VIEW THIS PAGE Taiwanese designer Jamei Chen (陳季敏) enjoys blurring the lines between fashion and fine art. Since launching her eponymous label in 1987, Chen has worked with art film directors Stanley Kwan (關錦鵬) and Edward Yang (楊德昌), launched a design partnership with photographer Quo Ying Sheng (郭英聲) and opened a cafe and exhibition space for emerging artists.
Chen has collaborated with Quo on her seasonal collections since 2007, drawing inspiration from his photographs, which Chen began collecting two decades ago. Quo’s work is simple but dreamily evocative. Some images, like a woman in jeans sprawled facedown in front of a bank of carefully trimmed topiaries, or a black scarf lying like a discarded shadow on stone steps in a sunny garden, quietly inject a hint of menace into that dreaminess.
Likewise, Jamei Chen’s designs are deceptively plain, but rely on thoughtful draping, flowing organic fabrics and a muted but distinctive color palette for each season. Upon closer inspection, complex dressmaking details like a sparkling cascade of jet beading on black silk or the scalloped edge of a sheer white blouse reveal themselves in each outfit.
“The two of us have very good artistic chemistry,” says Chen. “Our style is very clean and quiet. That quality in [Quo’s] photos allows viewers the space to draw their own interpretations, and in my clothing it lets the wearer express her own sense of style.”
Chen and Quo worked together on her last fashion show, which took place in Taipei Arena (台北巨蛋) and ended with real snow drifting onto models as they walked in long, ethereal gowns of tulle and silk. Chen also displays the work of emerging artists in JAMEI CHEN•Dialogue, which sits directly across the street from Taipei Spot Film House on Zhongshan North Road. Recent exhibitions showcased the work of September Leu (呂靜雯), an editor at the Chinese-language edition of Vogue who moonlights as a ceramic sculptor, and Free’fei-O (羅斐菁), whose handmade felt figures were displayed alongside wire sculptures by Bor Jen Liu (劉博仁).
Last week, Chen sat down with the Taipei Times in the cafe and discussed her brand’s design philosophy, her collaboration with Quo and other artists, and her belief in the importance of individual style. The soft-spoken designer had just finished a conversation with students from National Taiwan Normal University about the relationship between fine art and fashion.
Taipei Times: Part of the Jamei Chen brand philosophy is mixing fine art with fashion, and you are known for supporting young and emerging artists in particular. Why did you start doing that?
Jamei Chen: I feel that in the design business, we should focus on art in all aspects of living. Three years ago or so, I started working with Quo Ying Sheng, but at that time we didn’t necessarily think it would be a long-term collaboration. It wasn’t on purpose. It just turns out it was a great fit. In fact, I feel the collaborations I’ve had with artists have been a matter of fate and good luck.
After I started collaborating with [Quo], I started to think about the last 25 years of my business. I thought that from what we have done already, we could develop another vision, which is to discover and find artists who have potential and cutting-edge ideas. We also hoped we could take our experience from having worked in the fashion industry for so long and help these artists by giving them a space where they could have a dialogue with one another and also hold exhibitions of their work. And in turn, we hoped that this would allow them to explore things more deeply in their artistic process, and give them an easier road by allowing them to be discovered by receptive audiences.
Both [Quo] and I are from the same generation, more or less, and we have already worked for a while, so we hope that working with young artists will help us understand what young people are thinking. It’s also good for the future of our brand to see new points of view.
TT: You’ve used a lot of organic and environmentally friendly fibers in your clothing. Why did you become interested in doing that?
JC: I think environmentalism is something that you have to incorporate into your day-to-day life, and it is an idea that people should be brought up with from the time they are very little. I grew up in the countryside and was really energized and inspired by its beauty. My family was a bit lacking in terms of material possessions, but on the other hand my life was very carefree.
After I moved to Taipei, I realized that people hold onto dreams that they had when they were very young, as well as the ideas they developed back then of what it means to be happy and healthy. I think everyone should think of themselves as working hand-in-hand with the earth, and that it is important for the clothing we wear to be environmentally friendly.
TT: Recently you’ve worked with young artists like September Leu and Free’fei-O. When you look for new artists to collaborate with, what do you keep in mind?
JC: To tell you the truth, I don’t seek new artists out deliberately. For example, I met Free’fei-O in a flea market near Eslite bookstore. She had handmade felt rabbits, and I was just so excited and moved by them. People now are unwilling to spend a lot of time working on just one thing, and each rabbit takes such a long time to make. I feel that in every one, you get a sense of what the artist’s aesthetic is and how she thinks. A lot of the artists I’ve worked with aren’t professional artists, but they have been able to accomplish a lot in a very short time. In the last two or three years, for example, I think September Leu has been able to develop and express a very clear point of view in her art, on top of her achievements in her career.
TT: Why did you open JAMEI CHEN • Dialogue?
JC: We wanted to encourage people to talk about art. A lot of developments in European culture sprang out of the discussions artists and thinkers of the time had in salons. They were able to create new philosophies as a result of those conversations. We hope that this space is also inspirational. Atmosphere is very important and it’s quiet and peaceful in here. Dialogue is hopefully a space with many different possibilities, and not just place for casual conversations.
TT: Does the name Dialogue also mean the dialogue between fashion and fine art?
JC: Yes, it means all kinds of discussion.
TT: What kind of relationship do you think exists between fine art and fashion?
JC: It depends on how you look at things. I think everyday life is, in and of itself, a kind of art. I was just saying to the students from Shida who were in here that no matter what you are doing, as long as you take a close look at it, you can see it as a form of art or turn it into art. It doesn’t matter what it is. Art can permeate all the different layers of your life. For example, in your home you have a space that you can arrange and decorate with things that are not only useful, but that also appeal to you aesthetically and move you.
TT: Do you think the economy has affected people’s ability or willingness to incorporate art into everyday life?
JC: I don’t think you need a lot of money or the backing of a strong economy to do that. Actually, I feel that when the economy is weak or when there is a recession, people start to consider objects and their value differently. I feel that when they chose things to buy, they look for items that are longer lasting, not just things that are cheap and offer a quick fix. Ultimately, I feel that is a good thing. People start to look at what they buy differently and consider how much they will actually enjoy it.
TT: Do you think the poor economic climate has had an impact on the shopping habits of your customers?
JC: I feel that it’s had a positive impact, in the sense that people focus on higher quality, longer lasting goods. When designing our clothing, we also think about how our current seasons works with previous seasons and so on, because we want to encourage people to keep our clothing and continue wearing it, as opposed to tossing it out for new items. We also focus on creating our own style that doesn’t rely too much on what is fashionable at the moment, because following trends ends up making something disposable. I like to think that we create things that are timeless.
TT: When did you become interested in designing clothing?
JC: I think everyone discovers the one thing that really captures their interest when they are still very young. In my case, I was always very clear about what I enjoy doing. Of course, I wasn’t so directed when I was little, but when I think of my childhood, a lot of my memories focus on things like my mom working the pedal of a sewing machine and the way watching her made me feel. There are a lot of things you might forget, like what you read in books, but there is that one thing that stands out in your memories. So looking back, I think that designing clothing was something that I was always meant to do.
TT: Who are your favorite fashion designers?
JC: I have quite a few. One of them is Martin Margiela. He’s very confident and he’s really created his own unmistakable aesthetic. I feel that every designer has to have a very specific point of view and the ability to translate that into clothing. I try to make sure that is the strong point of my brand, too. We’ve never placed our logo on the outside of our products, because I feel that the clothing should be able to speak for itself. Clothing should allow people to express their own sense of style; it shouldn’t be something that allows brands to use their customers as a marketing tool. I feel very strongly about this.
I think as a designer you should have a very distinct style, but of course in every collection we still try to seek out and present a new point of view, because keeping that in mind allows us to remain exciting.
TT: What kind of impression do you hope Jamei Chen designs make on people?
JC: In terms of my upcoming collection, [Quo] and I hope it captures the carefree feeling of summer. Generally speaking, I think good design has to do with understanding the environment your customer lives in and how it influences them, and keeping that in mind as you plan the silhouettes and choose fabrics. For example, when I was younger I took a trip to Milan and I kept thinking to myself, “Why do all the women here have such great style and present themselves so beautifully?” And my hypothesis was that the architecture in Milan is so wonderful, it really inspires the residents to dress up every day. So I think that in every environment, there are different things that subtly influence people’s decisions about what they put on every day, which are important to keep in mind as a designer.
I also hope people think of Jamei Chen designs as timeless. I think that when people talk about my brand, they think of something that is simple but not boring. To be honest, the more simple a design is, the more difficult it is to pull off successfully. One of my seamstresses told me she enjoys making our clothing for that reason, because she can really focus on the process itself and when she’s done she has a feeling of accomplishment. I hope wearing our clothing feels the same way, in that it gives people a sense of confidence. VIEW THIS PAGE
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