Shao Yen Chen
Having worked hard to build his own Shao Yen fashion brand in London over the past five years, Yilan native Shao Yen Chen found that life as a designer can be tough, even if you garner widespread acclaim.
Bucking ConventionBy Yueh-lin Ma
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 584 )
A day before interviewing Shao Yen Chen at his workshop in London, CommonWealth Magazine visited his alma mater, the renowned University of the Arts London college Central Saint Martins.
After talking to people there for a whole afternoon, the comment that carved the deepest impression was from Fabio Piras, the school’s MA fashion course director, spoken in Italian-accented English: “To stand out here, you have to have the desire to show your creativity, be prepared to break rules and take risks.”
Desire, convention, risk – the sources of motivation and resistance found on fashion runways around the world. Quickly identified as an emerging star in London’s fashion world, Chen was caught in the whirlwind of these competing forces, and though he was not pushed aside, he did not soar straight to the top of his profession.
The 34-year-old Yilan native has lived in London for 12 years, going from student to professional designer. After graduating from Fu-Hsin Trade and Arts School in New Taipei, Chen got a master’s degree at Central Saint Martins and launched his own brand – “Shao Yen” – upon graduating in 2010.
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Having shown collections 11 times at London Fashion Week and nine times at Paris Fashion Week, Chen decided to try something different this year in Paris, considered the top venue of the world’s four major fashion weeks (New York, London, Paris and Milan). He put on his own private presentation at the end of September for the first time and set up his own showroom, hoping to gain greater international visibility.
Mainly inspired by nature and the human body, Chen’s designs are known for their sculptural 3D shapes and construction. He cleverly uses unconventional techniques, whether they involve needle felt, dyeing, weaving or hand sewing, to create a diversity of artistic effects.
“I prefer ugly and interesting over pretty but boring” is one of Chen’s favorite lines. It reflects an attitude toward creativity that brought him international attention early in his career and has contributed to a string of successes.
In 2009, even before he graduated from Central Saint Martins, he won the prestigious Fashion Weekend/Le Vif Award in Brussels for emerging fashion designers. A year later, the fashion director of prominent British fashion, art and culture magazine AnOther, the late Cathy Edwards, named him as one of the six most promising designers of 2010.
In 2011, Chen was selected by Icelandic singer-songwriter Bjork to create an outfit for her new album “Biophilia,” and he designed a look for Jolin Tsai that appeared on her album “Muse” in 2012.
When CommonWealth Magazine visited with Chen five years ago, he was an emerging international design star who was already shining on stage while busily racing around off it to find desperately needed investors for his newly launched brand.
Five years later, he tells CommonWealth in an interview on Sept. 19 of his plans to present his 2016 spring/summer collection in Paris during Paris Fashion Week and then change his approach by moving his workshop back to Taiwan.
“My family and my wife are in Taiwan. The brand has been going for five years now, and I feel it’s time to try something else. I hope to get different types of feedback and fulfillment.”
Still as quiet and reserved as he was five years ago, Chen is slow to warm up to people but he remains as sincere as always when he speaks and does not particularly try to hide anything.
His small workshop in East London is in fact his residence, with the living room converted into a work space. At the time of CommonWealth’s visit, the white walls were plastered with 40 black and white photographs used to inspire the collection he was preparing. He holds up a one-piece dress from the collection made with a distorted leopard print and plaid print, explaining how the garment’s construction creates a sense of speed and movement.
It seemed a pity that Chen is relocating his workshop to Taiwan, but he seemed at peace with the decision when asked about it.
“Actually, many brands come to London from different parts of the world to put on exhibitions. At a time when fashion, the Internet and media are changing so rapidly, you don’t have to necessarily live in London to continue participating in Fashion Week,” Chen says. As incredibly stimulating as London can be for creative artists, it is too expensive to live there, he feels.
High Fashion Means High Spending
Chen has not hired anybody to work for him at his workshop full time, though he does hire interns when Fashion Week rolls around. That means he has to spend time on miscellaneous tasks, making it impossible for him to fully devote himself to design.
“The fashion industry moves fast and expenses are really high. You have to work based on a cycle of two seasons per year, and you have to be able to meet deadlines,” says Chen, who has little time to catch his breath or feel regret and instead can only push forward. The costs of entering the fashion business can be daunting for a young designer, with the cost of showing at Fashion Week at least NT$1 million a pop.
Another challenge for independent fashion designers has been the rise in recent years of “fast fashion” – low-cost clothing collections that are quick to market and mimic “hot” luxury fashion trends, embodied by chains such as Zara, H&M and Forever 21. These inexpensive brands, Europe’s weak economy, more conservative attitudes among commercial buyers, and design boutiques veering away from young brands in favor of more mature brands have all conspired to make life increasingly difficult for independent designers, such as Chen.
“So many new cutting-edge designer brands emerge in London every year. Why? Because there are always people pulling out,” he observes.
Chen hopes the clothes he designs can become classics and preserve his own unique style. So he has decided to return to Taiwan where he has access to more abundant resources and can concentrate on haute couture.
A Liberating Return Home?
“I want to do a wider range of things, but based on the current scale (of my operation) I can’t broaden myself, so I want to change,” he says.
Chen does not want to abandon the development of his own brand, but he also is unwilling to remain eternally stuck in a vicious cycle of searching for funding and manpower.
“When I first came here to study, I was pretty naïve. I thought a designer could take care of everything by himself, that all you needed was talent and ideas. But in fact you need a team working with you,” he explains.
Chen has taken to London like a duck in water yet the experience has also beaten him down. To fulfill his design vision, he has committed everything – his money, his talent and even much of the time he would normally sleep. But as much as he may not want it, ultimately his choice was still change. Maybe returning to his native land of Yilan will open up new, broader horizons for Shao Yen Chen’s design journey.
Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier