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Thursday February 9, 2012

Shiatzy Chen trendier with time

Founder and innovator of Taiwanese luxury brand Shiatzy Chen threads tradition with modernity.

I DON’T see myself as a sexy person, so I’m not entirely comfortable in sexy outfits,” says Wang Chen Tsai-Hsia, founder and innovator of luxury brand Shiatzy Chen.

Hint of drama: Subtle elements of shine on dresses and coats are splattered with traditional motifs and floral details.

Clearly, Wang Chen sentiments are reflected in her designs. The Taiwanese fashion house is as famous for its reputation as a top Asian luxury brand as it is for its soft, decorous dresses. While noted for its combination of contemporary chic and age-old Eastern sensibilities, Shiatzy Chen certainly does not fall short on sexual appeal.

Just ask the legion of rich and famous folk who flocked to its flagship boutique opening at the opulent Starhill Gallery in Kuala Lumpur recently.

Jostling past the crowd and models twice my height (and half my size), I found some quiet time with the illustrious designer at a corner of an upscale restaurant in KL. Seated before me, Wang Chen, a petite woman in her 60s, smiles obligingly even as I explained I would require the help of a translator (Wang speaks very little English and I have a limited command of Mandarin).

Though often referred to as the Chanel of Taiwan, Wang Chen paints a somewhat abeyant figure in the flesh. She is placid and soft-spoken, though she brims with quiet confidence.

Unassuming as she is, Wang Chen has accomplished much in recapturing the Chinese market that once preferred only non-Chinese brands, which apparently attested to one’s status and internationality.

Wang Chen says it is her dream to canonise and immortalise Chinese culture in fashion, and it had cost her much to stick to her original concept. Fortunately, her tenacitypaid off. For several years now, Chinese customers have been edging towards the opposing spectrum in style, and are rediscovering their roots and ethnic origins. So much so that they want to clad themselves in the Oriental spirit.

Shiatzy Chen relies heavily on those aspects and is most noted for aesthetic features such as the qipao collar, knot buckles and intricate floral, butterfly or dragon prints. Wang Chen shares her take on the tradition she has woven into her collections.

Shiatzy Chen’s menswear combines traditional and modern elements to dashing effect.

“I think tradition comes in many forms. They include the traditions in one’s family and morality,” she begins. “While fashion is an ever-changing phenomenon, tradition is a staunch, unwavering entity that needs to be cherished and preserved.”

A burgeoning brand with an annual turnover of US$60mil (RM185mil), Shiatzy Chen – known for threading traditional Chinese aesthetics and handcrafting techniques with modern western cuttings – has undoubtedly found a way to reconcile the two.

Wang Chen calls the eclectic East-West mix, “neo Chinese chic” – a genre the brand has solidified on the high fashion front since its inception in 1978.

At this interview, however, the style maverick who has dressed the likes of Elizabeth Hurley, Victoria Beckham and Wang Leehom dons a simple black dress that flares from the waist. She pairs the look with slick, shoulder-length hair.

Her modern get-up compels the question – in an urban world where being in vogue appears to be the prime concern – how does one vacillate between trends and tradition while staying relevant? Wang Chen brings a sense of direction to these considerations.

“I think Shiatzy Chen has managed to get the right balance,” she says frankly. “I don’t think my clothes are more contemporary or more traditional. I think both aspects are equally prominent in my collections and they go hand-in-hand.”

To arrive at where Shiatzy Chen is today entailed a lot of persistence. Then again, Wang Chen has never been one to give up.

A youthful ensemble that incorporates shorts.

“My family was not very well-to-do when I was growing up. But they have always been very supportive and they let me explore whatever creative inclinations I had,” she divulges.

Wang Chen did not have the opportunity to get a good education, but she learned about the fashion trade by working as a dressmaker at her uncle’s factory. Armed with that experience, she later set up Shiatzy Chen with her husband to explore her tailoring skills and interest in serving the Taiwanese luxury market.

Books and her travel experiences are also fodder for her creative ideas, she shares. Shiatzy Chen’s Spring/Summer collection, “Snuff Bottle”, however, derives much of its flair from the ornate Chinese item. The snuff bottle, which became fashionable in 17th century China, was a symbol of rising affluence. It featured the delicate crafts of burnishing, sculpting, painting and calligraphy. These aesthetics permeate the brand’s latest collection, offered in translucent glossy organza and satin materials.

This season, vintage lace is meshed with bright neon to give off a light, playful effect while more traditional elements like flower print jacquards radiate a classic touch.

Wang Chen has accomplished much in recapturing the Chinese market that once demanded only non-Chinese brands.

For women, Oriental and feminine details mark the overall look. Dresses in shocking pink and electric blue fall just above the knee, while loose-fitting tops with bright flower prints are paired with short shorts. To accentuate the slighter Asian figure, sleeves are also shorter than is usual in the West. Meanwhile, subtle elements of shine on dresses and coats are splattered with traditional motifs and floral details to add just a hint of drama.

For men, traditional collarless and mandarin-collared vests and jackets in black and blue are beautifully tailored to emphasise the sturdy male physique. The ensembles, made mostly of linen, cotton and silk, are set off by a soft lustre.

Following the brand’s mega-successful ventures across Europe and China – now with a worldwide network of over 50 retail locations – Wang Chen says the brand’s opening in KL marks the first step of its expansion plans in South-East Asia.

The designer is confident that Shiatzy Chen will flourish across the region. She adds: “We definitely have plans to roll out more of our stores in South-East Asia in the future.”

Still, as urbanisation sweeps the globe, how does Shiatzy Chen plan on maintaining the glitz and glamour which the brand has associated with culture and tradition?

Wang-Chen concedes: “Young people all over the world do tend to forget about tradition in favour of modern advancements. But I think that tradition and traditional values are still very important, and I hold dear to them. They are the glue that bind families and societies.”

A handbag that combines contemporary chic and age-old Eastern sensibilities.

Wang-Chen has little to worry about. From the way things are looking, Shiatzy Chen is a gem can only get trendier with time.

> Shiatzy Chen is priced from RM1,200 to RM6,000. Sold at its boutique in Starhill Gallery, Kuala Lumpur.