Two years after she was named the winner of the inaugural Singapore Stories competition, Carol Chen showed a small collection in Paris last March. She said, it was “40 years in the making”. A worthwhile wait? And for whom?
Carol Chen (right) with a model on the runway in Paris
There is a stark difference between “show(ing) during Paris Fashion Week” and presenting a collection as part of the PFW calendar, set by the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode (FHCM), or, as it is popularly referred to in English, the French Fashion Federation. Carol Chen (陈慧敏), the Taiwanese-American whose eponymous label is referred to as a “Singaporean brand”, was careful to describe her debut in Paris as the former. Last March, a month before our COVID restrictions were lifted, Ms Chen participated in a fashion show in the French capital that was part of her prize, promised to her by organiser of Singapore Stories 2020 , the Textile and Fashion Federation (TaFF), that included a “retail collaboration with (the store) SocietyA”, as well as “one of the winning looks displayed in the contemporary gallery at Asian Civilisations Museum alongside renowned designers in #SGFashionNow”, and cash. In an Instagram entry before the presentation in The Westin Paris, she wrote that the “show is for Singapore, the country that made this opportunity possible and inspired me to design again”.
While that dedication might arouse pride among those waiting here for the next Andrew Gn to emerge, it was a tad misleading with regards to who organised the multi-label show or if TaFF was actively involved. Although Ms Chen and her segment were “sponsored” (or “supported”; she used the words interchangeably) by TaFF (the Federation had initially made clear—“airfare and accommodation not included”), she was in Paris as “Singapore’s representative for FD Paris fashion show during Paris Fashion Week 2021 (the presentation was postponed to this year due to the pandemic)”, as stated in the TaFF website. But what is the cryptic “FD” event that TaFF mentioned? After the competition, it became clear that FD is Fashion Division, a Jakarta-based organisation that is “the first International Fashion Career Center, redefining Fashion Learning by adapting French education system”, their website tells us. FD also organizes fashion shows (primarily) in Paris to coincide with PFW for designers of the region since 2019.
Carol Chen was the only Singapore-based brand at the FD fashion show, which primarily featured Indonesia labels selected and presented by Gerakan Ekonomi Kreatif Nasional (GEKRAFS) or National Creative Economy Movement of the archipelago to our south. It is not clear what the relationship is between GEKRAFS and TaFF, if any, or why there was a need to ride along with the Indonesians (including, curiously, the graduates of Bina Nusantara University, a private institution in greater Jakarta, as well as those from Lasalle and Ciputra, Surabaya). How the participation of Ms Chen, an American representing our nation, jibbed with GEKRAFS’s mission is not quite clear either. Further diminishing the SG presence, Ms Chen, who identifies as “hustler, designer, adventurer”, chose to work with Malaysian stylist Cho Wee Chee and New York jewellery designer Zameer Kassam (also the creator of her engagement ring). As it was at its inception, Singapore Stories were now told abroad through others, too. Could these be the individuals that Senior Minister of State Sim Ann, in describing the forces behind Singapore Stories, called “people who all care about the advancement of Singapore fashion”? The more caring non-natives?
After her win in 2020, Carol Chen told Vogue Singapore, whose publisher Bettina von Schlippe is often identified as Ms Chen’s “mentor”, in an editorial that she would launch her “first full collection during the most iconic week in fashion“. However full it was, only 10 looks were shown in Paris—one of them incomplete, or, as it appeared, missing a top. The model’s arms were sheathed to the biceps in opera gloves, but her body from the waist up was totally bare (save two strands of sparkly necklaces), so much so that she had to cup her breast during her entire saunter on the runway. The arms with the gloves that matched the waistband of the embroidered full skirt could be a substitute for a top (or bralet?). That is a presumption. But, Ms Chen could have forgotten to bring that garment since a bare torso was not a recurring theme. One other top (gowns dominated the show)—a wide band-as-boob-cover that strapped the arms to the body—had an unfortunate identity crisis: was it a bandage that failed as a bandeau?
The modestly-numbered autumn/winter 2022 collection, titled Florescence, was purportedly inspired by Gardens by the Bay, although it was hard to tell. In Ms Chen’s own words, it “depicts a futuristic world in bloom and the hope of a brighter future as the country (SG, of course) emerges from the pandemic to blossom again” (it is not immoderate to think that Ms Chen’s popularity at TaFF is attributed to her ability to gush with such propagandist gems). By “futuristic”, it could be assumed that she was referring to the metallic fabrics used, rather than any cutting-edge representation of clothing that might provide the viewer with a glimpse into the hereafter. The bi-coastal designer (the US is still home, and to which she also dedicated the show. It is, she wrote on IG, “the country that made [her] believe anything is possible”) is partial to visual tangles that correspond with Americans’ love for bigness. Colorado-born Ms Chen grew up in Texas, and spent time in Mississippi, too. All three southern states are not exactly known as fashion states. But, Ms Chen was certain to carry the US flag in Paris, offering what could be considered American-style prom fluff—gowns that tend to inch the viewer closer to cringe.
Ms Chen seemed to design with the aim of resigning the fate of her gowns to her store Covetella (“Singapore designer dress rentals”), which is, as stated on their website, “currently closed”—it is, in fact, shuttered in November 2020. If the show pieces did not generate buyer interest, she could easily put them out to renters, with or without a shop. According to a 2020 Business Times report, our island’s clothing rental/subscription business amounts to some “US$3.9 million (or about SGD5.3 million) a year”, and growing. Ms Chen is known to supplement her Covetella stocks with her own designs. In 2017, she told Forbes that “Covetella gives you the true ‘Cinderella’ experience”, presumably with the fairy godmother (Billy Porter’s Fab G?) rather than a generator of cinders. The name she chose is a conflation of covet, to have inordinate desire, and Ella, generally a woman’s name and also, perhaps intentionally, the English moniker of the latter-day telling of The Glass Slipper folk tale.
It is not imprecise to say that her own label similarly provides the fairy-godmother-spun, off-to-the-prince’s-ball fantasy: Gowns to twirl in, and attract the attention of whoever, if not the targeted suitor. A former beauty queen (‘Miss Scholastic Achievement’ at the Miss Asian American 2004 and Miss Chinatown USA in 2005, and Miss San Francisco in 2006), the 40-year-old is partial to pageant pomp—and frippery. As she often recounts to the media, it was during a trip back to Texas to visit her parents that her mother alerted the daughter to the stash of gowns (nearly 100, it has been said) that were kept: Mrs Chen wanted to get rid of them. Rather than discard her beloved dresses or relegate them to, say, Thrift Town in Austin, the fashion entrepreneur brought them back to gown-starved Singapore and Covetella was born. “A knack for the evening wear business”, as she proclaimed, no doubt aided the birth.
Although her winning the top prize of Singapore Stories may have suggested that Ms Chen was a design novice, she was, at that time, a born-again designer. In the mid-2000s, after graduating from Barnard College (Columbia University) in psychology and economics, she decided to realise a “childhood dream (she) had forgotten”: To be a fashion designer. So rather than embark on a summer business program at Stanford, where she was accepted, she enrolled at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in San Francisco (it is not known what she studied). She worked in fashion after leaving school, but found—somewhat belatedly—that the couture that she loved “isn’t very scalable”.
She then decided to start her own line: C.C. Couture, which, at its height in 2007, was, as she regaled BT in 2020, retailed through 300 doors. But that soon met with an end when the 2008/2009 economic downturn struck, a neat confluence of the bursting of the US housing bubble and the global financial crisis. (Interestingly, she did not abandoned the label. The alliterative name is now spelled out: Carol Chen Couture). C.C. Couture, as our friends in the US tell us, can still be found in discount stores. The economic gloom did not deter her. Keen to remain in the clothing industry, she went into partnership with a family friend from Texas to produce cheerleading uniforms in China. A former cheerleader herself, the business seemed sensible to go into, but the Texan soon found out that life in Donguan (东莞, an industrial city in Central Guangdong), where the factory was based and where she lived, was not one without its “challenges”.
There is a discernible linearity in Ms Chen’s professional fashion adventure, from pre-college to the present. Pageant and cheerleading fashions are for show, worn before an audience. They have to be conspicuous, if not ostentatious. She does not play down these qualities in her couture, possibly drawing from her own experience as a wearer (and collector) of such gowns. One of a kind is the best descriptor, and the kind, if not in the pageant context, falls between The Star Awards (红星大奖) and the bridal packages that can be found on Tanjong Pagar Road. Her finale gown (top) in Paris, with the puffed and elevated shoulders that were evocative of Viktor & Rolf’s recent haute couture, and swirls of fabrics sweeping the ground, has been described as “amazing”, a superlative frequently uttered in beauty contests, many a time euphemistically.
Ms Chen wrote on Instagram before her presentation, “To show at any of the Big Four Fashion Weeks would already be incredible, but to debut at (sic) Paris is something I never could have imagined.” Few of her 28.9K followers on IG would notice the possible implication of that statement. Ambiguity aside (and therein, possibly lies the problem), those unfamiliar with PFW proper may think that organisers Fashion Division was participating in the FHCM event. FD’s Paris office had to issue a memo (also shared on IG) that they were “*allowed* (asterisks included) to organise events during Paris Fashion Week, including mentioning it. (They) can’t, however, mention that (they) are part of the official schedule, but rather OFF (in full caps) schedule.” Whether that was a blow to the show’s prestige, or the participants’ pride, it is hard to conclude. It is understandable that Carol Chen was elated that her clothes enjoyed the rarefied air of Paris during PFW. The question that is more pertinent: Would she return? With Covetella now shuttered, perhaps. Or would she, like others before her, be a one-season pony?