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How Designer Louis Shengtao Chen Received Fortunate

How Designer Louis Shengtao Chen Received Fortunate

Launching in China was never Beijing-born designer Louis Shengtao Chen’s plan, but an unexpected break has helped catapult him to global stardom.

Had it not been for a chance encounter on social media, Louis Shengtao Chen might never have started his namesake brand. The Beijing-born designer, who aims to redefine traditional notions of glamour through dreamlike and elegant ready-to-wear, initially had his sights set on working for a fashion house after graduation.

“It was never my intention to start the business,” explains Chen from his studio in Chongqing, where his team now operates. A graduate of Central Saint Martins’ BA course in Fashion Print, Chen was part of the bitterly disappointed class of 2020, robbed by the lockdown of a final-year show. Instead, the young designer ended up creating his BA collection from his kitchen.

Chen showcasing his designs at the 10 Asian Designers to Watch Exhibition in Hong Kong

By the time Chen enrolled on the school’s MA course, the situation hadn’t improved. “Covid still made everything so difficult; we couldn’t attend class in person and were trying to do everything via Zoom,” says Chen, who took the decision to move back home. He first planned to continue the course remotely, until out of the blue, Tasha Liu, founder of Beijing boutique-cum-mentorship agency Labelhood, offered him the opportunity of a solo runway show at the forthcoming Shanghai Fashion Week.

Since it was founded in 2009, Labelhood has garnered a reputation for stocking independent labels and providing a platform for up-and-coming local talents during Fashion Week, holding a satellite event at the Tank Shanghai Museum.

While the rest of the world was still grappling with lockdowns, Shanghai in April 2021 was, by contrast, business as usual. The only physical fashion week to go ahead, the booming schedule of 100-plus shows, which featured homegrown brands and a few international names such as Dior, had the full attention of the global fashion-deprived community.

Chen, who in just three months had transitioned from a student to brand director, presented his autumn/winter 2021 collection, Debutante. As well as alluding to the designer’s own debut, the collection was inspired by the idea of upper-class beauties getting ready together before presenting themselves to society.

The collection, which fused hard and soft everyday materials into dreamy, elegant silhouettes, was an outright display of Chen’s talent for creating his own vision of luxury, mixing high-end fashion tailoring with experimental techniques.

“For me, it’s also not just about the collection; it’s also very important how you show the collection,” explains Chen. “My intention was to have less of a boundary between the fashion, the models and the audience. I wanted them to feel as if this is a beautiful fashion show and that they don’t have to sit in the Grand Palais to see something special,” he says. Inspired by Martin Margiela’s unconventional show locations, Chen did without a seating plan; instead, his audience stood around a circular runway so they could see the textures and fabrics of the clothes up close.

The collection was an instant hit. No one could quite believe this newcomer, possessing the craftsmanship and tailoring skills of someone much older, was the fresh-faced 24-year-old Chen, who at long last had been given the opportunity to prove his abilities with a physical show.

Chen’s ascent coincided with a broader trend of other talented Chinese creators returning home during the first wave of Covid. Students at Western art schools who might otherwise have stayed abroad to start their own business or look for a job at an international fashion house after graduation were forced to return home. With this influx of talent, the Chinese fashion scene had never felt more alive, now suddenly a burgeoning hotbed of creativity and buzzy new brands.

“It really does feel like an exciting time for Chinese fashion,” says Chen. “Although it’s been blooming for years, it’s really changed so fast since 2019. Before there were a lot of emerging designers like Uma Wang, who spent years figuring out their position in the Chinese and global fashion community. I think thanks to designers like them and the community of Shanghai Fashion Week, they’ve made this structure way smoother to let young designers like me start my business in the mainland, yet still manage to get the global tension. We don’t have the same difficulties of designers that came five or 10 years before.”

Louis Shengtao Chen Spring Summer 2024

Whereas previously it might have taken a few seasons for new designers to attract interest from major boutiques, Chen received orders from eight stockists after his first collection. “I think the industry and community in China now is so accepting of new styles and new brands, it doesn’t feel like they’re taking such a risk with us anymore,” he says.

The opportunity to get his designs out into the market so soon after establishing his brand afforded Chen the opportunity to gain feedback from buyers and customers. “To be a great designer, you have to absorb different voices and feedback from different communities, so China really has provided me that atmosphere,” he says. Adding another advantage of starting his brand is China is the sheer size of the market. “We have the biggest population in the world, so we have much wider audience and customer base, not only from in the fashion industry.”

Just two years after his debut, Chen received the stamp of approval every young designer dreams of when he was named a 2023 LVMH Prize semi-finalist, one of 22 brands selected from more than 2,400 applicants. Chen joins the growing ranks of other mainland designers, includinh Peng Chen and Rui Zhou, in receiving such an honour.

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In December, Chen came to Hong Kong to be awarded the 10 Asian Designers to Watch initiative, which recognises the most exciting and innovative names in the region, such as past winners Robert Wun and Susan Fang. It’s judged by a panel of industry experts, including the director of Fashion Asia, Kennis Chan, who says, “Louis Shengtao Chen is a designer who possesses exquisite craftsmanship. His creations constantly push boundaries and redefine traditional luxury.”

Meanwhile, Chen has continued to deliver season after season on his evolving concept of approachable glamour, making him a Shanghai Fashion Week darling and one of the most anticipated shows on the schedule. Although he’s keen to emphasise his business is growing sustainably, with a burgeoning social-media following and celebrity fans including Julia Fox, Paloma Faith, Jane Zhang and Amber Kuo, Chen looks poised to shake off the label of “emerging Chinese designer” and become a global tour de force.

Jane Zhang performing in custom Louis Shengtao Chen

His spring/summer ’24 collection, titled Orgasmic, was based on that very feeling, though not in an erotic way. “I really do think fashion can bring that feeling of excitement to people without having a physical touch,” says Chen. “Like when you see a very special texture and bright colours, the brain kind of feels that orgasm energy.”

The collection, a mix of high-octane silhouettes, elegant, sharp eveningwear and pretty silk dresses, continued Chen’s development of infusing couture craftsmanship into ready-to-wear. As we speak, Chen is preparing to participate in global showrooms in Paris and Milan, as well as working on his next collection at Shanghai Fashion Week in April. 

Given the current international spotlight on the week, does he feel as though the tide may at long last be turning on the negativity often associated with the “made in China” label? “I think there are people in Western markets who feel production or things made in China are of lesser quality,” he says. “I think that’s why this industry needs designers like us. To prove that no matter what material, no matter where you’re from, it’s the creation and the outcome that matter.”

“My studio is in the middle of nowhere, and I bet most people don’t know where Chongqing even is. Ninety percent of our product is made in China, but I never deny that. This is my reality; I’m here. It takes time for attitudes to change, but what it needs is more designers to be actively showing in this industry to prove that Chinese make great design.”

Source: Prestige Online

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