Taiwanese Fashion Designer on Disrupting Fashion, Eastern Traditions, Soft Power

Taiwanese Fashion Designer on Disrupting Fashion, Eastern Traditions, Soft Power
Nolcha Shows New York Fashion Week S/S 2017 - Just In Case NYFW. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Just In Case.

What you need to know

'Every place in the world is looking for its own unique feature now,' says fashion designer Justin Chou. 'You need to go back to your roots to create something different.'

Justin Chou Yu-ying (周裕穎) likes to tell stories. Nearly half of his answers during our interview start with, “Let me tell you a story.”

The 40-year-old fashion designer is perched on a white sofa in his studio near the Dadaocheng area in Taipei, which during the 19th century was the city’s commercial trade center for tea, cotton and silk.

Cluttered with mostly black and white garments, mannequins, fabric, large working stations and a handful of assistants, the second-floor space is bustling with preparation for the Fall/Winter 2017 New York Fashion Week (NYFW) in September.

The designer and his label, Just In Case, debuted in New York earlier this year at the Spring/Summer 2017 NYFW. His distinctive style of mixing traditional Chinese elements and Western street style won him a place as one of the “18 wildest looks from NYFW” by Business Insider in February. Chou is seen as a rising star by many in the industry.

“I didn’t like Eastern culture that much before I reached the age of 35. Before then, what I pursued was Western culture. But then I started thinking about how Western culture will always belong to the West,” says Chou.

His collections have featured embroidery traditionally used on banners depicting the Eight Immortal gods in Taiwan and calligraphy by Tong Yang-tze (董陽孜), who is famous for incorporating traditional calligraphy with Western fine art.

“Think of it as a cocktail. The base of my cocktail is street style, and I add a bit of something Eastern,” says the fashion designer. “These two elements originally don’t go well together, so how can I create a cocktail that goes down smoothly but still entices you to think about what’s in it?”

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Just In Case.
Justin Chou (left) at Nolcha Shows New York Fashion Week S/S 2017 - Just In Case NYFW.

For the upcoming NYFW, Chou is collaborating with the National Museum of History to incorporate the works of Chinese-French painter Sanyu (常玉) in his latest collection. Sanyu, who passed away in 1966, is hailed as the “Matisse of the East” and his work is some of the most expensive produced by a Chinese artist — a Sanyu painting can cost up to NT$300 million (US$9.9 million).

The brush strokes in Sanyu’s paintings are usually very Eastern — due to the artist’s early training in calligraphy — but his bold saturated colors are a Western feature, showing the influence of his later arts studies in Paris.

“Using Eastern lines with Western colors is also something I’m working on with this collection,” says Chou. “We rarely use colors aside from black and white, but this time I’m using some pink and light purple. These are colors we wouldn’t have used in the past, and I’m hoping it will spark some new visual impact.”

Aside from collaborating with Sanyu’s works, Chou has also invited 64-year-old fashion blogger Lyn Slater to walk for his collection in NYFW. Slater has more than 230,000 followers on Instagram, and her blog, Accidental Icon, has fans from around the world, in addition to a large following in Asia. The fashion icon has modeled for brands like Mango and Uniqlo, and says she was introduced to Chou’s work through a makeup artist she has worked with in several shoots.

“I am someone who loves playing with ambiguity and grey areas, and what I love about Justin’s work is that he combines old and new, street and elegant, male and female, humor and serious into both his use of textiles and his designs. His details are genius," says Slater in an e-mail interview.

“He is making street wear that is historically and culturally respectful, while at the same time pushing the boundaries in creating something that comes from the street and is a product of modern times, subcultures and changes in Asia.”

Slater teaches at Fordham University’s Graduate School of Social Service in New York City. In her blog, she writes about her belief that fashion can complement the confident and independent contemporary women of today.

Chou says that Sanyu had very modern aesthetic standards of women — his nude female paintings usually portray curvy distorted female forms — which speaks to the standards of the fashion designer’s himself.

“My feminine looks are never revealing,” says Chou. “I want them to be cool, like the modern female today.”

The designer hopes to create silhouettes with more practical and simple lines, and Sanyu’s classic series of nude female paintings has motivated Chou to interpret feminine curves from a new angle to present the different aesthetic standards of women between then and now.

“I hope he continues to evolve his street wear in ways that are both feminine and powerful for all of us who need and want to be women warriors right now,” says Slater.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Just In Case.

Cultivating fashion as Taiwan’s soft power

Chou’s growing international fame in the fashion industry has also caught the attention of local curators.

The “Design M/m Taiwan” exhibition, being held in Taiwan’s Presidential Office, features designers that have taken Taiwan to the global stage. Chou’s pieces were chosen to display in the show, among other work from Golden Pin Design Award winning brands.

When working on his pieces with traditional embroidery, which are on display at the exhibition, Chou was turned down by four or five embroidery artists because they didn’t have experience working with denim. The designer finally found an embroidery shop in Tainan, southern Taiwan, willing to give it a try.

The embroidery received a lot of attention at NYFW, and Chou says the shop is now offering courses teaching the craft, which has become quite popular among local and foreign designers.

“Originally no one wanted to learn the technique anymore, and now it seems that this industry has been brought back to life a little,” says Chou.

"There are many traditional Taiwanese crafts that designers can collaborate with, but we are usually stuck, not with the technique, but with the old masters unwilling to collaborate," says the designer. ”It gets easier once there is a first. The most difficult part is the initial communication.”

Though “Design M/m Taiwan” is a satisfactory showcase of Taiwanese designs, it is still mostly for the local audience, says Chou. He believes the fashion shows or fashion weeks could serve as better platforms for the world to see Taiwanese fashion designs.

While the government provides some funding for designers, the application process is very complicated, according to Chou. He hopes the government can facilitate collaboration between different disciplinaries in the arts and creative industry.

“The government thinks fashion is part of the ready-to-wear clothing industry. But it’s not. Materializing arts and culture and sending it down the runway is what we do,” says Chou. “In terms of fashion trends, Taiwan has always been on top. But how can we bring our culture to more people?”

With fashion a US$3 trillion industry, Taiwan has an advantage with its large amount of textile manufacturers and suppliers, says Chou. But at the same time, many of these suppliers receive large overseas orders and are less willing to work with local designers because their orders tend to be smaller.

The survival of every fashion label comes down to whether or not it attracts consumers, but Taiwan’s market for local fashion designs is very small, he says.

“Our clothes are sold at the Eslite Spectrum Songyan Store and stats show that 85 percent of our customers are foreigners,” says Chou. “Consumers are still more conservative when it comes to experimenting new labels and this is why working in the Taiwan fashion industry can be so tiring.”

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Just In Case.
Justin Chou at work in his studio.

The fashion designer splits his time between working at his studio and lecturing at the Department of Textiles and Clothing at Fu Jen Catholic University and Xue Xue Institute, Taipei — Taiwan's first private institution to function as a creative hub.

Through teaching, Chou has found Taiwanese students quick to rely on teachers to give them answers and lacking the ability to make their own judgments.

“I have taught many students who have gone on to win awards but very few of them are still working in the industry. This is because I’m always telling them what to do, and the logic of design is still mine,” says Chou.

The designer continues to encourage his students to “draw inspiration from what they love” and work with Taiwanese traditions, because Chou believes “local is global.”

“The emphasis Justin puts on passing down traditions shows in both his designs and how he educates young designers,” says Shika Chen (陳思嘉), planner in the Academic Affairs Department at Xue Xue Institute. “He has a very strong sense of responsibility to do so.”

As Chou and his team gears up for the upcoming NYFW, the designer says there are many things within Chinese culture he has yet to explore and will continue to do so in future designs.

“Every place in the world is looking for its own unique feature now,” says Chou. “You need to go back to your roots to create something different.”

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Just In Case.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Just In Case.

“Design M/m Taiwan” will run until December at the Presidential Office Building, 1st Floor, Rooms 9 and 10. Parties larger than 15 people must first register online.

Editor: Edward White