Fashion designer Justin Chou’s rebellious nature has made him an expert at portraying the point of collision between two different elements. He uses this skill in his innovative creations, such as “Punk the Empire,” a clothing line that combines Western punk culture with the more gentle aspects of the East, and “Silent Movement,” a collection that deconstructs Western clothing through the art of Chinese calligraphy.Chou works hard to break the Western stereotype of what constitutes huaren (Chinese-speaking people) fashion design, creating a brand new design language that is both breathtaking and unequivocally original.
Chou works hard to break the Western stereotype of what constitutes huaren (Chinese-speaking people) fashion design, creating a brand new design language that is both breathtaking and unequivocally original.
In September of 2016, Chou launched his Spring/Summer 2017 collection “Punk the Empire” during New York Fashion Week. Chou combined a plethora of traditional Chinese elements–plate buckles, dragon-patterned brocade, cloud-like ruyi motifs–with punk details such as S&M bondage equipment, and studs, spikes, and pins. The theme song for his show was an electronic remix of “Nunchucks,” a song by Taiwanese pop musician Jay Chou, and a traditional Beijing opera score.
This neo-Chinese punk style astounded the attending media and catapulted Justin Chou into the spotlight. The following year, Chou distinguished himself amongst 44 international designers and won third place in the ELLE New Talent Award (after winning first place in the Asia edition of the award). His remarkable personal achievements serve as a testament to the excellence that can be achieved within the huaren design field.
Chou is not ashamed to admit that he has a rebellious streak. Once, as a high-schooler, a stranger publicly cursed at him for wearing a skirt. Before he turned 30, Chou found it distasteful to incorporate Chinese elements into his design practice because he felt disconnected from the demureness and submission that is traditionally associated with femininity in Chinese-speaking countries.
“It wasn’t until after I turned 30, when I started participating in fashion shows in other countries and connecting with international designers, that I began to think about what it is that I can bring to the table that would attract and astound people from all over the world. It was then that I returned to my own culture for inspiration. Shortly afterwards, I settled on a combination of Chinese and punk elements,” Chou explains.
Nearly a third of the clothing featured in “Punk the Empire” involves intricate embroidery. All the needlework is completed by hand by renowned embroiderer and national treasure Master Lin Yu Quan and his embroidery studio, g-colours & illuminate.
As a child, Chou always looked forward to the traditional Taiwanese religious ceremonies of bai-bai and the Ghost Festival–each offered Chou the child endless offerings of delicacies and a parade of deities donned in bedazzled outfits. “I was fascinated by the meaning behind the embroidery, such as the tortoise as a symbol for longevity and the bat, a symbol of good fortune. I think it’s only natural that I incorporate embroidery into my designs,” he says.
It was through trial and error that he finally found the perfect embroidery studio. Initially, many studios declined to work with him. Fortunately, Master Lin’s daughter was willing to take a chance on the young designer, and their collaboration produced stunning results that only served to enhance the fame of g-colours & illuminate. “A lot of youngsters are now learning embroidery at g-colours & illuminate, ensuring that this precious Taiwanese craft will be carried on by the next generation. I’m glad of the small contribution I’ve made to this cultural heritage,” Chou enthuses.
Shortly after his “Punk the Empire” collection was launched, Chou was invited to collaborate with contemporary Taiwanese calligrapher Tong Yang Tze for an exhibition called “From Ink to Apparel–Crossover Between Calligraphy Art and Fashion Design” that ran in Taipei in October 2016 as part of the World Design Capital Taipei 2016 year.
Inspired by the concept of “the five colors of ink” (charred black, heavy black, strong black, light black, and pale black), Chou designed five garments using optical fibers and with heat-sensitive printed fabric. He tailored the clothes in a three-dimensional fashion to depict the complex visual layers conveyed by ink.
Chou extended this concept into his Autumn/Winter 2017 fashion collection “Silent Movement.” Taking inspiration from Master Tong’s calligraphy work, Silent Movement, and combining it with the sharp lines of the menswear brand, Carnival Suit, the designer once again displayed an uncanny ability to pair Eastern and Western elements. “First, one has to choose the silhouette of a garment; if it’s round, then the stroke must also be round,” notes Chou.” I usually choose instinctually, but the end result comes through trial and error.”
When asked to elaborate on the greatest challenge he faces when combining elements from the East and the West in his clothing, Chou compared it to mixing drinks: “Whisky and Coke aren’t flavored the same, but when they’re combined, they create a unique tasting drink. This is how I see fashion design. The greatest challenge I face is the constant re-examination and time consuming re-adjustments of each design. Every collection is a crazy experiment.”
While basking in a substantial amount of international attention, Chou is disheartened by the state of the fashion industry in Taiwan. “International investors are more willing to invest in small brands with big potential whereas investors from this part of the world tend to go for the already well-established brands,” he laments. “This means that when a fashion brand is still in its developmental stage, they’ll be hard-pressed to find willing investors.” As a result, Chou finds the bi-yearly hunt for fashion week sponsors an exhausting process.
He is also disappointed by what he sees as a lack of confidence in both Taiwanese designers and consumers. For example, he says, a lot of successful Taiwanese brands produce designs that mimic a mature, refined Japanese style. They are catering to the tastes of local consumers, who also prefer this style of design. Compared to Japan and Korea, where consumers are loyal to their local brands, it seems Taiwanese consumers still prefer international brands over those homegrown.
“Consumers often express the sentiment that a bag from so-and-so brand only costs NTD 6,000, so how could a Taiwanese brand charge more than NTD 10,000 for a bag?” he contends. Taiwanese people lack confidence in the abilities of their own culture and craft, a situation that will eventually render Taiwan’s design landscape desolate and lower the nation’s competitiveness in the international arena. As a nation, he continues, the government and the people must carefully consider this situation.
About Justin Chou
Justin Chou received a Master’s degree in fashion design from Domus Academy in Italy, and in 2013, founded his clothing brand, Just in Case. Chou is adept at amalgamating Western and Eastern elements into a daring and avant-garde visual style. He has launched collections at Japan Fashion Week, New York Fashion Week, Shanghai Fashion Week, and Taipei IN Style, and has received numerous accolades for his work, including first place in the 2014 Fashion in Taipei New Designers Award, winner of the 2015 ELLE New Talent Award, and first place in Asia for the 2017 ELLE New Talent Award. Chou is also a lecturer at Fu Jen Catholic University in Taiwan, design and art director at Yvonne Collection, and is today one of the most highly celebrated up-and-coming designers in Asia.