I first was introduced to Grace Chen's lifestyle blog LUSH and Glush/ handbag line two years ago. I loved the funky style of her line, making her ‘Grassy’ bags not only a trademark but also a classic in her collection. Grace decided to make the now trademark ‘Grassy’ collection after lying on the grass on a European trip and decided she’d like to always take a piece of that memory with her.
I finally got the chance to meet with Grace in person whilst taking a trip to Hong Kong as we meet at the Simple Life Café in The Landmark. Initially it was to simply chat about her handbag line, and lifestyle blog, but I ended up getting a deep insight into her view of the fashion industry in Hong Kong as well as the sad demolition of Hong Kong's famed Yen Chow Street Hawker Bazaar after 40 years of business.
Hi Grace, Can you tell me more about how you got started in the fashion industry? Have you always been a lover of fashion?
I studied fashion and I’m into fashion in that sense but I don’t follow trends. That’s why I decided to create something different with Glush/
I decided to do handbags, because my family manufactures them. I didn’t ask them to support me, as they do big quantities so I found a friend who became my partner, so we could grow together. I have an advantage of producing small quantities as well. Touch wood, so far it’s been a good few years and I’m trying to expand the collection.
The 'Grassy' collection will continue as I’m still growing it (the collection), but creating more silhouettes. I’m also creating more ready to wear, focusing on different kinds of materials instead of just plain leather and canvas.
Where do you get your inspiration from?
I get my inspiration mainly from nature, my trips, like the one I took to the States, I was inspired by Yellow Stone, so that’s how I merged the color and the natural ragged stone on the collection. It looks illusionary but it’s from nature. It’s quite surreal.
I’m half Hong Kong Chinese and spent some of my childhood here. I love the fashion in Hong Kong and feel it's pretty ahead when it comes to many things, including fashion. How would you describe the style of women in Hong Kong?
In the general sense it’s a very trend following city. There are just a small set of people who are willing to try new things, people who don’t follow Korean trends. I had a pop up store for one year. It's so interesting to see the products they came in and touched. Like tourists always go for the grass and think it’s so cool and want to take it to their friends. But locals always want the functional practical pieces, aesthetic comes second. It’s a very big difference.
What kind of customer is a Glush/ customer?
My major customer group is very daring and fun. I was in the pop up store that whole year so I got to see all the customers. All the tourists always want to talk to the designer, but the locals don’t want to talk. Tourists will even bring wine over and stay for two hours! Locals don’t connect as well. Or they don’t have these questions. It was fun talking to the tourist. Each tourist was from different countries so saw it differently, they translating it differently. Even though everywhere has grass. They also get excited about the next collection and brainstorm while they talk to me!
I read one of your favorite stores is Heaven Please which one of your friends owns. Are most of your friends in fashion?
With my educational background a lot of them are still in fashion some have emerged into other business whilst others went hard core, like interning with McQueen, fashion sketch book, everyone has their own direction. I’m really happy to see that my schoolmates have evolved into something different.
My friend of Heaven Please actually went to my school but not in the same year. I just got chatting to her when I was shopping. She owed the store so I asked if she would like to sell my bags. She said sure, just stock them there and see how it goes.
There were some others I met after studying, like a friend who now owns Créature de Keis. He already had a store and wanted to open one together, so we did. I wouldn’t have done it by myself. The rent is quite crazy and for my target, the usage of my shop was just to understand my target audience so it was just a one-year investment. It was really fun. Once all my friends knew that I had a shop there they would pop by for coffee or a drink. Sometimes we would drink late at night. It was a good year to reunite with some friend I hadn't seen for a long time.
What are some of your other favorite stores in HK?
I shop a lot online, but when I buy in store it would be from my friend Créature de Keis. I admire him, he started off with nothing, he didn’t study fashion, he was a hairdresser and liked art and realized he loved fashion and started from scratch. Taking a very traditional shanghainese tailoring class and started off with very traditional study. His style is very structured, paneling, constructed and reconstructed.
There is a Fabric Market in Hong Kong that we would all go to, like a market under a tin roof and a lot of the sellers would sell really nice fabric but in small quantities. Créature de Keis has been making affordable couture using their fabric. They supported him with good discounts so he is now supporting them as they are closing down (after the release of this interview, sadly the fabric market was demolished). He is trying to get more people to support them and get to know about it. Quite a lot of local magazines have been covering their closing down story. It’s definitely worth people knowing about their story. A lot of generations have been there selling fabrics.
He doesn’t do mass quantities; he’s been doing it for 10 years. He has some cool clients, different age ranges from 15-70. It’s amazing. I’ve been in his shop and seen it. It’s nice to know people in the industry.
How would you describe your own personal style?
Silhouette wise I’m more classic, it’s more practical. Smart casual. You never know what's going to happen in the day so its better to be dressed more sensibly. I often wear flats.
You have your own handbag line, with really unique designs. Have you always loved handbags in particular?
I never really have to buy a lot of handbags as I always had samples because of my family. My dad would always say this handbag is worth this much, with marketing, the material. I go out and calculate that when I buy for myself. What is the material like, etc. Also I make my own and it’s more fun to know the process now that I am in the business, but for shoes, I am a big fan of anything classic with a twist, so shoes are a different story! I also don’t know how they are made, I know its complicated, its almost like an architect class for shoes. I’ll support it by buying it. I have a weak point for really high heels but not platforms, a very feminine silhouette. And lace up flats.
Your parents have been in the business for over thirty years. Did you grown up in a very fashion forward household?
It felt more like a business. For my family background it was the clients providing their design. Each one had their own identity. They weren’t really focused on following the trends. I learn that each brand had their own core DNA so they couldn’t change that just for one month. If they change too much they lose their customer. It’s a quality they have to meet. Maybe that’s why I don’t focus on trends. I mean that’s a more long lasting style. People then expect that from you. I’d get invited to places because they like my eye so it’s important to stick to that. You can incorporate new styles but not change too much.
Why did you choose the name Glush/?
I really like the word lush, it doesn’t have to be expensive. It’s an impression, if you think something is lush, a coffee could be lush. I used the ‘G’ for Grace, it’s my kind of lush.
Do you have any plans to expand Glush/?
Slowly expanding the brand, trying to solidify everything- I don’t want to just jump here and there. Next collection will be a new grass collection. There will be new colors for the grass and will also be expanding the brand with other bags.
Where is Glush/ available?
Online, in HK, there is a shop Searching C, it’s a Taiwan bookstore in TST, a few select stores in Beijing, and soon in Shanghai, it's gonna be shipped very soon.
Do you have any plans to store Glush/ in more international stores?
I slowly want to expand out to Europe. I want to take baby steps to approach the market out there. Traditional trade fares aren’t doing that great, for small brands like mine, it’s really hard to participate in every trade fare, they don’t place orders that day. It takes time. We will focus more on Asia at the moment, then Europe and the States.
You seem to be more focused on long-term fashion as opposed to fast fashion, do you think that is a true statement?
Yes, although some see the collection as fast fashion but I’m looking more at growth in that, it’s a niche market but I’m looking at focusing on growing that market.
Do you think we will eventually change the way we buy to look at more timeless and well-made pieces as opposed to so much fast fashion?
Yea, definitely you can already see it happening with Everlane cashmere cardigans, for the price it’s justified. I think people are now looking for the quality but not forgoing the fun part of it. I also think people want to know more about the products they are buying.
I’d like to take my brand into a sustainable brand but it takes time. Each and every step counts. I wouldn’t say I am at the moment, but that’s the goal, long term and we are working on it from the sourcing side and the manufacturing and even the packaging, it has to be 100% sustainable. For this small scale, everything takes a lot of time and money to be on that level. I believe it can be done it just takes a bit of time to source responsible venders. There’s a lot of companies that say they are but they aren’t, so I’m trying to dig into that and study that and see the real sustainable sources. People are willing to pay more if they know it’s a real sustainable brand.
I would like to link it to a charity but I want to know where that money is going. I would rather partner up with a smaller charity where I know where the money is going, but to do that I need to learn more and it takes time.
When starting up Glush/ did you always know that you would make all your products in Hong Kong / China or did you also look at other places?
Right now the printing is made in Hong Kong, the manufacture and assembling happens in China.
The other line I’m thinking about is sourcing sustainable leather and vegetable dyed leather and other sustainable materials
How was the process of starting up Glush/ for you? Finding the right manufacturer for instance?
I started off with my families’ sample room in HK. So it was easier for me to check the stuff there. But as they were really busy I went to find another manufacturer who would deal with my small quantity. I found one that was HK owned and the owner was a similar age to me, so it was perfect. It took a year to move to that factory. It was a nice learning curve to be totally independent. Starting was easy, keeping it going is harder. For press it’s always the newer stuff that gets the most attention and after 6 months it’s like what’s next? I had a feeling I milked out everything I could do with the Grassy collection so thought should I move forward to something else, a lot of people felt it was a hit at that time. That’s when I decided to open the pop up shop to understand what the customer wanted. That’s also when I started up the second line, more of a traditional line, but still a funky design.
The second line, is marble printing all stone print. The printing is done in HK with a friend, he is a really skilled screen printer and he is doing digital printing right now. I am lucky to have friends like that.
How was the reaction been to the brand? Do you have some regular customers that you have got to know?
Yea It’s funny to see, I have a live chat on the website and people shoot you random questions. It’s interesting to see what people are looking for. A lot of people are looking for gift items. I offer free personal writing on card. It adds value to the brand. I have a lot of customers from Taiwan and I don’t know if it’s the culture that they are grateful but they send me really nice message and some of them have become friends, and they send me gifts!
What has been the biggest hurdle for you with starting up Glush/?
I think it’s multi-tasking, I’m lucky to be in HK as it’s convenient. You can run around a lot in two hours but at the same time that’s not a good point as you can wear yourself out easily. You don’t have to plan ahead. So it’s multi tasking. I don’t ask for help easily so... I need to learn to slow down. That’s a personal thing with me.
What has been your biggest achievement with Glush/?
I’ve met a lot of friends; It’s a platform to share. The shop was also an accomplishment. Every other day random friends would come by, so it was that experience. Also turning customers into friends. When it was raining friends would come by and bring cheese and wine and stay there while it rained. I’m not a 9-5 person. It might be because I used to be in PR and events so I’m not the sort of person that can be stuck in an office. I like to be out and meet people and share ideas.
You are also the founder of Lush Magazine, can you tell me more about it, and when you launched?
I started 5 years ago. Just for for fun. More emotional sharing that then turned into a website. It started from the word ‘Lush’. It used to be a pure appreciation of whatever I would see. Then it turned more fashion focused but then I realized I wasn’t really into fashion-fashion. So then it evolved more. For instance when I travelled to Bangkok I went with a different focus, to see the local brands and craftsmanship. I like to talk to them and learn how they made the product and why. From an artist point of view, why they made that sculpture for instance. I also have some good friends who let me contribute to their magazines as a writer. It’s a new area as I don’t have a background in art but I understand how things work. I focus more on the craft, whether it is artwork or fashion.
You are also a contributing writer for Piperline Art Magazine, how did this come about?
It’s my friend, who is the co-founder of the magazine. She is an art snob! We had a trip together to France, that’s how we chatted and brain stormed. She was looking for a new perspective on art. She has a very critical view on art, but wanted more of a general view on art. There aren’t many places you can visit art in HK. It’s a cultural thing. A lot of people don’t think of galleries as an activity. Maybe it's because the rent is so high. The ones that are on the ground floor on Hollywood Road, their work is really heavy. It’s almost like a pressure to go in and look. We are so used to loud noises and cold air.
How has the reaction to bloggers been in HK?
In china there are some, Singapore. Malaysia and Thailand, but in terms of HK the city is really small, so HK is a bit behind in that sense. And the language is really difficult too. People tend to be more comfortable reading Chinese and they also like a lot of pictures, not reading so much. There are quite a lot of new bloggers coming up though. For traditional press it’s very similar style of writing. What’s happening in Milan and Paris? People also do like that it’s instant.
Who is your strongest influence when it comes to fashion?
My mum was always into classic styles. She was a working mum. She has now retired after working for the longest time, so it’s interesting to see how her style has changed. She wears a lot less blazers, which I wear a lot of and now she wears soft fabrics. I usually wear woven fabrics but now I’m thinking of maybe wearing soft fabrics so I guess my mum is an influence.
You are running both Glush/ and Lush Magazine simultaneously. How do you manage to balance both and schedule your time?
I mainly focus on Glush/ and 30% on Lush. I’ve felt more of a pressure to update Lush but I’ve now learnt to priorities more. I just share now what’s cool. Not having a definite timeline. I just share genuine stuff. There has been a struggle but now I priorities.
What are your favorite things about living in Hong Kong?
Convenience, I love and hate it. There is a large variety of things you can see. You just have to dig into it. Rent is high but it’s a good way for people to work from home, or have a store online. You discover stuff and learn stuff everyday. Also the people, some people come here for vacation and end up staying here. You get to meet interesting people.
When you travel, what are some of your travel essentials?
My bag samples, at least three pieces, you never know! Makeup, the basics. A good lipstick and balm in one, name cards.
Any tips for staying stylish and comfortable when traveling?
It depends if it is a vacation or the city. For city, wear lace up flats, you never know!.. And if you go shopping you don’t feel like you are wearing trainers. If it’s a road trip I’d say a sun hat and leggings, yoga pants, good for everyday.
Who are some of your favorite designers?
Balmain, the craft of it, its not everyday pieces but I appreciate the thinking process of it. It’s not far from the inspiration. A lot of designers take 10 steps away from their inspiration and it becomes very minimalist but the inspiration is very linked.
You see their standpoint and their brand identity season after season. Some brands, they want to change to give freshness. They have a stamp but can see the difference each season. You can see the styling is harmonies. Everything goes together very well.
Are you influenced by styles and trends you see on your travels?
Every city has its aesthetic, like Shoreditch in London, and HK, that’s how I relate to places, each small neighborhood to each different place. I don’t know if it’s a business point of view, but that’s where I position myself when I travel.
What is a typical outfit for you during the day and what do you wear for a night out in HK?
If it's for just drinks with friends, or dinner, a less formal night out, I would just change my handbag, add a necklace. If it’s a more formal, I would change into a pencil skirt.
Where do you see yourself 5 years from now? Where would you like to see Glush/ and Lush Magazine?
I would like to see myself collaborating with more inspiring creative people and travel more!
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