From dressing Lizzo to presenting at her very first Paris Fashion Week this past season, Hong Kong designer Celine Kwan is having a pretty good year.
Celine Kwan always knew what she wanted to do.
Some might call it a calling; others, just really strong, unrelenting conviction. But fashion design didn’t come as a closed-eye, head-in-the-sand, hope-for-the-best decision when university application deadlines came a-knocking. (Kwan went to Central Saint Martins, by the way.) Rather, it was a premeditated choice — of stars aligning, finally.
“I was always the arty kid,” says Kwan. “I loved to draw, paint and make things with my hands. At one point in my life, I wanted to be a fine artist and, in many ways, as a fashion and textiles designer, I am one. I always knew what I wanted to do from the very beginning.”
From her Foundation Diploma that led to a Bachelor’s of Art in Fashion Print at CSM to cutting her teeth at Roksanda, then Viktor & Rolf, then Shrimps, Kwan has quite the resume for someone who’s only graduated one calendar year ago — but so it goes for the fashion industry, where time ticks on a different scale entirely.
Fashion is a hard business. It dangles on a perplexing conundrum: as both measures of utility and art. Of things we, as civilised people, have a right to. But also, of things we, as civilised people, see as more. There’s a delicate balance between vision and commerciality; between what you want to design and what would, ideally, sell.
To make matters even more difficult, fashion, like all creative avenues, asks for authenticity; for you, maker, to “be yourself”. To find your voice, your style, what makes you you, your North Star — then, the rest will follow. But does it? Every year, cohorts from Central Saint Martins, from Parsons, from FIT present their graduating collections and are, then, unceremoniously thrown into the business of fashion.
Which is often where dreams die.
Because your voice, your style, what makes you you, your North Star — sadly, unfortunately, most of the time — doesn’t pay the bills.
Kwan, though, beat the odds.
“I changed completely as a designer after working in the industry. At Roksanda, I learned the importance of colour, textiles and silhouettes. Shrimps showed me the ins-and-outs of running a company in a tough commercial market. V&R taught me precision; couture is a totally different ballgame because the standards are so high. On my first day, my mentor told me to re-do hours of work because it was just one millimetre off,” Kwan remembers.
Despite a raging pandemic, Celine Kwan, the brand — forged in the crucible of CSM Zoom tutorials, Roksanda colours, Shrimps tenacity and one-millimetre-off mistakes at Viktor & Rolf — was born.
Then, came Lizzo in custom Celine Kwan; Kwan is dying to dress “Doja Cat, Dua Lipa and even more Lizzo” next. Then, Paris Fashion Week, Kwan’s first.
“It is hard to pinpoint my favourite moments of Paris Fashion Week,” says Kwan. “One of my favourite has to be during fittings when I first saw the collection come to life. I worked with an amazing team to perfect the casting, styling, hair and makeup which was so exciting. It felt surreal to stand in the middle of the show space and seeing my show come together before my eyes.”
Graduating into a pandemic, it appears, has a lot of similarities to graduating into a recession. With buzzy keywords like “loungewear” and “dressing for comfort” and “above-the-board details” to consider, designing for a world that’s taken to being a little less trusting, a little more timid is just another Monday.
Kwan, for her graduate collection, went about pandemic-dressing a little differently.
“Throughout the pandemic, we often find ourselves stuck our living rooms and reminiscing about the small details of normal life that we used to take for granted,” says Kwan. “However, it is important that we do not forget about the everyday beauty that surrounds us. In my Autumn/Winter 2022 collection, I have created a ‘living room utopia’; a celebration of the beauty and joy that can be discovered in our immediate surroundings at home.”
Clothes do not make a home, after all. Furniture, though, is a good place to start. Which is where Kwan, defiantly, began research for her fashion collection, with design giants from the ’60s and ’70s like Joe Colombo, Verner Panton and Eero Saarinen as casual name-drops amid her background research.
“[Designers like Colombo, Panton and Saarinen] did not sacrifice function for aesthetic value,” says Kwan. “I have carried this principle into my designs by creating garments that look beautiful while being worn and can also be admired after they are taken off. Garments that dramatically, and humorously, transform to create a sense of drama will allow me to capture the beautiful shapes of furniture that I admire so much.”
But it’s not just masters of design and furniture that inspired Kwan. Films, too, had a crowning role in the designer’s creative process.
“In my research, I have developed a strong focus on ’70s futurism and “space race” style. Films such as Woody Allen’s Sleeper and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey provide a rich source of aesthetic inspiration and depict a future where cutting-edge materials of the ’70s, such as thermoplastics and PVC, are used in abundance.”
This made-to-be-seen-ness of Kwan’s signature aesthetic materialises into details often buoyant, often floral and, often, seemingly, inflatable. “Colour, energy and wonder,” says the designer, when asked to summarise her style in three adjectives. All together: pure, unadulterated joy. A balm in the form of a brand moulded from the brimstone and fire that was the past two years. An antidote to the doom-and-gloom of a future that seemed so bleak; so tireless and unending. Escapism into another world — one where nothing hurts, where all surfaces are colourful and soft — that already exists, if you so deign to look where you stand.
“I think it is important to know that fashion is ever changing and that we, as designers, have the ability to produce work that is relevant in the current context of the world,” says Kwan. “I hope that my colourful and energetic take on my ideal living room utopia can bring a smile to someone sitting in their own living room right now.”
Now, to hold a mirror up to the world and, then, make something rather beautiful. How’s that for being an artist?