Meet China's Most Sought After Couturier

Eliska Kyselkova
Grace Chen

Grace Chen — who's created looks for Oprah Winfrey and Helen Mirren and counts China's first lady Peng Liyuan as a current client — discusses the differences between the Hollywood and Chinese celebrity fashion machines.

SHANGHAI--Under the glow of golden light in her Art Deco-style salon located in the former French Concession, U.S. educated designer Grace Chen holds up pale pink, sheer and lacy gown with a high collar, trim bodice and flowing skirt.

"It makes a woman feel like a princess," she says. "It’s a cliché, but that’s how it is."

From power suits, to cocktail dresses to red carpet gowns, Grace Chen has made a name for herself by dressing China’s political and business elite, as well as a smattering of its screen stars. Her style is unabashedly classic, and pointedly unconcerned with fashion trends.

China’s first lady Peng Liyuan is rumored to be a client, but Chen won't comment. So too are Cheng Hong, the wife of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, and Fu Ying, the former ambassador to the United Kingdom.

"I'm just aiming to make these women feel beautiful, the best they can feel," she says of her powerful clientele.

Affluent, powerful, middle age (and up) women are her forte — and you imagine her nodding approvingly at Hillary Clinton's crisp white Ralph Lauren pantsuit.

The U.S. has been part of Chen’s education, after all, and has informed the aesthetic of her 7-year-old brand. She cites as an inspiration the late designer Oscar de la Renta, who outfitted American society mavens and first ladies in tastefully conservative attire.

"I was the first Mainland Chinese graduate from New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology," she recalls. Chen worked for Halston in New York before moving to Los Angeles to design for red carpet and special occasion wear mainstay Tadashi Shoji, cutting her teeth in his studio and creating dresses for the likes of Oprah and Helen Mirren. After some years, the designer left Los Angeles for China to expand the Tadashi Shoji business there, and in 2009, she set up her own couture label in Shanghai.

She's built her business by applying native knowledge about Chinese culture, style and fit preferences, to skills learned in the U.S. The result? A burgeoning label blending silver screen glamour and Asian elegance that's doubled sales in the last year.

There are a few major differences between Hollywood and China’s celebrity fashion machines, but also some similarities, Chen explains.

"In Hollywood, there are more events, red carpets and agencies" to promote celebrity fashion, she notes. While the PR and marketing machines are largely the same in the two countries, in the U.S., "There’s a consistency of style for a [individual] star with what she wants to achieve in her look, whereas the Chinese try to fit a common standard."

Chinese celebrities still mostly favor European luxury fashion brands, but are becoming more experimental, looking closer to home for their couture. And although the L.A. set typically has a deeper knowledge of fashion, they’re also less conservative.

"Most Chinese stars wouldn’t even try many of those revealing Hollywood red carpet dresses — they’re not the same body type anyway... I think Western stars embrace sexuality more; the Chinese are not so comfortable with showing their curves yet," Chen adds, "though this will change."

A new breed of Chinese stylists (who charge substantial fees) means that the nostalgic Hollywood notion of the intimate designer-star relationship (think Hubert de Givenchy and Audrey Hepburn, or Chen and some of her clients) is starting to change.

"It’s serious business, much like in Hollywood," she adds. "Honestly, I still don’t fully know the rules of the game here."

Now, on top of taking care of Chinese glitterati,  she's expanding her business both domestically and internationally, dressing the occasional Russian royal and English aristocrat; in June, Chen hosted a runway show and gala at London’s Lancaster House. In December, she's planning an event in Beijing. And more clients keep coming. If there was a couture sweet spot in China, Chen has tapped it.

"I really think our dresses and style can be worn by everyone," she explains. "It’s about being elegant and at your most beautiful."