Designer Grace Chen Returns to FIT, Maps Out Future Plans

IN A NEW YORK MINUTE: Grace Chen’s current New York visit has provided a flashback to her academic days.

Chen returned to New York in part for an appearance at the Fashion Institute of Technology, where she had studied in 1995-1996. In addition to having a fashion show and doing a Q&A at FIT Tuesday night, Chen has been doing trunk shows during this week’s New York stay at the Park Avenue Hyatt.

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“I feel like I never left. FIT really was a milestone in my life and not just from a professional standpoint. From the time that I was very little, I had always wanted to come to the United States because I liked Hollywood movies,” Chen said.

Eventually, she made that happen. After FIT, her incarnation as the design director for Tadashi Shoji provided the opportunity to design evening gowns for numerous Hollywood stars like Sarah Jessica Parker, Catherine Zeta Jones and Oprah Winfrey.

She also has dressed established actresses like Helen Mirren, Liu Xiaoqing, Li Bing Bing, Xu Qing and Lin Chi-Ling. Through the “Around the World in 80 Dresses” initiative, Chen has traveled to multiple countries in the past five years including Tasmania, Kenya, Japan and Europe to introduce modern Chinese style and her designs to new audiences.

Based in Shanghai, she started her company in 2009 with a focus on couture under the House of Grace Chen. With nearly 100 employees, Chen’s business is completely couture-driven currently, with annual sales ranging between $5 million and $6 million.

The most challenging aspects of business is that many customers in China are willing to spend a good amount of money for “the brands that people already know, like Chanel.” Chen said her core customers appreciate her designs and how well-cut they are. Finding a customer base “that appreciates your vision and not just the clothing, but the philosophy behind the brand,” is essential to any company, Chen said.

Although movie stars and other highly visible influencers are driving designer sales and mainstream fashion trends, that fast and furious formula does not apply to couture. In her line of work, the influencers are CEOs, entrepreneurs, financiers like the well-known economist Jing Keyu, and other professionals, as well as artists. “Our customers are the owners of the movie companies, so they don’t really care about what movie stars are wearing,” Chen explained. “These people are very confident and they have their own ideas about themselves. For them, fashion is about self-reflection. It’s not about chasing the newest hot trend.”

FIT President Joyce F. Brown said Chen’s “perseverance and success in establishing her own fashion house and brand really reflects a commitment to taste and excellence to which we all associate her.”

From left, Grace. Chen, FIT president Joyce Brown and Madam Zhang Xiaokang.

Chen also works with diplomats such as the vice minister of foreign affairs, ambassadors and leading athletes. Olympic freestyle skier Eileen Gu used to be a client, until she signed a deal with Louis Vuitton. Many of her customers are “professional elites who graduated from great schools like Columbia [University], UPenn and Princeton [University.] Most of them work in finance or are entrepreneurs or lawyers.” she said. “They are very sophisticated women, but they are not just into fashion. They are much more sophisticated than that.”

The comfort level, breadth of styles and high-end fabrics in Chen’s collection appeal to professional women, she said. The bulk of couture sells from $2,000 to $6,000 with select evening gowns hovering around $10,000.

“Since it’s couture, it fits very nicely and shapes your body,” Chen said, adding that each client has their own mannequin and draping. “We understand how the truly-business woman wants to look nice.”

Having periodically had shows in Paris and London, the plan is to introduce ready-to-wear during the September edition of New York Fashion Week, at about half the prices of the couture styles.

“To establish a new brand, you have to start from [having experience in] couture. Your original designs have to appeal to people who want to try out new ideas instead of following the trends. That is the essence of couture,” she said. “If you do ready-to-wear, you are just putting yourself in the trends. Now that we have our own design philosophy, it’s the time to do ready-to-wear.”

With a daughter enrolled at the Berklee School of Music, the designer expects to be Stateside more frequently this year.

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