Three years ago, Taiwanese fashion designer Sami Chen (陳婕妤) spent most of her life behind the keys as a practicing concert pianist

It wasn’t until she received her international piano teaching license, and her mother’s encouragement to try a new career, that she embarked on the path to becoming a fashion designer.

Fast forward a few years and Chen, now 21, is going from strength to strength, marking her third visit to New York Fashion Week by debuting her latest collection, Happy Fish in Wonderland.

Infusing blue for bravery, red for passion and white for purity of heart as her core palette -- appropriately enough given that she had just become engaged to her boyfriend -- Chen’s fresh collection bubbles with youthful energy and draws inspiration from Alice's tumble down the Wonderland rabbit hole.

On the night of Sept. 9, less than an hour away from the debut of her new line, The News Lens caught up with Chen, wedged between a large crew of models, makeup artists, hair stylists, and event staff.

The News Lens: How are you feeling ahead of the show?

Sami Chen: [Laughing] Tired, but more excited. It took one month to prepare this line, so I barely slept [and only] slept an hour yesterday to finish.

TNL: What inspired your current collection?

SC: The theme is Happy Fish in Wonderland, which comes from Alice in Wonderland, which is why I have a bunny in the show. I want to show Blue, Red, White and Pink. Pink is girly, [but] Blue represents no fear; bravery, do[ing] whatever you want. I feel Alice, when [she] jumped into the rabbit hole, is like me when I first came to America. I came here by myself and didn’t think too much beforehand, I just did it.

TNL: Who are your target customers?

SC: I design couture gowns for fancy occasions [and] sell high-end gowns on my website. I also have a dog line and a bunny line.


Credit: Courtesy Sound of Fashion

Sami Chen's collection 'Happy Fish in Wonderland' is heavy on sartorial elegance.

TNL: Since you’re also a pianist, how does music influence your design?

SC: When I’m working I listen to classical music to calm me down, it makes me feel much better when I’m designing my dresses. It balances me out since I can’t be playing my music (while preparing for the show).

TNL: What do you do to calm your anxiety during preparation or before a show?

SC: I go online and find music to lower the pressure. I’ve been playing piano since I was three: I listen to Mozart and Chopin, so I feel in the mood to make beautiful dresses. What you make shows people if you were in a good mood or bad mood -- things will be more beautiful when you’re in a good mood.

TNL: What inspired you to go from pianist to fashion design?

SC: After I graduated from high school, my mom asked me to be a piano teacher, so I took the test and got a license to be an international piano teacher. Then she asked me what I wanted to do. I told her I just want to play piano, [but] she said “you should find something else, everyone likes different things, not just one thing. You like drawing, you like to make dresses, and maybe you should go study fashion design”. So, I started my brand at the end of last year, and this is my third season at fashion week.


Credit: Courtesy Sound of Fashion

Chen is very fond of dogs and bunnies, both of which enjoy clothing lines of their own at Happy Fish.

TNL: What would we find you doing when you’re not preparing for your fashion show or playing piano?

SC: I like to try new things, I like to try everything. Because if you don't try you don't’ know what you like. Everyone has a lot of different hobbies. Before I tried the gym, boxing and weight lifting.

Sometimes people tell me “you can’t do it because you’re a girl” or something. Even when I started my own fashion design, people told me “you’re so young”, “you’ll fail” but just listen to your heart, whatever you think is right, just do it and you’ll see if you really like it or not.

TNL: Any upcoming or new projects we should look out for in the next year?

SC: After fashion shows, I normally do gowns for the Broadway and ballet. I did a dress for Rachelle Rak from Cats; she won an award and I designed the dress for her. I also like to help people, so I attend charity events and help them with their fashion shows.

Before my first New York fashion week show, I worked with an African charity, the George Malaika Foundation. They help Congolese girls by helping them get to school, providing computers, etc. I really enjoy helping people, and I like fashion, so I combine them together and make gowns for the charity fashion show.

TNL: Any favorite Taiwanese food you would recommend?

SC: There’s so much! I like braised dishes, like braised pork, or veggies. And I really miss shaved ice. They opened a Meet Fresh in NY that I’m really excited about.


Credit: Courtesy Sound of Fashion

Sami Chen, cradles her bunny, Miffy, at the show.

TNL: Any words of advice for people venturing out on new career paths?

SC: Always follow your heart. Don’t think too much, because your heart is always right. Your goal is to do what you love. Even though there’s such big pressure – doing 20 gowns in one month – even though I’m tired, I’m happy because I love it. I wake up every morning and I’m happy that I’m making beautiful gowns.

TNL: Anything else you’d like to share?

SC: I just love my bunny, Miffy, he’s really cute and he will be going down the runway today. This is the first time there’s a bunny in a NYFW. Miffy is a born model. He’s from Taiwan too, and he flew by himself here in May. I’ve taken him around NY to Time Square, Central Park, and now he’s an Instagram model.

Read Next: INTERVIEW: Taiwanese Waves’ Mia Yen on Bringing Taiwanese Music to New York

Editor David Green (@DavidPeterGreen)

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