’, stitch by stitch.”
Shiatzy Chen has not just looked to Italian fabrics for its occidental influence. Before Chinese brands were even thinking of entering global markets, Shiatzy Chen had already moved into Europe’s capital of couture. It was in 1990 that the label’s first Parisian outpost was established, a workshop where international dressmaking techniques could be studied. Just over a decade later, the maison’s first Paris store would open on Rue Saint Honoré, a powerful message to buyers and global media that this was a brand ready to play on the main stage.
Since its first show as part of Paris Fashion Week in 2008, the family team leading Shiatzy Chen (Wang’s son, Harry, is CEO, while her husband remains as chairman – a befitting structure for a Chinese-run business) has made it clear that branding is as important as creative excellence in its drive for long-term success. It is no coincidence, after all, that the new Paris flagship sits alongside Prada and Bottega Veneta on Avenue Montaigne, or that the house is rubbing shoulders on the PFW schedule with the likes of Louis Vuitton.
So, who’s the customer? The Asian shopper with a Chanel-filled closet who wants to add a piece of her heritage in a modern way? Or is it the Westerner looking to develop a sartorial conversation with something unknown and steeped in rich history? Perhaps both. Either way, speaking to a younger consumer is at the forefront for many fashion houses today, Asian or otherwise, as they seek out new revenue streams and work to build on an increasingly flagging loyalty base. Shiatzy Chen’s spring/summer 2018 collection in the City of Light is a statement that aims to do just that.
Held downstairs in the airy space of Palais de Tokyo in Paris’s 16th arrondissement, the show featured a runway of sand laid down in homage to that most famous of trade routes, the Silk Road; the epitome of East meets West. Here, the mother who has always worn Shiatzy Chen can find something to love, while her daughter is no less catered for: masterful embroideries on dresses and cover-ups hint at orchid blossoms in flower; lace-trimmed satin twin-sets nod to vintage pyjamas; and paintbox-bright midi dresses are cinched at the waist by sporty striped belts.
“Promoting Eastern culture paired with delicate craftsmanship is the essence of Shiatzy Chen, the meaning of our brand,” Wang says after the show, adding, “We’re making the elegant and the street coexist to create a fresh and young look.” The accents of youth woven throughout the line-up certainly have that appeal – leaving the show we overhear a conversation between two fellow journos commenting on the “super-cute” rain hats that had been dropped into the mix. We like them, too.