Representing the creative future

Louis Shengtao Chen on launching a brand in China straight out of university

The recent graduate shares his experience from graduation to Shanghai Fashion Week

When Louis Shengtao Chen graduated from Central Saint Martin’s Fashion Print BA in 2020 he became one of the so-called ‘Lost Graduates’; a novice designer breaking out onto London’s fashion scene whilst working from his kitchen and presenting his graduate collection via a computer screen. The Beijing-born designer was faced with the familiar fashion-graduate dilemma; stay in London to do an MA, get a job at a design house, or the more daunting option of going solo and starting his own label.

After returning to  China, Louis was offered an entirely unplanned opportunity to design and show his own solo collection with a runway show at the 2021 edition of Shanghai Fashion Week, supported by Beijing boutique-cum-mentorship agency LABELHOOD, who’ve previously propelled the careers of designers including Angel Chen, Uma Wang and Xander Zhou. We sat down with Louis to discuss his debut show, his experiences designing during the lockdown, and his journey to founding his own brand.

Shanghai fashion week was your debut runway collection, how does it feel to have such a global stage for your first solo show? 

It was nerve-wracking and also very exciting because this is my debut, my first ever collection. I also haven’t been able to do a fashion show in my home country because I’ve been studying abroad for over six years. Coming back to China and showcasing my work on such a global stage in Shanghai has a very familiar, yet strange feeling because I haven’t been home for such a long time. I’m very unfamiliar with the whole industry in China, it’s grown and changed so much since I’ve been away.

It was a very weird feeling. It was overwhelming to be welcomed back and to get so much help to create my vision. Having the capacity to actually have a physical show was amazing because I didn’t get to do one when I graduated from my BA. It meant a lot and it was an outstanding experience.

“The style of my first collection has worldwide influences, I don’t feel like it conforms to the usual Asian taste level, but it’s not entirely European either. I want my brand to be diverse in its exploration of cultural influences. ” – Louis Shengtao Chen

You were born in Beijing, has your Chinese heritage shaped your design identity?  

I think it’s more about my exposure to other cultures. I am Chinese and at Central Saint Martin’s I was welcomed into a range of international cultures. I think one of the key points of my work is that the style of my brand is not focused on my Chinese heritage, I want my brand to be more global, ranging from the actual design of my garments to the models I use. The style of my first collection has worldwide influences, I don’t feel like it conforms to the usual Asian taste level, but it’s not entirely European either. I want my brand to be diverse in its exploration of cultural influences.

How different are the Chinese and UK fashion scenes? Which one do you prefer?

To be fair I don’t have much to compare it to as this is the first time I’ve ever shown a collection. But I’m very excited to be debuting in China. The industry now, especially after the pandemic, really wants to see something new and for things to change in terms of style and taste. I think especially younger Chinese people are always looking for fashion that pushes the boundaries. When I came to Shanghai to do the show all the people I hung out with were super welcoming and accepted the vision I was bringing. It’s very exciting to be working here.

“When I graduated I had a job offer, but there were difficulties with securing a work visa for me so I was unable to take the position. I was sad at the time, but it’s brought me back to China and what I’m doing today, so it worked out in the end. ” – Louis Shengtao Chen

Louis Shengtao Chen Sketchbooks

Many international students are under immense pressure once they graduate to find a job if they want to stay in the UK, did you experience any similar Visa issues?

Yes, I have an experience that was a huge issue for me. When I graduated I had a job offer, but there were difficulties with securing a work visa for me so I was unable to take the position. I was sad at the time, but it’s brought me back to China and what I’m doing today, so it worked out in the end.

Your collection is titled ‘The Debutante’ what was the inspiration behind your collection?

In the beginning, when I started the collection I had an image in my mind of a group of beauties, who are attending their debutante ball. I was thinking about the debutants dressing in a velvet-curtained room. I wanted to capture that uniqueness in the looks. Even though I’m a male fashion designer I have been surrounded by women from a young age. Women from different cultural backgrounds, different ages, who’ve had different experiences in their lives, so I wanted to embody those women in my collection. I think ‘The Debutante’ is about a celebration of individuality.

What inspires you as a designer?

Lots: art, music, paintings, books. I really like surrealist artists like Man Ray, Hans Bellmer, and Max Ernst. The androgenous and edgy-like vibe in their paintings has really influenced what I’m doing now because my art aesthetic is a very weird world with vivid colors, it’s really important to have some character as a designer.

“The methods I used in my BA collection are part of my brand’s heritage so I want to continue using elements of that in the future.” – Louis Shengtao Chen 

You graduated from CSM last year during the pandemic – what was this like and how did it change your design process? Did you learn anything valuable?

What I learned is the need to adapt to any situation. For example, I did my entire BA collection in my kitchen in London. Yeah, it was a shame because none of us could use facilities at school but it kind of forced me to learn to use what I have and how to appreciate that. I was only given a very short period of time to do the collection I showed in Shanghai; one and a half months, to do the entire thing. I think my experiences designing during the pandemic have really taught me to manage my time, how to work to a schedule, manage a team and use what I have.

My brand is ready to wear, but I try to explore concepts of luxury within ready-to-wear. So that’s what I think doing my BA collection taught me: how to make things look luxurious even if they’re made from recycled materials with non-traditional techniques. Now I’m in China I have got more equipment, access to materials, and the capacity to use more efficient techniques, but the methods I used in my BA collection are part of my brand’s heritage so I want to continue using elements of that in the future.

In the beginning, when I started the collection I had an image in my mind of a group of beauties, who are attending their debutante ball. I was thinking about the debutants dressing in a velvet-curtained room. I wanted to capture that uniqueness in the looks. Even though I’m a male fashion designer I have been surrounded by women from a young age. Women from different cultural backgrounds, different ages, who’ve had different experiences in their lives, so I wanted to embody those women in my collection. I think ‘The Debutante’ is about a celebration of individuality.

Lookbook photography by Yi Tuo

Can a digital presentation ever truly replace the excitement and spectacle of a physical runway?

I believe you need to see the clothes, touch the clothes, feel it, see how it walks, moves, and fits the model. Fittings are such an important part of my process it was a shame I couldn’t have a physical show for my BA collection. I don’t consider myself a super high-tech designer, I’m not good at it and I find myself thriving in more handcrafted techniques, so I’ll always prefer physically showing my work. But I’m seeing more and more young designers who are super talented with creating digital platforms which is very inspiring and I think the industry should encourage that.

“Is this what I dreamed of when I started studying fashion? No! I never planned on creating my own brand, but now I’m here and I have to keep going and keep improving, not just for myself but for my team to survive in the industry. ” – Louis Shengtao Chen 

You’ve previously worked at Loewe and Kiko Kostadinov, why did you choose to start your own brand instead of working for a big fashion house? Is it what you dreamed of doing when you started studying fashion?

When I was working for these big brands like Loewe and Kiko, people were always asking me what my plans were after I graduated and asking me if I wanted my own brand, but I’d always say “no, I want a job at a big house,” because that’s what I was doing before and it was going great. I guess I couldn’t see myself having the capacity to create and run my own brand and to do everything by myself. I think the pandemic brought a lot of unplanned stuff into my life, it brought me back to China at the end of 2020, and then I was being asked by one of the biggest fashion organizations in China to do my own show and build up my own label with their support. I postponed my MA at Central Saint Martins to start my own brand, it was all very unplanned, and I feel very satisfied looking back and seeing everything I’ve achieved in such a short period of time. But is this what I dreamed of when I started studying fashion? No! I never planned on creating my own brand, but now I’m here and I have to keep going and keep improving, not just for myself but for my team to survive in the industry. That’s very important.

“When I was studying I learned the most from my peers and my class, which I think is the most exciting part of being a student at Central Saint Martins.” – Louis Shengtao Chen 

What advice would you give to fashion students who want to start their own brand after they graduate?

Really think about it carefully. I don’t think my experience is the best example because it was so unpredictable and I don’t think working like that suits everyone, but you do need to experience working with big brands because I learned so much about running a business and working with a team from my time interning, it helps you so much and keeps you humble. Don’t ever build a wall around your work and block others from your creative process. That’s not right, you need to always learn from each other. When I was studying I learned the most from my peers and my class, which I think is the most exciting part of being a student at Central Saint Martins. Learn from others, ask questions, always try new stuff, new techniques. So if you want to start your own brand please stay grounded and then get ready.

1 Granary

Magazine Issue 6

With unprecedented honesty and depth, 1 Granary Issue 6 dives into the work and lives of fashion designers today. As a response to the construction of desire and personality cults that govern our industry, the magazine steps away from the conventional profiles and editorials, focussing instead on raw work and anonymous, unfiltered testimonies. For the first time ever, readers are given a truthful insight into the process, dreams, fears, hardships, and struggles of today’s creatives.

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