For more than 20 years, fashion designer Isabelle Wen (溫慶珠) has shown that she is not afraid to derive inspiration from sources as diverse as Sufism, Mercury (the planet and the element) and Nancy Sinatra songs.
“I think designing things is like writing a diary and I draw on my own life for inspiration. Every season has a different mood. It is like presenting a story through clothing,” says Wen.
Her label’s upcoming spring/summer 2009 collection is partly inspired by the revolutionary and idealistic spirit of the 1960s. Highlights include a dress made of tiers of soft silk chiffon dyed in graduating tones of misty gray, a printed blouse whose circular pattern is echoed in discreet but richly textured round appliques, and classic boot-cut jeans offset by pockets encrusted with crystals and stones — a Wen signature, along with other unabashedly feminine flourishes like ruffles, pleated tulle and shimmery, embroidered fabrics.
Wen’s background is as kaleidoscopic as her colorful dresses. Her father was a general in the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) before moving with Wen’s mother to Taiwan in 1949. He served as a police chief in Tainan, but Wen describes both her parents as artists at heart who encouraged the same in their children. Wen’s first forays into fashion design happened when her mother took her to tailors to have her sketches turned into clothing for Wen’s own wardrobe.
But the launch of her own label in 1976 came only after Wen had taken a few detours. She studied tourism at Tamsui’s Oxford College (now part of Aletheia University, 真理大學) before training to be a painter under the tutelage of renowned artist O How-nien (歐豪年) for six years. Wen still sees few boundaries between the world of fine art and fashion. Her fall/winter 2008 collection was named after Amedeo Modigliani and used many of the deep blue and gray tones that feature in the Italian painter’s work.
Wen has also diligently pursued the diversification of her brand; her other ventures include a building on Renai Road (仁愛路) that contains a cafe, restaurants and a bar and the trendy East District eateries Sofa (which closed shortly after this interview), Midnight Cafe and Butterfly.
In an interview at her studio in Shilin, Wen talked about the impact of the economy on her businesses, and why, even though she’s held presentations in Paris and opened stores in the US (which she has since closed), she’d rather stay within Asia than look towards Europe and the US as she expands her brand.
Taipei Times: You seem to have pursued branding beyond your fashion label pretty aggressively compared to other designers, especially with the opening of restaurants. How did you decide to do that?
Isabelle Wen: To be honest, I fell into that by accident. It wasn’t that I wanted to take a particular road for my business or that I wanted to be unique. FiFi and Khaki came about because the building they are in came on the market about 10 years ago. It was a happy accident. Because the building is on Renai Road, I thought it presented a great opportunity. In fact, I actually told some of my friends about it first and encouraged them to buy it for their own ventures.
When I finally purchased it myself, I decided that I absolutely did not want the entire building to be dedicated only to fashion. I wanted it to be like a small landmark, a destination. You know, Renai Road is so boring. It’s beautiful, but there was nothing. A hotel and a bunch of banks and that was about it. So what I opened had to be very interesting and since I am a fashion designer I wanted to apply some of my own aesthetic sensibility to what we created.